With Haptadama: The Seven Creations of Ancient Persia, Eric Banks unexpectedly challenges audiences to reconsider how they think about opera. It’s not that Banks is dabbling in new forms or means of expression – although he does have a tremendous gift for contemporizing ancient languages and melodies in ways that observe texts, respect original ideas, and avoid kitsch. Banks calls Haptadama a choral opera. However the piece synthesizes opera, song cycles, and sacred music that leads listeners in a number of different directions.
Banks got the idea to write Haptadama after two visits to India. The material for the piece comes from the Persian creation story of the Zorostrians drawn from both the Gathas and Bundahisn. The Gathas, perhaps the oldest written music in history, provide an austere framework for the piece. The Bundahisn, on the other hand, gives the music its mystical quality. The creation story follows a well worn formula. A benevolent creator coexists with evil. The creator creates life and the known world. Evil strikes back causing cataclysm and robbing the world of its innocence. The creator redeems the world by wiping everything out with a cleansing flood.
The number seven plays a deciding role in the piece’s structure. Banks also uses the overall symmetry of the Persian creation story to reinforce structural balance. There are seven creations. Seven protectors look after each creation. And there are seven movements lasting about ten minutes each, for a total time of just about seventy five minutes. This might not seem like a big deal, but hearing the piece for the first time, the piece’s symmetry, was a welcome cue that helped me better navigate the music and the piece’s source narrative.
Still reflecting on Haptadama a day later, I am not sure how I would categorize the piece. This, I think, is the work’s greatest strength. Banks calls it an opera because of its dramatic content. A philosophical first movement unfolds purposefully, setting the creation of the world in motion. But later there is also tense conflict, represented in the fourth movement’s fierce, stuttering rhythms. But is drama all that is needed to call a piece of music an opera? There are plenty of sung pieces with as much drama that I wouldn’t classify as operas.
With the coupling of the sacred Gathas and Bundahisn, and Banks’ straightforward musical treatment, Haptadama could also be called a cantata — albeit a Persian one. Or, because the Gathas are some of the oldest written songs, maybe the work is an a cappella song cycle. To me, Haptadama sounds like a musical relative of Phillip Glass’ Satyagraha (an opera about Ghandi) and John Adams’ oratorio El Nino. In any case, Haptadama’s beauty radiates from each stanza and it also emanates from Banks’ synthesis of forms and styles, which allows listeners to hear the piece in a number of different ways.
Yesterday, at the same time the curtain was going up on Daron Hagen’s new opera Amelia, Banks and The Esoterics were performing an opera (cantata? song cycle?) of a different sort at the Olympic Sculpture Park’s PACCAR Pavilion. The sun filled weekend created a spectacular sunset over the Olympic Mountains which only added to the experience of hearing Haptadama. Banks might have intended Haptadama to be a choral opera, but on my first listen, I am not sure it is an opera — at least not an opera as I have come to expect it. Haptadama’s greatest strength is its indescribable place in the classical music universe. This attribute gives listeners latitude to hear and experience the piece in uniquely personal ways. Composers would be wise to follow Banks’ lead. The art of contemporary music would benefit from more openness in how listeners experience new and unfamiliar music.