Panbe Zan – a new Australian opera

Panbe Zan (translated as ‘the cotton beater’) is a contemporary electroacoustic opera in seven parts, written by Shervin Mirzeinali. The work is the composer’s main outcome as part of their Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) studies under the supervision of Damien Ricketson at The Sydney Conservatorium of Music. You can view the program and full artist list on the AMC’s website here: https://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/event/panbe-zan

Panbe Zan is the first in a planned series of works titled Extinct Timbre, through which Mirzeinali seeks to explore forgotten, historical and nostalgic sounds with ethnocultural specific references.

Billed as a “modern Persian opera”, the work draws heavily from Mirzeinali’s Iranian heritage, both musically and thematically. Cotton beating, a now-obsolete Iranian tradition, was performed in preparation for the New Year. With Nowruz just a day away, the timing of this premiere seems a mindful and generous choice.

As ritual, cotton beating centres the home, or to use a word from my Greek inheritance, it centres νοικοκυριό. There is no direct equivalent in English as the meaning of νοικοκυριό encompasses the home and the household, as well as the pride and labour inherent in the acts of caring for these. Cotton beating as tradition, also symbolizes warmth, joy, playfulness, connectedness, and restoration or renewal. Mirzeinali’s work speaks beautifully to each of these sentiments through music and through the action on stage.

Mirzeinali takes the bow-shaped monochord tool of the cotton beater as a starting point around which to build the sound language of the opera, employing acoustic cotton beating instruments of varying sizes as well as the sampled and manipulated sounds of these in the electronic track. Mirzeinali also combines traditional Persian instruments and practices like tar, daf, and classical Persian vocal style with Western classical idioms and instruments, live.

The sonic intimacy of the sections titled Tea Break and Slumber, combined with the dramatic ritualization of these ordinary, everyday acts, were the highlights of the opera for me. As were the moments in the electronic track where the spatialization of sound drew me in immediately and deeper into the work. I wanted more of this. 

Also, the symbolism in Slumber of the toiling matriarch character in her action of darning the quilt, and her placement at the centre of the stage while the cotton beaters and other characters encircled her in the final section, Dance of Cotton, was moving and evocative. The incredibly beautiful voice of tenor, Danial Bozorgi, ringing out above all else in this final section was another highlight, as was the ending celebratory procession.

There were other things to love as well of course. To start with, the unimposing subject matter of domesticity is quietly and satisfyingly subversive of the form of contemporary opera itself. 

Also satisfying was that a local cast of performers and crew of predominantly Iranian heritage created, produced, and performed the work. (I make this assumption from my reading of the names, some light desktop research, and from the expertise in traditional Persian instruments and vocal technique exemplified by the performers themselves). This can be read as more than an imperative artistic choice of course, as conversations around diversity, inclusion, and representation continue to urge and press all of us who work in the arts to do better. I’m glad to see The Con as an ally here, actively supporting and investing in artists and in new work that broadens and challenges what is traditionally considered “mainstream”.

Also, the show was sold out, which should be no surprise at all. Audiences are just people whose most fundamental motivation is to see/hear/feel something that speaks to them. Often they want to have this experience in the company of others with which they share a sense of commonality and belonging.  If your work is “diverse” but your audience is almost completely not “diverse”, then possibly you’re offering an experience of cultural tourism or cultural voyeurism. (And of course, this is done with varying degrees of awareness – sometimes, for example, artists choose to self-essentialize and make work of this nature, and that’s OK). In Panbe Zan, it seems that the lived experience and cultural identities of a majority in the audience reflected the lived experience and cultural identities of the creatives. In my mind, this points to a process of creation that is artist-led and that engages meaningfully and deeply, probably also ethically, with both subject matter and audience.

On a personal note, Panbe Zan inspired a return to writing on the Cultural Omnivore blog after a long two and a half years, because it offered up so much of what I love about new music in Australia. I look forward to more music from Mirzeinali and more new work from The Con like this.

Image credit: Mehrdad Ziaee Nejad

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