Jessica Rivera unveils Mark Grey’s Fire Angels at Zankel Hall

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As the San Francisco Opera readies its new September 11-themed work, Heart of a Soldier, for a world premiere this fall, Carnegie Hall is unveiling its own premiere commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The luminous soprano Jessica Rivera, alongside pianist Molly Morkoski and Ensemble Meme (under conductor Donato Cabrera) gives a first listen of the Carnegie co-commission, Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels) in her Zankel Hall recital this evening.

Unlike Heart of a Soldier, however, Fire Angels takes a more abstract—and arguably more compelling and universal—look at the World Trade Center attack. While the song cycle incorporates the tragedy, Rivera—along with composer Mark Grey (a frequent sound designer for John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov) and librettist Niloufar Talebi (the theatrical visionary behind The Persian Rite of Spring)—saw the focus of the piece as a romance, rather than a John Adams-esque CNN song cycle. Rather than retell the events themselves, Rivera, Grey and Talebi delve into their emotional cores in hopes of communicating something, in Rivera’s words, “more profound and deep.”

Of Ātash Sorushān, Rivera says in a video for Carnegie Hall’s blog that the two characters “find an opportunity to connect” in the midst of the collision. In an interview for PBS, Talebi expands on the premise, describing her two characters, Mana and Ahsha, as two “larger-than-life beings…who dwell in separate realms, each convinced of their supreme power…[and] realize that in moments of vulnerability that we all are one.” Persian philosophy factors deeply in Talebi’s libretto, which marries the concepts of the divine life force (“Mana”) and the Avestan idea of truth and existence in Zoroastrian theology (“Ahsha”).

In further discussing the piece for Carnegie Hall’s blog, Rivera points to two quotes—one from Rumi, the other from Leonard Bernstein—as inspirational fuel for Fire Angels: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing is a field. I will meet you there,” reads the former’s. The latter’s says: “This will be our response to violence: that we will make music more intensely, more beautifully and more devotedly than ever before.” Rivera explains that the collective goal for the work is to create a “common ground for us to begin conversations about what it means to be different and yet what it means to have our own identities and yet encounter one another and understand one another.”

It’s a lofty ambition for one song cycle, yet one that is welcome in times just as uncertain as they were a decade earlier (though, granted, uncertain on other terms). Surprisingly, Fire Angels’s Persian take on an American tragedy has thus far garnered little to no debate from the public. Perhaps it’s due in part to the cross-cultural balance of the piece itself, the collision between California girl Rivera, Illinois native Grey and Talebi (born in London to Iranian parents). Whatever the reason, we’re taking this as a good sign that the platform for a greater dialogue will be opened tomorrow night. 

An early rehearsal video for Ātash Sorushān: