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July 19, 2007

Opera and the Bosnian War - Brendan Simms enjoys an Operatic Parable about the Bosnian War: Nigel Osborne's Differences in Demolition at Wilton's Music Hall, London

Posted by Brendan Simms

Nigel Osborne's Differences in Demolition
Wilton's Music Hall, London
directed by Lenka Udovicki
10th - 12th July 2007

Britons reacted to the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, in which the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was subjected to a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, in very different ways. By and large, the political establishment and the "experts" saw the conflict as a problem to be "contained", and if possible ignored. There was, however, an active lobby which kept up the pressure for effective intervention throughout the war. Some of them became personally involved on the ground. Many became aid workers of one sort or another, bringing their expertise to bear in support of the victims. Lynne Jones for example, went to work with traumatised children, and wrote up her experiences in the classic Then They Started Shooting: Growing up in wartime Bosnia. The historian Mark Wheeler went to Zagreb to help out with a relief agency. Many others did their bit in various ways.

Nigel Osborne, Professor of Music at Edinburgh, came up with a unique form of therapy. He crept through a sewer into the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. There he set up workshops in the cellars in which children were brought together to make music. Osborne did not do so with the conceit that he could heal the wounds of war. He later made clear that his initiative was palliative and therapeutic, but could never be restorative. Moreover, Osborne's project was never part of the shallow "humanitarianisation" of the war by which western political elites sought to frustrate effective military intervention. He was a robust supporter, for example, of calls to lift the one-sided international arms embargo which locked in place the military inferiority of the legitimate Bosnian government. In April 1993, Osborne signed an appeal condemning the international community

for pursuing a policy of pseudo-evenhandedness that has in fact strengthened the side of aggressive Serb expansionism.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the composer's early musical responses to Bosnia, Sarajevo and Evropa, were a political call to action as well as works of art. When a recent Times review wrote that Nigel Osborne

saw starving children in Bosnia and was determined to help through music,
it was very much missing the point. Whatever else was happening to them, Bosnia's children were not (primarily) starving. They were being killed, raped and expelled. In adopting the "humanitarianising" language of "starving children", the reviewer - no doubt unconsciously - was filtering out the political thrust behind Osborne's work.

That said, the composer's most recent offering does move away from the overtly political. His chamber opera Differences in Demolition was first performed in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, last month and has received its UK premiere at Wilton's Music Hall last week. Wilton's is the perfect setting for slightly abstract and unusual, or at any rate, less mainstream projects. The intimacy such small theatres provide blurs the divide between actor and audience, and allows performers to make full use of the range of facial expressions and gesture. In this case, the bare, faded and minimal design of the set suited the venue, because Wilton's - a nineteenth-century Music Hall - is a half-completed project which is only forty percent renovated.

Differences in Demolition is a story of greed, love, violence and betrayal. After the death of their father, his three sons go their separate ways: Zlatan to find his fortune, Balkan to fight, while Hasan, the hero, remains to look after the house. In the end, none of the characters find fulfilment. Hasan is punished for his brutality, Zlatan for avarice, and Hasan is condemned to part from his love, the servant-girl Sevda.

There are some nice choruses, and a few charming solo performances, particularly "I am not here" and "I am just an orphan maid". The music is beautiful, especially the haunting folk rhythms of Bosnian folk "Sevdah". Performances, on the other hand, were mixed. The orchestra could hardly be faulted, and there were some good individual performances, but the actors sometimes moved rather gracelessly around the stage. The production had its moments - the collapsing wall at the beginning was suitably dramatic - and the costumes were stunning.

Another nice touch was when the actors tied the house and its occupants together with string, implying that that the whole edifice would collapse about our ears if the line was cut. On the other hand, some of the sound effects were a little incongruous. The falling bricks from the wall were curiously noiseless, as were the coins dropped onto the stage. But this is a minor quibbles with what was a remarkable night of contemporary opera.

Although in this piece, Osborne eschews direct political messaging, there are obvious contemporary resonances. The whole question of Muslim-Christian co-existence is a very topical one, of course. Differences in Demolition addresses this obliquely by reminding us that there is an authentic "indigenous" Muslim tradition in Europe. The "Han" or house - in which much of the action takes place, is after all three hundred years old, and the Muslim presence goes back much further than that. Indeed, Bosnian Islam is older than any institutional form of European Protestantism, such as Lutheranism or the Church of England.

The Bosnian War also cast a long shadow over the story. The cursed house is clearly Bosnia, and perhaps Yugoslavia as a whole, held together with bits of string (or wool, in this case); the three brothers are the Serbs, Croats and Muslims as a whole. One may surmise that Zlatan is the Croat, the "war criminal" Balkan the Serb, while Hasan - who bears the only unambiguously Islamic name, is the Bosniak Muslim. When "Balkan" comes back from the war, he is unable to shake off the cries of those he has harmed. The witch Bogumila refuses to absolve him of his crimes, but suggests that he cleanse himself by accepting his guilt. This is a direct reference, of course, to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, and an allusion, perhaps, to the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa. In this sense, Differences in Demolition represents a searchingly lyrical attempt to come to terms with the most recent trauma in European history, which deserves our respect.

The author thanks Miss D.M. Macfadyen of Peterhouse, Cambridge, who is writing a dissertation on Wilton's Music hall, for comments on this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge, author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (Penguin, 2001), and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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