As busy as Grammy winner and tenor Karim Sulayman is (having just performed solo at Carnegie Hall on May 19), he brings every energy to Unholy Wars, making the opera visually stunning, emotionally packed and vocally powerful. The only potential downfall is that audiences may rely too heavily on the subtitles to comprehend the story being told.
Unholy Wars is an opera that features marginalized voices to reframe a poem about the conflicts between Christians and Muslim during the Crusades. Christian knight Trancedi (John Taylor Ward) falls in love with a Muslim woman warrior (Raha Mirzadegan). Trancedi kills her in battle without recognizing her under her armor.
The songs in the opera are in Italian, so unless the audience speaks it and understands it well, they’ll need help. And that’s exactly what the big screen behind the performers on stage is for: audience members can see subtitles as characters sing and move throughout the show. Subtitles are very normal in opera, but in this case, it was very difficult to pay attention to them because there was a lot happening onstage.
Onstage, technicians project intricately made visuals that seem drawn with white pastel paint and depict beautiful cities and buildings approaching, or getting further to set the scene. There are also fires and battlefields appearing in times of combat, and moving waves at the beach. The visuals on screen are clearly for the stage and not movie-like, but Sulayman is going for art as opposed to realism, and it feels fitting.
There are also, interestingly, some elements of water and sand on stage. Performers use water buckets to pour water on the stage, then bend down and splash it around as they sing and dance a little. Eventually, performers bring holy water to their faces at the end to seemingly wash away their sins.
Dancer Coral Dolphin often throws sand into the air as she dances—imaginatively bringing the Middle East desert to Charleston. Dolphin’s dancing is impressive and energetic. Her throwing of the sand into the air is fun and it brings a mystical touch to the story. Although audiences might wonder why she’s there, and how she’s part of the story. Is she just adding to the multidisciplinary art form on stage, bringing dancing to the stage? Or is she serving as a shadow or a collaborator to Sulayman as he recounts the story on stage? It might be both, but could use some clarification.
There are also emotional, passionate performances from Sulayman and his other singing castmates. Sulayman not only created this show, but he’s also an omnipresent performer on stage. Sulayman narrates the story throughout the show. He’s a strong lead and very entertaining to watch—every emotion shows up on his face.
Meanwhile, Mirzadegan’s voice is stunning and she fills her face and movements with emotions as well, presenting her character’s deep struggles efficiently and soulfully. As her character perishes, Mirzadegan remains on stage and shares her strong vocal talents.
Ward is also good and plays the villain well – his character seems to have a strong point of view as the Christian leader that opposes the Muslims. The conflict and confusion in his expressions when he finds out he killed someone he loved is clearly felt. When he sings, it feels opposite to the others, most logically because he’s the only bass-baritone which makes his voice unique and solidifies him as the villain well, though Sulayman and Mirzadegan overshadow him with their powerhouse tenor and soprano voices.
Every performer is present and talented on stage. Sulayman, Ward, Mirzadegan and Dolphin, especially, seem to love the story they are telling. Their singing takes hold of the theater, vibrating to the last seats in the audience. The Italian language enhances the songs and makes everything more gorgeous.
Gabriel Veiga is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.
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