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San Antonio Composer Releases New Opera On Kurdish Independence Struggle

Composer Nathan Felix listens to playback of "Ocalan."
Courtesy photo
Composer Nathan Felix listens to playback of his chamber opera, "Öcalan."

When San Antonio composer Nathan Felix was commissioned to write music based on the ongoing Kurdish struggle for independence, he had no idea it would go as far as it did. News of his 20-minute chamber opera spread across the ocean.

“I’ve had a lot of activists that are at the forefront of this fight reach out to me,” Felix explained by phone recently. “There’s a part of them that things that the western side of the world, and particularly the U.S., where I’m from, that we’ve forgotten or that we don’t care, or that we don’t know about this [history]. They think that [this opera] is another building block for them, that through art, it can reach more ears and more eyes.”

The short opera is titled “Öcalan,” after Abduallah Öcalan, one of the founding members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The centerpiece of the work is an imagined meeting between him and Asia Antar, a young woman who joined the Women’s Protection Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Antar was killed in 2016 during an attack in Manbij; she is perceived by many a martyr for the cause.

“Through her passing, I feel like it really motivated and brought a lot of attention and news to the subject, to the Kurds and their fight,” Felix explained. “I wanted to highlight that [moment] so people could use that as a starting point.”

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Courtesy photo
At the Öcalan recording session. (L to R, Katrina Saporsantos, Trevor Shaw, Matt Hemenway, Emily Bishop)

In the opera, Öcalan meets Antar as she lays wounded in an open field. She sings:

“Hêvî (Hope).”

Öcalan replies in song:

“Hêvî, ber-xwe-da-nî (Hope, Resistance). Bir-yar-da-rî (Determination).”

The characters in Felix’s opera don’t exactly narrate the drama, as in traditional works for the stage. In a move reminiscent of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” another work about great social and political struggle and upheaval, the singers declare ideas, or describe concepts.

Finally, there’s a hopeful piano figure that concludes the work. “That leaves it sort of open-ended,” Felix said. “Like they’re still on this journey. I wanted to leave it with that sentiment.”

“Öcalan” would have been an interactive experience. “We were going to use headphones and a transmitter, and something that was very tech savvy,” Felix explained. Attendees would have walked through scenes from the work, rather than being seated in an auditorium.

Felix’s opera was originally supposed to premiere at the 2020 South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin. Although the public performance was canceled, an audio engineer he was working with suggested recording the material. After all, everyone was ready to go, so why not capture the moment?

This week, “Öcalan” will be available to stream and download all major audio platforms. Felix said he’s also not ruling out a semi-live experience in the future, perhaps at a museum.

“I want to do this as soon as it’s safe, because through this sort of surround-sound immersion, I can easily distance my performers and keep it in line with protocol.”

Prior to writing “Öcalan,” Felix said he didn’t know much about the Kurdish people or their struggle for independence. “I experienced a lot of longing,” Felix said, which he put into the music.

The attention from Europe and Syria has also been a new experience. “It’s been very humbling for me… but it’s been wonderful to make these new connections.”