"A Thousand Splendid Suns" Shines at Seattle Opera

Review of A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Opera

Written by Teen Writer Olivia Qi and edited by Esha Potharaju

Photo by Sunny Martini

Content warning: suicide, abuse

A pressing story of love during harsh times, A Thousand Splendid Suns is finally ready for its world premiere at Seattle Opera. The work, commissioned by Seattle Opera in 2015, is written by Seattle-born composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos. Based on Khaled Hosseini’s book of the same name, the opera is an epic tale set in Afghanistan from 1974 to 2001. Suns is unforgettably intense, a gripping story brought to life by heart-wrenching music.


The curtain rises to show 15-year-old Mariam (Karin Mushegain), the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy local businessman (Martin Bakari), living with her mother (Tess Altiveros) in the outskirts of Herat, Afghanistan. Her mother soon commits suicide and Mariam moves in with her father, who marries her off to a middle-aged shoemaker in Kabul named Rasheed (John Moore). Rasheed grows abusive when Mariam can’t bear him any children.

Four years later, Laila (Maureen McKay) is born to loving, educated parents who live across the street from Mariam. When she’s 14, her family plans on fleeing to Pakistan where her boyfriend Tariq (Rafael Moras) has fled as well, until a bomb explodes on their house and kills her parents. Rasheed rescues Laila and believing Tariq is dead, she marries him. Mariam and Laila bond over their shared hatred for their husband, fail to escape the country, and kill Rasheed. By the end of the opera, Mariam has become like a mother to Laila, and she urges Laila to flee to Pakistan, volunteering to let the Taliban shoot her for her crime.

The story is fast-paced and action-packed, and each scene starts and ends quickly. Kitsakos left some plot points of the original book out of the opera, and this streamlined the story, making it better suited to an operatic format.


As classical music spreads and music education is made available to more diverse populations, opera increasingly draws from non-European influences. Hindustani music is enjoying an emergence in western opera, with composers like Kamala Sankaram incorporating it in A Rose (2019) and Jasdeep Singh Degun combining it with the popular baroque opera L’Orfeo to create Orpheus (2022).

Hindustani music is very similar to Afghan classical music, as the two share instruments and musical elements. Sheila Silver studied Hindustani music in India and used it as a sound world for the Suns. Silver used ragas—a collection of notes that is similar to the concept of scales in Western music—as leitmotifs and incorporated traditional Afghan instruments into the score, immersing the listener in turn-of-the-millenium Kabul.

Suns starts to the tune of a bansuri flute, played by Steve Gorn, meandering over droning strings, and the instrument reappears many times throughout the opera. Deep Singh’s tabla, which is a pair of hand-played drums, pulses throughout the opera, drives the music forward, and speeds up time.

Recorded sounds of a stream, radio announcer, and bombs are interspersed throughout the show, enhancing the opera’s realism.

At times, the orchestra is forceful with each section accenting off-kilter beats. It’s notably coordinated under the baton of Viswa Subbaraman, who is an expert at dramatic pacing. But during a love scene between Laila and Tariq, soaring strings provide a romantic, hopeful ambience.


It takes a lot to portray a complex character growing through many unforgiving decades, but the Suns cast succeeds in that challenge. Karin Mushegain owns the emotionally demanding role of Mariam and adapts her supple mezzo voice as her character matures. Her middle range is full-bodied and shines in melancholy solo passages. Maureen McKay’s Laila is youthful and strong, her luminous high notes rooted in rock-solid support as she twirls around the stage. Baritone John Moore completely embodies Rasheed’s unmistakably hateable personality, so much so that he got booed during his solo bow. Of course, it wasn’t for his full, commanding tone. As Tariq, Rafael Moras’ clear tenor voice sounded its freest in Suns’ second half and his chemistry with Maureen McKay as Laila was one of the most heartwarming parts of the opera.

The supporting cast wonderfully complimented the leads from an acting standpoint but vocally, their performances were mixed. As Fariba, Laila’s mother, Sarah Coit’s voice sounded swallowed and over-darkened enough to sound uncomfortable. Ashraf Sewailaim sang Hakim, Laila’s father, and his otherwise rich high notes were marred by a wobble. Grace Elaine Franck-Smith, the child playing Zalmai, sounded pleasantly pure and resonant, even from the back of the nearly 3,000-seat McCaw Hall.


The staging is exactly of the caliber to expect from Roya Sadat, an award-winning film producer and Afghanistan’s first woman director during the post-Taliban era. Although this is the first opera Sadat has directed, A Thousand Splendid Suns parallels much of her critically-acclaimed movies about women’s struggles in Afghanistan. Suns shares gritty, realistic action with Sadat’s Letter To The President (2017) and Three Dots (2003). In the opera, characters move naturally around the stage, yet each moment is like a perfectly composed film still which adds an air of dignity.

Suns tackles domestic violence and thanks to fight director Geoffrey Alm, it was unbearable to watch Rasheed beat up Mariam and Laila so realistically.

The set, designed by Misha Kachman, is simply stunning. A swing, clouds, and entire buildings are lifted and dropped from above. One side of a rotating wall is a cross-section view of Mariam and Rasheed’s two-story house and the other side is Laila’s house, with both houses looking believably lived-in. Despite the action onstage moving from multiple houses to a market to a bus stop, the set makes all the changes flow smoothly.


Modern Afghanistan’s sociopolitical climate can be a touchy topic. A few Afghan people in Seattle were opposed to Suns’ production because they felt like Rasheed, as a stereotype of ultra-conservative Afghan men, would shine a negative light on all Afghan men.

Seattle Opera took care to provide historical and cultural context for the opera. Beyond the customary program notes, Seattle Opera also hosted Jashin: A Celebration of Afghan Arts, an evening of culture and festivity. The event featured art, crafts from the Refugee Afghan Initiative, poetry readings, a documentary screening, and a concert. On performance nights, McCaw Hall’s lobby is a museum with artwork from ArtLords, an organization promoting peace in Afghanistan through art, and information about women in Afghanistan throughout history. As someone previously unfamiliar with Afghan culture, I felt the lobby displays helped me, not to intellectualize the opera, but to enhance my emotional experience.

Suns was an absolute journey to watch as I gripped the edge of my seat with sweaty hands, my heart pounding. I felt like I had lived another life by the end of the show. A deeply moving epic, Suns deserves to stay on the stage for years to come.

A Thousand Splendid Suns took place at Seattle Opera on February 25 - March 11, 2023. For more information see here.

Lead Photo: The Seattle Opera's production of A Thousand Splendid Suns, photo by Sunny Martini

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 6 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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