Reading Lolita in Tehran: An Opera Based on the Book by Azar Nafisi
Greene, Elisabeth Mehl
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Reading Lolita in Tehran brings Azar Nafisi's bestselling memoir to the stage as a chamber opera, with a cast of eight singers, accompanied by flute, saxophone, piano, and cello. The libretto, co-written with Iranian-American poet Mitra Motlagh, retells Nafisi's experiences teaching Western literature after the Iranian Revolution, first in the classroom, and then in secret to a group of young women students. By reflecting the challenges of her reading group through the prism of Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, Nafisi both paints a picture of the grim realities of Revolutionary Iran and shows how literature provides universal insights into the human condition. Through their experiences of love and loss, belonging and exile, Nafisi and her students find solace in literature; and through imagination the women create spaces denied to them by circumstances. The opera score draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including both the popular and folk music traditions of Iran, as well as music of the literature of Reading Lolita in Tehran, from Jane Austen to The Great Gatsby. Like the blending of past and present literary work in the novel, the music melds sounds from diverse geography and history into the contemporary opera form. The opera focuses on the six students in particular as representatives of the countless kaleidoscope stories of Iranian women seeking freedom. Their songs remind us that the simple liberties of reading and thought, education and identity, are precious and worth fighting for. Though the events take place in Tehran, the truths transcend all boundaries of language and culture.