Ancient Egyptian temple inspires Lebanese American composer H. Sinno's new opera H. Sinno, former lead singer of the pioneering Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila, pairs their own history with that of the Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur in their new opera.

An ancient Egyptian temple in New York inspires a Lebanese American musician

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur was famously relocated to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art almost 50 years ago. Since then, the temple has been an inspiration for musicians and dancers who were invited to perform there. The latest is the singer and composer H. Sinno, who was born and raised in Lebanon, and the opera "Westerly Breath." NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas talked with Sinno. And a note - their conversation includes mention of suicide.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: H. Sinno, also known as Hamed Sinno, used to be the lead singer for a groundbreaking indie rock band in Beirut called Mashrou' Leila. Sinno was an out gay person, and the band championed LGBTQ rights and equality in a region and climate that was often hostile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AOEDE")

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in non-English language).

TSIOULCAS: The band became very popular throughout the region, but its members also faced death threats, and they were widely banned from performing. But a culminating blow, Sinno says, was when an Egyptian fan, Sarah Hegazi, was imprisoned in 2017 for waving a rainbow flag at one of their shows. She was assaulted in prison and suffered PTSD. Three years later, Hegazi died by suicide in Canada, where she'd been granted asylum. Her struggle was a catalyst for Sinno to move to the U.S.

H SINNO: Part of what I've been struggling with since I moved here is just questioning why it is that I make music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALAM")

MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in non-English language).

SINNO: This question rose of what is the point of what I'm doing - right? - especially after the death of Sarah Hegazi, which really just made it so that nothing that I have written since has not just had her face branded on my brain - right? - while writing.

TSIOULCAS: Sinno, who uses they/them pronouns, says the temple became a ripe metaphor for their move. After the temple was gifted to the United States by the Egyptian government, it was dismantled and moved in 661 blocks, and then reconstructed in New York.

SINNO: And I did, at some point, feel like I was just - I was in pieces. And so the opera is about these things or people that are taken apart and then have to be rebuilt and sort of become something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (As character, singing) A particle of nothing. I sang my throat into being...

TSIOULCAS: The opera's called "Westerly Breath," a piece for voices, strings and electronics that premiered at the temple last night. "Westerly Breath" is less about answers than a snapshot of Sinno's process of self-questioning and self-reimagining. One of several threads running through the work is ancient Egyptian myth and the story of the god Osiris, who is believed to be the first mummy. He was killed by his brother Seth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (As character, singing) You are still the first to...

SINNO: Seth ultimately rips his brother up into a bajillion pieces, spreads them all over Egypt. And then his sister/lover recollects those pieces, puts them back together and creates the first mummy. And through that, he is reanimated as something else. There's a sort of crossing over through dismemberment and then remember-ment (ph), which I like to think of as remembrance as well.

MASHROU' LEILA: Limor Tomer is the head of the Department of Live Arts at the Met. She points out that Sinno's old band, Mashrou' Leila, met while studying architecture in Beirut, and that background drew her in.

LIMOR TOMER: And so they come from architecture and visual art. They bring a different kind of sensibility and awareness of objects and architecture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Down, down...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Maybe it starts...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) ...Down...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...Because...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) ...Down, down...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...I pine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) ...Down, down...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I ache. I fall.

TSIOULCAS: H. Sinno says they hope this opera can travel to other locations for performances as well, because the opera carries within it the story of the temple of Dendur itself.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: If you or somebody you know is in crisis or may be considering suicide, you can call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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