An Arab American singer reframes music about the Crusades in Unholy Wars A new project conceived by Lebanese American tenor Karim Sulayman recasts baroque music that by turns demonizes and exoticizes Arabs and Muslims.

An Arab American singer reframes music about the Crusades

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Classical singer Karim Sulayman adores European music from the 16th and 17th centuries, but as a Lebanese American artist, he's aware that much of that music demonizes and stereotypes Arabs and Muslims. So in a new stage work, he reframes those stories through an Arab American lens. NPR's culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas has more.

KARIM SULAYMAN: "Unholy Wars" is a singular piece. It brings together dance, theater, visual art and, of course, music, both old and new, sung by three vocalists, including Karim Sulayman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULAYMAN: We open with the "Gloria Patri" from Monteverdi's "Vespers." It's this echoing of two tenors. I sing both tenor lines in at. And it's so melismatic. It almost harkens to this call to prayer of Islam, sounds like the echoing not just of a church, of two voices in a church, but it sounds like if you're in like a very popular souk. You hear a call to prayer, and you hear all the noises of the city.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Many of the artists who worked with Sulayman on this project also have roots in the Middle East, including composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, who wrote the new music that weaves in and out between the Baroque selections. Kouyoumdjian says she wants audiences to understand that even as a composer of today, her own musical reference points extend back millennia, much older than the music of Monteverdi and Handel in "Unholy Wars," which only go back about 300 and 400 years.

MARY KOUYOUMDJIAN: Here is some music that has lived even longer. You know, for thousands of years, Middle Eastern folk has been a thing on our planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: "Unholy Wars" premiered last month at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. Its general director, Mena Mark Hanna, says the piece braids together not just many eras, but many ways of seeing.

MENA MARK HANNA: What Karim is doing is extremely intelligent because he is creating a longer narrative between all of these different works. It's like period music plus liquid movement plus graphic novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: On stage, the work is intimate and elemental. The props are simple - chairs, a rope, buckets of water and soil to suggest borders. The animated projections made by visual artist Kevork Mourad evoke Armenian manuscripts, Arabic calligraphy and the architecture of his native Aleppo, Syria. The simplicity of the set works both logistically and aesthetically. For one thing, notes director Kevin Newbury, it makes future stagings cost-efficient.

KEVIN NEWBURY: I like to say the $5 idea and the $5 million idea have to be the same idea. We could tell this story out on the street with the buckets, the dirt, the rope and the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Kevork Mourad says those simple elements also evoke both the family histories of several of the participants in "Unholy Wars" and today's refugee crises.

KEVORK MOURAD: I want the setting to be anywhere, so almost like a troubadour or a refugee. We're carrying with us those images like a tent. We can just strike it anywhere we want.

TSIOULCAS: Through all these elements, "Unholy Wars" becomes a very current contemplation on intergenerational trauma, belief and self-identity. The creative team hopes they'll soon be able to take their theatrical meditation to audiences across the U.S. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News.

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