The human body has long been a focus of political debate. Current conversations grow ever more polarized as a weighty handful of states join North Carolina in suing the federal government over President Obama’s transgender bathroom policy. Because these lawsuits hinge on the right to enforce legally sanctioned segregation—a practice that has historical ties to race and immigration—we need with increasing urgency to understand connections between nationality, gender, race, and religion. But there is also the question of how to approach, or how even to talk about these issues, when public voices throb with inflammatory rhetoric and political debates sound like trashy reality shows. It seems the more invested we become, the more heated and divisive our language becomes—it inevitably ends up abstracted from the concrete realities of the people whose lives are affected most.
A new opera takes on these issues and shows how effective music and performance are as vehicles for impassioned story telling and penetrating critique. The opera sidesteps telling people what to think, composer Leo Hurley told me, so as to “open the crystal of how we can look at one life situation.” This past May, the Juventas New Music Ensemble produced the world premiere of The Body Politic, an opera about a transgender man from Afghanistan who immigrates to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A prescient tale, the opera premiered in Boston just two months after the North Carolina legislature passed the controversial bathroom bill. Hurley and librettist Charles Osborne, a Carolina native, wasted no time taking the opera to Raleigh in response to HB2. The performance took place inside the state legislative building where it received a standing ovation from an audience that included North Carolina’s District 56 Representative, Verla Insko.
Iphis sees his life refracted through the lenses of a constellation of characters—all of them in different ways caught in webs that place demands on their bodies and their genders.
The protagonist is a modern rendition of a character from a famous work of classical poetry. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “Iphis” is the name of a young girl who grows up disguised as a boy. Iphis falls in love with a young woman and a goddess transforms him into a man so the two can get married. Osborne reencountered Ovid’s narrative when he learned about the bacha posh phenomenon (lit. “dressed up like a boy”)—a practice in parts of Afghanistan of disguising daughters as sons so that they can go to school and work to support their families. Scrupulous research went into the production, which not only alludes to the historical context but also develops an elaborate symbolism. Osborne explained that each character relates to an indigenous bird in Afghanistan—all of them seeking to fortify their own nests.
The opera’s Iphis, raised bacha posh under Taliban rule, soon finds the disguise to match his gender identity better than the floral, patterned blouses he reluctantly wears in later scenes. The opera opens in Kabul, where gentle banter between Young Iphis and his mother indicates incipient conflict over whether the haircuts and pronouns are merely masquerade. The scene flashes to Chapel Hill, where Adult Iphis stands in the home of his foster family celebrating a new body. He “finally got a… body that [he] shaped to reflect [him] self.”
As the story is filled in, listeners are invited to empathize with different values, with competing concerns that inhere in concrete lives, not merely in abstract ideals. Artistic Director and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya suggested that the “story has universal appeal” because at some point “everyone faces questions of personal identity.” Familiar isms and phobias cloud the atmosphere but they do not define the story. As soprano Samantha Schmid puts it, the opera “presents real people through a kaleidoscope of perspectives.” Iphis sees his life refracted through the lenses of a constellation of characters—all of them in different ways caught in webs that place demands on their bodies and their genders.
The narrative skates between Young Iphis in Kabul and his new life in Chapel Hill. As the story proceeds, growing discord with his foster Mother is doubled with wistful memories deafened by the hammering roar of wartime violence. The two contexts mirror one another in a modern tale of two cities. We learn that Iphis left Afghanistan with an American aid worker on the promise that in America, “men don’t rule women’s bodies,” and that “no one cares who you are.” But the road to freedom is quickly congested with social pressures and rigid expectations. A parallel struggle is sharply illustrated through scenes of Iphis’s alienation among bodies shrouded in blue cloth—in both contexts. His invisibility beside women wearing the blue burqas required under Taliban rule finds a visual echo as he stands surrounded by an American family, faces covered with newspapers, bodies donning Carolina blue T-shirts and hoodies. A poignant aria gives words to a body snarled in warring identity markers: “Chapel hill gets lonely,” it goes,
When you’re local,
But not native.
When you’re a man.
When you’re not—a man.
The color of my skin
Makes me a threat.
The stubble growing in
Makes grown men sweat.
A “Muslim” in the Bible Belt.
Here I am a specimen: watched, and alone!
Watched and alone!
America is lonely.
Everywhere gets lonely
When you don’t fly with the flock.
In both cities, Iphis’s dreams of freedom are soaked in powder blue; white kites above the stage hang spattered with blue stains.
Yankovskaya noted that opera has always been politically relevant and that it has long pushed gender expectations. The Body Politic joins in this history with Iphis and with one of the most interesting characters, his roommate Eugene, who “moonlights as a drag queen” that puts the “tuck in Kentucky” and the “gin in Virginia.” No ordinary opera, The Body Politic stretches boundaries around the art form with a delightfully rowdy “reverse cowgirl” country drag act. Eugene is a modern jester whose salacious and irreverent humor is a vehicle for incisive critique—and also a sobering reminder of the deep complexities of American privilege. The character that speaks truth in the most direct and unapologetic ways is white, identifies as male, and speaks in defense of Iphis only while Iphis himself remains silent.
In both cities, Iphis’s dreams of freedom are soaked in powder blue; white kites above the stage hang spattered with blue stains
The narrative culminates with a scene at the dinner table of the foster family’s home. Eugene arrives in drag dressed as a nun, ready to create all sorts of gender trouble. To their horror, Iphis’s foster mother Constance and Eugene recognize each other. They worked together as nurses until Constance discovered his nightlife and had him fired. “I am looking out for the children!” she exclaims, an argument that has buffered much legally sanctioned discrimination. Eugene takes their quarrel as an occasion to elucidate the dinner party’s distinct gender identities—to Constance and to the audience. They debate questions of women, freedom and choice, the hijab and Sister Eugene’s habit. Silent through the argument, Iphis interrupts with striking words:
I am only where I’ve been,
I am only what I’ve seen,
I am my own experience;
A life lived in-between.
My body is not a soapbox.
I do not exist for you to preach
Your body politics
To the body politic.
My body is my own.
The opera illuminates the silent bodies implicated in webs of argument from all sides. The Body Politic stresses the importance of thick descriptions of those material realities, not simply to celebrate beauty and uniqueness, but to pointedly show that language for gender, nationality, and religion so often fails to give adequate accounts of the ways in which these categories are lived. “It’s not about a fight between Islam and Christianity,” Osborne said, “and at the end of the day, it’s not even about Iphis, it’s about all of us.” Like Iphis, at some point, we all find ourselves navigating “a life lived in-between.”
Mara Block is the Harvard College Fellow in Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 2015. Her current project explores the relation between religion, psychology, and psychiatry surrounding the emergence of modern Christian pastoral counseling in 20th-century America, with a focus on the shifting rhetoric used to understand sexual maladjustment.
Image courtesy of Scott Bump Photography