Perhaps like many people in Europe, I was vaguely aware of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus makes a trip to hell to plead for the return of his beloved, but he misses out when, against instructions, he looks back at her before she has escaped the underworld. But I did not know about Layla and Majnun except through Western adaptations of the story such as Romeo and Juliet. So I was intrigued when I saw that Valletta18 were including on their programme an opera called Orfeo and Majnun, and were calling for interested citizens to be part of the process leading up to the event in October.
I have a background in Community Cultural Development and I believe that communities are strong to the extent that people engage with others in the continuous process of creating their culture. So ever since Malta initiated the process of becoming European Capital of Culture, I have looked out for ways in which I might contribute with other citizens to this year long celebration of creative communities. Evaluations of previous European Capitals of Culture are beginning to indicate that a significant measure of success is the extent to which local people are engaged as creators as well as spectators. Orfeo and Majnun appeared to be offering an opportunity to get involved in creative ways.
The first hurdle was the on-line form that I had to complete. One of the requirements was fluency in Maltese language. If I didn't tick the box, I could not submit the form. So I decided that honesty about deception was the best policy. I ticked the box and later, in a more open section of the form, I explained that I couldn't speak Maltese but was interested in the process being used in this project. I expected to hear no more. After all, my application to be part of the grand opening event had resulted in stony silence after I admitted that I was 74 years old and had little head for heights.
So I was excited when towards the end of 2017, I received an invitation to a workshop with one of the creative directors of the opera, Aaron Berg. I had no idea what to expect but I skimmed the two-page summaries of the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Layla and Majnun compiled by Valletta 2018 Foundation and walked over to Palazzo de la Salle.
The workshop was a delight. Many years have passed since I have enjoyed the collective buzz of creative energy gathered together and inspired by a challenging project where each participant can draw on their own spark to build something new. Dancers, visual artists, movie makers, storytellers and writers responded to two tasks on the theme of love, loss and longing. The first task was an individual response drawing on a personal experience of loss and leading to a presentation to the group. I used song and story to recount the loss of a loved one that I talk about more fully in my second book, Songs for a Blind Date (2014).
The second task called for small groups and required us to choose a moment in one of the two myths and prepare something on that moment. I worked with a young woman who was also a writer and we chose separate but linked moments from Layla and Majnun. My co-worker wrote from the perspective of Layla and the process of her death. I wrote from the mind of Majnun, trying to imagine the moment in the desert when the two lovers meet and decide to separate for ever. What was in Majnun's head, after being driven mad by love for Layla, that he denied any possibility of realising his love? Again, I used song and story:
In her eyes I see the Universe. I see the stars at night, the sun in the morning on the edge of a barren plain. She loves me and I drown in the truth of her eyes. I long for her love and I flee from the truth of her eyes. Her eyes are greater than my songs. They consume me. I cannot stay to drown in the truth of her eyes. I cannot go back to the songs of madness and the bark of dogs. Her eyes turn me and I walk away.
I was exhilarated by the workshop but did not expect to hear further. Again I was surprised and pleased to be invited to another meeting with Aaron Berg, along with project administrators and other artists chosen as workshop leaders in the process that was intended to build a parkour atmosphere in the streets surrounding Teatru Rjal where the main opera was to be staged. This time the emphasis was not on creative engagement but on the practicalities of matching the workshop leaders up with interested community groups. Now, my critique of the stories, in terms of the focus on male protagonists with women only as the object of loss and longing, was underlined by the apparent composition of the community groups, that seemed to be weighted in favour of men and boys. I advised that I wanted to work with a women only group. So now I am waiting to hear if there are groups of women in Malta who are interested in seeking to imagine how our myths and legends might be different when told from the perspective of women. How is love, loss and longing different when a woman is telling the story? Let me know if you'd like to be part of a group exploring that idea.