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'A Thousand Splendid Suns' primed for its Seattle Opera premiere

A portrait of Sheila Silver and Roya Sadat
Emil Moffatt
'A Thousand Splendid Suns' Opera composer Sheila Silver and stage director Roya Sadat.

The first time Shelia Silver read A Thousand Splendid Suns was more than a decade ago.

“I often had a long commute and I listened in the car on tape,” Silver remembered. “And at the end, when Mariam in the execution scene, when she was dying, I was driving down the highway, tears streaming down my face and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so operatic.’”

A few years later, Silver, a Seattle native, started talking to librettist Stephen Kitsakos about adapting the novel into an opera. They then approached the author, Khaled Hosseini about securing the rights, which they eventually were granted.

“Then I said to myself, ‘how do you prepare to set something in Afghanistan, as an American? What’s the research I need to do?’”

She traveled to India five times to study Hindustani classical music, which has a major influence on the music of Afghanistan. But Hindustani music isn’t written down. Artists just memorize and repeat. So Silver improvised. She studied with a teacher and at home, each night, she’d write down the melodies he’d sing.

“I have notebooks, stacks of notebooks from him,” Silver said. “Everything he ever sang to me, I have notated”

And those notebooks became the basis for the music in A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has its world premiere Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Seattle Opera.

The critically-acclaimed novel, originally published in 2007, tells the story of two women in Afghanistan – Mariam and Laila who forge a deep friendship as they endure violence at home – and a government that doesn't recognize the rights of women.

War is also a major theme in the book. From a civil war to the Soviet occupation during the 1980s to the U.S. intervention after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“Music says things that go beyond words,” Silver said. “And that's what I'm trying to do in this opera. I'm trying to compose the emotions in music of what the actors and the characters are going through.”

Silver attended Rainier Beach High School. She currently lives in New York and is professor emerita of music at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

The sound of the opera has been in the works for more than ten years But it was just a few years ago when the look of the opera on stage started to take shape as award-winning Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat was hired to direct it.

She was approached with the opportunity in the summer of 2021, just as the Afghanistan government fell and the Taliban regained control.

“When I heard this news, I was just only five minutes from the opera office to go for my first meeting,” Sadat said.

So now, instead of the opera being about an Afghanistan of 20 years ago, the plight of the main characters – Mariam and Laila is more immediate.

“This opera, in this moment, became a voice of hundreds of hundreds of Mariams and Lailas, who are again – this is a repeat for them in Afghanistan right now,” Sadat said.

She said while the plot of A Thousand Splendid Suns centers on violence, war, and oppression – it also chronicles the sacrifices Mariam and Laila make for one another. It’s ultimately a story about love.

“It's a kind of hope that you can have a good feeling in the end,” Sadat said. “It's not talking about violence. Behind the story [is] love. The connection of the people, of two women, these two women is really strong.”

'A big history and big culture'

Seattle Opera is holding a series of events in connection with the world premiere. Earlier this month, a cultural event featured a sampling of the art, poetry, and food of Afghanistan.

It also included a musical performance on one of the national instruments of Afghanistan – the rubab.

Artist Kabir Mokamel holds a paint brush in front of a community mural
Emil Moffatt
Artist Kabir Mokamel contributes to a community mural that will be displayed at McCaw Hall during 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' opera performances.

Kabir Mokamel co-founded an organization called ArtLords which helps promote the arts of Afghanistan to the rest of the world.

“This is something which has actually been absent from media for such a long time because whatever we hear about Afghanistan is about war,” Mokamel said. “We never experience the culture. [We want] for people here to learn that there’s a big history and big culture”

During the celebration, he supervised as people picked up paintbrushes and added a few strokes to a community mural – a colorful painting of a smiling woman in a headscarf

That mural that will greet opera-goers at McCaw Hall Saturday when the curtain rises on A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at