She wrote an opera about a border control, inspired by Trump. Then she got snared in his travel ban

Art imitates life for a Fulbright Scholar and composer

Soosan Lolavar was due to be in the US this week to rehearse her first opera, ‘ID, please’ which premieres on April 1st in Pittsburgh. It’s a new work exploring the frustrations and cruelties faced by two passengers at a border control, inspired by the pre-election rhetoric of Donald Trump.

And then, ten days ago, in a moment of cosmic irony, the British composer and former Fulbright Scholar got a taste of the frustrations and cruelties faced by passengers at the border controls of Donald Trump’s America.

Soosan, 29, holds dual British-Iranian citizenship because her father is from Iran. When Trump issued his executive order banning nationals from seven majority-Muslim nations, she posted on Facebook: “My heart is broken.”

It looked like when the curtain comes up at the Pittsburgh Opera in two months time, its brilliant young composer would not be in the house.

soosan banned

I’ve known Soosan since we studied at Cambridge together. Her situation led to a huge outpouring of support from her friends and colleagues in the world of classical music, and the musicians who are putting on the opera.

“The singer was very sweet, he said: ‘This is going to be the most important composition I perform.'”

Her friend in San Francisco went to the airport to protest. “She made a sign that said ‘I stand with Soosan’” and got various people to hold it, and take video clips. They held it on video and said ‘We will stay here until they let you in.'”

She says she spent the weekend when the ban was announced watching a live stream of the protest at JFK. “It sort of reminded me of what I love about America. It’s a strangely complex country, but Americans are really good at protesting, and standing up, and in refusing to be cowed. When they feel their constitution is threatened, they can be relied upon to go out and say something.” 

The past week has made ‘ID, please’ seem deeply prophetic.

She has written the music, and the libretto is by Daniel Hirsch. She told me: “When we started on it, Trump was in the news. We thought it might be interesting to do an opera about Trump, but we thought he might be irrelevant in a year’s time. I know – so ironic.

muslim ban soosan

“So then we decided to do it about the issues surrounding him. It was really on my mind all the time. When he made his Muslim Ban speech, it hit me really hard. I’m not religious but my dad is a Muslim. I felt like a foreigner for a few weeks – that rhetoric was really really poisonous. 

“We talked about having Trump as a character, but we decided he would take over, so we just left an oblique reference to him – a reference to a billionaire tyrant.”

She sent me a document describing the opera that was written before her own border crossing became a drama in itself. It includes the line:

“Border crossings are places of tension, ones dominated by issues of nationalism and authority, but are also strange nowhere places. They’re fraught sites that evoke anxiety around security and civil liberties…

…Our experimental chamber opera takes place at the border crossing of an unnamed country and will feature three characters: a checkpoint employee and two travelers.

The questions asked by the border agent might signify a very specific place and time (A US border during a time in which Donald Trump suggests building a wall with Mexico, for instance) but they might stand in for any country’s border.”

She also sent me the libretto of one aria, in which the male traveller sings:

“Where does one belong when the borders of nation states so often shift? I think I should have stayed longer, it was nice here.

I am so innocent that I become guilty.”

Referring to the travel ban, she told me: “In a horrific way, it brings the opera into sharper focus.” 

When we started speaking on Skype, she was sure she was going to miss one of the biggest events of her life. Then good news came through from the UK Foreign Office that, contrary to all reporting so far, dual nationals would not be caught in the ban.

It was unclear whether the news represented a White House u-turn, or dreadful miscommunication from the start, but it meant that this weekend she made it into the US.

Reflecting on the saga, she tells me: “I was sort of angry about the broader injustice. For me it was annoying but my situation wasn’t desperate – I know people in much worse situations. My friend has just started his six year PhD and he now thinks he might not able to leave the country to see his family at all. There are lots of PhD students at CMU who are Iranian – they are in uncertain waters.” 

University of Pittsburgh