Inside D.C. entertainment

How 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' became an opera

February 18, 2011 - 08:55 AM
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Elisabeth Mehl Greene
Elisabeth Mehl Greene

In 2008, Leon Major presented doctoral students at the University of Maryland with a challenge: The school's Maryland Opera Studio was looking for new works. Elisabeth Mehl Greene, one of the students, asked Major what he wasn't seeing that he'd like to see more of. Women's stories, he said.

"I was thinking about stories that would really feature women in that way," says Greene, "and this book came up that I really loved."

It was Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi's 2003 bestselling memoir, told through discussions of literature, of her education in Iran and her eventual decision to leave the country.

Greene found out Nafisi lives in the Washington area (she is a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Dupont Circle) and pitched her the idea. "I think it was kind of a new thought because it's not every day that people ask to adapt your book into an opera," Greene says. "The more natural idea is a play or a movie, or some other kind of art form."

That helped, says Nafisi, who gave the project her blessing. Greene was "young, and she was a student," the author says. "I thought it would be interesting because I want someone to look at my book through fresh eyes."

Greene had written orchestral works before, but never anything with an overt narrative, and Lolita's presented a particular challenge: As Nafisi says, "the structure is more thematic; you do not follow the story in a linear fashion."

"That is a very tricky issue in this," Greene says. She and librettist Mitra Motlagh kept the book's four main sections; Greene says she "tried to keep things as present in one time line as possible." Another problem was conveying all of Nafisi's writing in a medium that's told only through dialogue. (Here's how Chapter 12 starts: "I wonder if you can imagine us. We are sitting around the iron-and-glass table on a cloudy November day; the yellow and red leaves reflected in the dining room mirror are drenched in a haze.") "There's a lot of wonderful description in the book that will appear as a line of dialogue in my work," Greene says.

Nafisi says "there's always anxiety" about having her work adapted. "I've had that experience in terms of not liking the scripts of the movies for my book....I tried to keep this as one case where I really did my best not to interfere."

Tonight at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, Major will direct eight singers and four musicians in a "reading" of the work. Greene sent Nafisi the libretto. "The libretto's such a weird art form, because it's part poetry, part play, part lyrics," she says.

Nafisi, who enjoys opera but doesn't consider herself "a very good judge" of individual works, says she was impressed Greene avoided an obvious reading: "A lot of people when they think of turning this book into a film, they think about all the clichés about Iran, and they translate the film into something I had never expected."

Greene hopes that tonight's show will lead to the work becoming a fully staged production someday. "But right now I'm focusing on the reading," she says.

"The language of opera is not that familiar to me," says Nafisi, who is reserving her judgment until after she sees the show, which she likens to a translation, not an adaptation. "We'll see tomorrow night!" she says. "Maybe then I'll have something to say."

The readthrough of Reading Lolita in Tehran will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland College Park. The performance is free.

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