Ninos and Shamiram, a cantata for soprano, tenor and orchestra, by the French composer Michel Bosc, set to the poem by Yosip Bet Yosip, highlights the classical portion of the Mesopotamian Night gala performance. The cantata, sung in Assyrian, recreates a memorable musical portrait of tender love between the Assyrian nobleman Ninos and the beautiful shepherdess Shamiram. Soprano Liisa Davila sings the role of Shamiram. She spoke with Obelit Yadgar about the cantata and her role as Shamiram.
Obelit: You’ve sung numerous roles, mostly in Italian, but Ninos and Shamiram is in Aramaic, the language of the Assyrians. How does the soprano’s tongue adjust from a romance language to something that is completely different?
Liisa: This will be my first time learning to sing in the Assyrian language and I find this to be an exciting opportunity. Part of a singer’s training is to learn how to sing in many languages that are used for the standard operatic and art song repertoire. We are taught to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). That helps us to break down sounds we hear into symbols and that in turn helps us to create the sounds needed for each language. I use the IPA in all of my studies of standard repertoire languages (French, German, Italian, English) and in other languages as well, such as Japanese, Finnish, and Greek. I certainly plan on using my knowledge of the IPA to study Assyrian.
Obelit: What are you doing to prepare your upcoming encounter with the Assyrian language?
Liisa: By listening to the flow of the language. The most important job of the singer is to communicate the text and the meaning of the text through the melody. This is accomplished more easily when the flow of the language is understood.
Obelit: Do you find the Assyrian language daunting?
Liisa: I do not find the Assyrian language daunting. For me, it is an honor to have the opportunity to learn another language and to be introduced to another culture through its poetry. There is a different energy in learning another language through its poetry. There are greater nuances and insights into a culture through its poetry. I have had a love of languages from an early age. It is a personal joy for me to learn Assyrian.
Obelit: In dealing with the Assyrian language, what approach will you take to understand who Shamiram is?
Liisa: In understanding Shamiram I look directly to the poetry and how she is expressed through the poetry. Her responses to Ninos are most telling about her character.
Obelit: Is Shamiram a much different character from some of the other memorable romantic heroines, such as Mimi (Puccini’s La Boheme), Cio-Cio-San (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), Violetta (Verdi’s La Traviata) and Manon (Jules Massenet’s Manon), among others?
Liisa: Shamiram’s story is quite different from that of some of the leading ladies of opera. There are not many stories of heroines who come from such humble beginnings as does Shamiram and that grow to become a queen. Though her story is one with great extremes, she holds the same strength as any leading heroine of opera.
Obelit: Colorful historical legends of the Assyrian queen Shamiram draw a wide range of images of her. How do you see her in these images? I am sure you have some familiarity with them.
Liisa: I have read a few accounts of the stories of Shamiram. In all of the accounts that I have read she has strength of character that defines her through all of her trials and interactions with others. One must have a certain sense of strength and of survival to experience being on her own from an early age. I am sure at times she felt very alone and found her own courage that ultimately raised her to become a queen and a ruler of the Assyrian nation.
Obelit: What is your perception of Shamiram, the beautiful shepherdess, in the cantata Ninos and Shamiram?
Liisa: I find the poem to be so lovely. Both Ninos and Shamiram are portrayed in a very positive light. Shamiram’s responses to Ninos are gentle and very smart. She has a great sense of self and does not shy away from meeting the prince, Ninos, but speaks to him with a clear sense of self. This shows that her character is strong, which leads to her strength in other situations.
Obelit: How do you view Ninos?
Liisa: From the poetry, I view Ninos as a kind prince who is in search of beauty.
Obelit: As an operatic character, how significant is Shamiram when placed on the same stage as Mimi, Cio-Cio-San, Violetta and Manon, among other heroines?
Liisa: I find Shamiram can compare to the great heroines of the classic opera repertoire. She is smart and has the strength that is present in all great heroines. She is a queen and has her own dreams and aspirations. Her story is quite dramatic and has so much material that is worthy of opera. It is exciting to see part of her story being told.
Obelit: What are your thoughts on Michel Bosc’s music and Yosip Bet Yosip’s poem for Ninos and Shamiram?
Liisa: Michel Bosc’s music is very expressive and creative in telling the story of these two characters. I love the poetry, which is also very expressive. When I first read the poem, I found myself transported to the hill where Ninos meets Shamiram. That depicts the scene very well and captures a true feeling of “love at first sight.”
Obelit: Has this Assyrian cantata paved the way for you to consider other roles in Assyrian should they be offered to you?
Liisa: Absolutely. After learning a bit of the language of the Assyrians it would be great to extend my experience to another opportunity to express music from this culture. There are always stories to be told and music to be heard. As a musician and a singer, it would be exciting to be a part of another Assyrian project in the future.
Writer and Master of Ceremoniesobieyadgar.com