Eight years ago, Leo Hurley had an idea for an opera about a transgender Afghan native. He took it to his frequent collaborator and fellow UNC School of the Arts graduate, Charles Osborne, who suggested making the hero a war refugee living in Chapel Hill, with a conservative foster mother who’s a war widow.
Thus was “The Body Politic” born.
After two years of researching the trans and Muslim communities, then writing the text and music, Hurley and Osborne premiered the opera in Boston this month. Its next stop was supposed to be New York City.
Then the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2, aka “the bathroom bill.” New York could wait.
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Within three days of HB2 becoming law, Hurley, who wrote the music, and Osborne were making plans to bring a scaled-down version of the opera not just to Raleigh but to the state Legislative Building. They will perform it there Thursday in the auditorium, free to the public. They say they’ve sent emails inviting Gov. Pat McCrory and every member of the legislature.
I think the conversation that we’re having is unfortunate, but in some ways it’s healthy because we’re finally talking openly about it. I hope I’ll learn something at the opera, and it’ll be fun.
Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat
“It seemed like the obvious thing,” says Osborne, a Charlotte native who is the show’s librettist. “We are not doing a rally; we are not doing a protest. This is creating civil discourse and providing the space for people to listen to one another.”
So far only Democratic Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill has said she will attend.
“I think I’ll learn something,” she said Thursday. “I don’t know a lot about the transgender population. ... I think the conversation that we’re having is unfortunate, but in some ways it’s healthy because we’re finally talking openly about it. I hope I’ll learn something at the opera, and it’ll be fun. They were very well received in Boston.”
But Rep. Howard Hunter, a Democrat from Ahoskie, said the show’s timing – it’s at 3 p.m. – was bad for him. “I’ll be home by then. I’ve got a business I run.”
When asked if he would attend, Rep. Chris Malone, a Wake Forest Republican, replied: “I like the ballet” and walked away from a reporter.
Hurley and Osborne are not discouraged. They were planning to spend last week following up with calls and emails to encourage lawmakers to come.
“We want to have a dialogue with both the liberal and conservative sides of the story,” Hurley says. “We are here to create a space where people can voice their opinions and talk about these issues.”
The two men say their show does not vilify conservatives or anyone who may support HB2, which does not allow local governments to enact laws that provide civil rights protections to gay and transgender people, and requires transgender people use public restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates.
“I’ve had these arguments my entire life among my own family,” Osborne says. “The direct quote from our show comes directly from my family. The conservative war widow says, ‘I am not standing in your way. I will never stand in your way, but I am allowed to disagree. It’s different when it’s in your own house.’ She’s saying ‘you do you, just not in my house’ …. and we’re not judging that. I think our job as artists is to provide the question, to present the worlds and the communities that we we see as they actually exist. It’s the legislators’ job to find the answers.”
An epic timeline
The opera’s roots go back to the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” That ancient epic tells the story of Iphis, whose mother disguises her as a boy – keeping the truth from her husband – because they can’t afford to pay a dowry and her husband has said that if their child is a female, he will be forced to kill her. When Iphis comes of age, a bride is chosen for “him.” The two fall in love. Before the marriage, Iphis’ mother prays to the Egyptian goddess Isis for help. Isis answers her prayers by transforming Iphis into a man. Happy ending.
“I loved the story, and I knew I wanted to write an opera about it, but I didn’t know how to update it, making it relevant to today’s society,” Hurley says.
Then he learned about bacha posh, a practice in some parts of Afghanistan where families – often those without sons – raise girls as boys because boys have more freedoms to go to school and to help support the family. That’s when Hurley went to Osborne.
“I told him, this isn’t my forte but let me look into it,” Osborne says. “I started researching and researching and researching, and I saw so many similarities in so many different ways between that culture and our own. I did not see what I think we’ve been conditioned to see when we look at Middle Eastern issues since 9/11. ... What I saw were people doing the absolute best they could to survive in the situation and culture in which they live.”
What we’re trying to say in the show is that our cultures may distinguish us but it’s only our prejudices that divide, and it’s our duty to listen to one another with patience as we move toward a more inclusive society.
But Osborne wanted to make Iphis, as the character in “The Body Politic” is also called, a war refugee now living in America to make the story even more relevant to American audiences.
Most of the play takes place in Chapel Hill.
“It pits these different communities against one another, all trying to co-exist,” Osborne says. “In the same family sphere, you have a transgender Afghan immigrant, a conservative war widow who is his reluctant foster mother, her cisgender son, a sassy Southern drag queen and the transgender character’s Afghan mother who’s fighting discrimination against women back home in Afghanistan. So they’re all circling these issues of gender politics in both America and Afghanistan, and it’s really about the intersection of cultures. What we’re trying to say in the show is that our cultures may distinguish us but it’s only our prejudices that divide, and it’s our duty to listen to one another with patience as we move toward a more inclusive society.”
Asked why they set the opera in Chapel Hill, Osborne replies proudly, “I’m a Tar Heel” – but the real reason is more serious.
The play’s timeline starts with the rise of the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1996 and goes until spring 2006 in Chapel Hill, when an Iranian-American man drove his SUV onto the University of North Carolina campus and hit nine students, injuring six, who were taken to the hospital for treatment. No one was killed. The man said he was protesting atrocities in the Middle East.
The play uses that incident to fuel one of the character’s prejudices, Osborne says.
Going beyond the law
The Boston premiere was produced by the Juventas New Music Ensemble, a Boston-based incubator for young composers. (It’s worth nothing that this is Hurley and Osborne’s first full professional opera, though Hurley has won awards for string quartets and symphonies and has written music for off-Broadway productions; Osborne is an actor, singer, dancer and playwright who has performed off-Broadway.) For the show in the Legislative Building, Hurley and Osborne created a gofundme page to raise the money to bring the singers, conductor, pianist, stage director and others to Raleigh. They raised $3,355 in a month.
Osborne says that instead of the full 90-minute opera, the production in Raleigh will be presented concert-style with just five singers, a piano, a conductor and a pianist.
Hurley and Osborne planned to arrive in the state Saturday to prepare. Both live in New York but say they visit North Carolina often to see family and friends.
They laud legislative staff for so quickly approving their request to perform the show in the auditorium, and called it a “wonderful surprise.”
“You can reserve this auditorium to exercise your First Amendment rights within the grounds of the legislative assembly,” Osborne says. “We told them what we wanted to do, we filled out an application and we were approved fairly quickly, and that was so wonderful to me. I’m so glad that North Carolina allows you to exercise your First Amendment rights where it matters most.”
The two men say their goal is to raise questions beyond the law.
“There’s a perception in this world that allowed this law to happen, and in many ways that’s more insidious than the law itself. We’re not working to just slap the law away, we’re working to change hearts and minds from inside out so we can create more inclusive societies in the future. ...
“We’re not telling anyone what to do. We’re just asking that they listen to one another as fellow human beings.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed
What: “The Body Politic”
When: 3 p.m. Thursday, May 19
Where: Auditorium, North Carolina Legislative Building, 16 W. Jones St., Raleigh. (The auditorium is on the third floor, along with the public gallery.)
Cost: Free; open to public as well as N.C. legisatures and staff. (The space has about 250 seats.)
Donations: The opera’s gofundme site raised more than the goal, but Charles Osborne said costs of transporting the production to Raleigh exceeded expectations and they’re still accepting donations at www.gofundme.com/TransOperaNC.