'BABA: The Life and Death of Stana' - new opera explores gender identity

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023
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Workshop version of 'BABA: The Life and Death of Stana'<br>(photo: Dorian Šilec Petek)
Workshop version of 'BABA: The Life and Death of Stana'
(photo: Dorian Šilec Petek)

"BABA: The Life and Death of Stana," a new opera commissioned and performed by Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble, premieres February 23 at Z Space in San Francisco. Written, composed and directed by Karmina Silec, the production conveys stories of Balkan sworn virgins (women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy) in an original interpretation of epic story-singing traditions.

"BABA" explores Balkan gender-transformation stories with a liberal western stance and some theatrical artistic license.

The tradition of sworn virgins (burrneshas in Albanian) comes from a medieval social and legal code practiced in remote regions of Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia. Women left defenseless by the loss of male relatives (the only rightful heirs to property) — or those who wanted to circumvent arranged marriages — could become men to secure the rights and freedoms given to community patriarchs. The reasons for this gender transformation were usually to maintain social responsibility and family honor, rather than sexual preference (a moot point) or feelings of being transgendered.

"BABA" examines the vanishing ritual of women who forfeit their sexuality and transform themselves into men as a means of survival in a patriarchal and strictly gender-binary environment. As social mores relax somewhat and women's rights are endlessly debated in western societies, those essential rights remain stubbornly unsatisfied.

Culture wars still rage everywhere. The bizarre sworn virgin loophole in the ancient Baltic code at least offered an "If you can't beat them, join them" escape clause. Living as a man in a man's world took away sex and procreation with unsubtly misogynistic requirements, but it also guaranteed existence as a respected member of society. Adherents were even allowed to smoke!

Slovenian director, composer, author, and conductor Karmina Silec, internationally recognized as a potent force in the contemporary music and theatre scene, makes a wonderfully organic match with Kitka.

Kitka's many successful collaborations include A.C.T.'s "Hecuba" with original music by David Lang; "Songs from Mama's Table" with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir; Ensemble Alcatraz; Meredith Monk's Vocal Alchemy; composers Chen Yi, Eric Banks, Pauline Oliveros, Mariana Sadovska, and Richard Einhorn and, "Iron Shoes," a contemporary folk opera by composer Janet Kutulas and playwright Michelle Carter.

The commissioning and presentation of "BABA" is supported by The Hewlett50 Arts Commissions, The National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Mills College Performing Arts, The Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Berkeley Repertory Theater's Ground Floor Artist Residencies, and the City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program. It really does take a village, but this one has an encouragingly supportive attitude.

The production team includes Scenographer: Dorian Silec Petek; Movement advisor: Sidra Bell & assistant Sarah Lisette Chiesa; Projection design: Dorian Silec Petek, Miha Likar; Lighting design & technical director: G. Chris Griffin; and Costume design: Karmina Silec & Vesna Novitovic

To say the themes being explored in "BABA" resonate in the current political climate is understatement. Karmina Silec and Kitka tackle the intriguing subject matter offering thought provoking and musically adventurous insight.

'BABA: The Life and Death of Stana,' February 23—26, Thu-Sat. 8pm. Sun 2pm. Z Space, 450 Florida St. $25-$125 www.zspace.org/BABA

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