The Bosnian midsummer air felt humid and oppressive when I arrived at Mostar's National Theatre for the world premiere of Nigel Osborne's opera, Differences in Demolition. The theatre's concrete facade is riddled with the marks of shelling. Across the road, a Habsburg mansion is in ruins. Five minutes away, near the famous bridge, a sign by the road instructs: Don't Forget.
Differences in Demolition, which opens tomorrow as part of the City of London Festival, taps into the troubled history and musical traditions of Bosnia-Herzegovina in a way that feels entirely organic. It's an intimate chamber opera - five singers, six instrumentalists - but its emotional scale is substantial. A blend of allegory and reality, the story touches on deep threads in this traumatised community, at one mythol-ogised remove. The music is derived from "sevdah", the haunting folk music of Bosnia and the Balkans; but it's anything but a superficial appropriation of local style, instead bearing witness to its composer's passionate involvement with Bosnia across 17 years.
The libretto is by the Bosnian poet Goran Simic, and opens with part of his poem of the same title: the ironic tale of a migrant worker who has demolished houses in his own country, then arrives in another as a builder. From this starting point, the protagonist, Hasan, is transformed into one of his own forefathers. The ancestral Hasan is one of three brothers. One brother departs, determined to become rich; the next goes too, intending to be a hero. The servant girl, Sevda, is in love with Hasan, but leaves, promising to return. Hasan stays, and waits.
Time passes; the first brother returns aged, regretting the youth he squandered making money. The second comes back as a war criminal, destroyed by his conscience. Sevda reappears, disguised, but Hasan does not recognise her until it's too late.
Osborne, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and Simic, one of the former Yugoslavia's greatest writers, are old friends and collaborators; they first met during the siege of Sarajevo. Here, Osborne says, their friendship was "forged in fire". While others were desperate to get out of the town, Osborne risked death to get in. Simic, a Bosnian Serb, had decided to stay, making a stand for a united, multicultural Bosnia. Life was a daily struggle for survival, without water or electricity, and they began their first joint project while, as Simic remembers, "the temperature was many minuses and we were working under candlelight with blankets".
Sarajevo before the war, Simic says, "was ideal; nobody cared what your background was. It was a form of unity within diversity." In this peaceful melting pot, Serbs, Croats and Muslims used to intermarry without concern. "I didn't want someone to tell me there was a difference between a pear and an apple," Simic recounts. "I didn't want to let anyone kick me out of my town; I wanted to stay with my people of different nationalities." He lost many close relatives in the war and his family home was completely destroyed.
Simic now divides his time between Toronto and Sarajevo. It's"happening all over the world that some people don't care for their own country and go to build some other countries, instead of improving our own," he says, reflecting on the opera's story. …