Museum Monodrama: In A Displaced Temple, An Alienated Performer

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In A Displaced Temple,

An Alienated Creator

Lebanese musician Hamed Sinno performed his ‘Westerly Breath’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Tendur. (Photos by Stephanie Berger)

NEW YORK — The Temple of Dendur, an Egyptian temple completed by 10 B.C.E. that is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the inspiration for Westerly Breath, a new “opera” by Lebanese musician Hamed Sinno, commissioned by the museum. Not quite opera, but more of a psycho-political memoir and performance piece, the work powerfully drew the listener into the personal odyssey of this charismatic LGBTQ+ activist, designer, and musician buffeted by history, both recent and ancient. The work had two sold-out performances Jan. 26-27 in the Temple of Dendur.

For some context on what is essentially an autobiographical monologue in music, it helps to know something about this singular artist, an outspoken rock-star intellectual. Born in 1988, Sinno grew up in an English-speaking home in Beirut — their Lebanese father had lived for a time in the U.S., and their Jordanian mother had lived in Morocco and Rome (Sinno holds dual American and Lebanese citizenship). Sinno, who uses the pronouns he/she/they, discovered the joy of singing as a young boy, but the family discouraged them from pursuing music as a career. While studying graphic design at the American University of Beirut, Sinno answered an ad from some fellow students looking to start a band, which became Mashrou’ Leila, the indie Arabic rock band founded in 2008 and disbanded in 2022. Singing and writing for the band became the outlet for Sinno’s love of performing, for expressing their passions for political rights, and for developing as a creative artist.

Mashrou’ Leila developed an avid fan base throughout the Middle East and well beyond, drawing tens of thousands to their festival concerts, but they also earned notoriety for their anti-establishment politics, particularly their support of LGBTQ+ rights. Concert dates were canceled with increasing frequency, and, facing growing threats over social media, Sinno decided to move to New York in the summer of 2019. During the next few turbulent years, Sinno encountered composer Ash Fure, an associate professor at Dartmouth and a co-artistic director of LA’s The Industry, the adventurous producer of experimental opera founded by Yuval Sharon. Sinno pursued a master’s in digital musics at Dartmouth and also studied playwriting. Invited by the Met Museum to write an opera around the Temple of Dendur, the artist enjoyed support for the project from The Industry’s Lab 22 Program, where the work-in-progress was performed just over a year ago. Last summer also saw performances of Sinno’s Poems of Consumption in London and his play The Suicide Bomber in San Francisco.

Hamed Sinno

Advance copy describing Westerly Breath reads like inscrutable art-history academic prose. For The Industry, Westerly Breath “weaves Ancient Egyptian myth, architecture, immigration, autobiography, and the history of speech synthesis to explore the voice as a site of political embodiment.” For L’Orient Today, “The idea is to delve into the history of this temple while connecting it to the immigrant experience, by raising questions about what it means to have a fragmented life and then reconstruct oneself.” Clearly this would be no modern-day Aida narrative. What I experienced at the feet of these two millennia-old stones was more like an illustrated journal, with Sinno’s hyperactive imagination attempting to relate one immigrant’s experience into the turbulent and intricate web of history.

The Temple of Dendur has its own layered history. Originally commissioned in 23 B.C.E by the Emperor Augustus as a temple to an Egyptian goddess and to deify two Nubian brothers, the monument became a pawn in the Cold War-era negotiations around the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the international efforts to preserve nearby antiquities. To make a long story short, in 1963, Egypt awarded the temple to the Met, where it went on display in a purpose-built gallery in 1978. The two main elements are set in a pool of water to suggest the banks of the Nile, where the temple originally stood, and the warm gallery temperature is meant to suggest the original climate.

The delicate banquet chairs arranged in rows facing the main temple somehow felt more incongruous than the video screens, platforms, and sound equipment set up for the performance (directed by Taibi Magar). As the pre-concert, piped-in chirps and swishing sounds faded, Sinno walked onto the platform, a slight young person in a black mesh tank top, flowing black trousers, and dangling earrings. They lifted a glass bell on a pedestal stage right and took up what looked like a small black yo-yo and put it in their mouth. It was a distortion microphone, which transformed their speech into incomprehensible electronic sounds. After this brief, almost ritualistic gesture (later repeated stage left), Sinno moved to a stand mike at center stage and began to intone words beginning with the letter M — museum, monument, motivate, memoir… Memoir, we realize, is the narrator’s name, and this is their account of how they left their beloved homeland, told in parallel with the temple’s separation from its original site. 

Soon Sinno was in three-way conversation with two video versions of themself: on the left video screen, tinted gold, their docile, acquiescent self, and on the right, in black and white, a sassier avatar who rudely punctured their intellectual pretentions. And Sinno is an intellectual, peppering rapid-fire patter with deft allusions from the worlds of poetry, politics, queer theory, and the ironies of history. A string quartet (Eylem Basaldi, yuniya edi kwon, violins; Joanna Mattrey, viola; Ethan Philbrick, cello) provided improvised-sounding textures under this conversation.

At one point, Sinno was in three-way conversation with two video versions of themself.

The evening took form as a casual chronology, covering both personal and broader history, in speech and song. Sinno alternated between English and Arabic, sounding perfectly idiomatic in the former. When they sang a short medley of rock songs in Arabic, the vocal placement echoed classical Arabic singers. More to the point, it showed why Mashrou’ Leila was so successful. Sinno’s pleasant voice is strong in bass, tenor, and falsetto registers; their diction is clear, even in the gallery’s mushy acoustic, and their intonation is true. Most of all, they create real magic onstage. The frustrations often expressed in the songs didn’t cancel the exuberance of the performance. No wonder Sinno has been called the Arabic Freddy Mercury.

Later, in a section that discussed how the temple ended up at the Met, Sinno screened black-and-white video footage from the happier 1960s, singing vintage pop songs. As regional politics deteriorated and the band became targeted by homophobic authorities, the music grew more chaotic, and the narration switched to urgent Arabic. The Revolution of October 2019 and the Beirut port fire of 2020 received glancing mention, but Sinno’s intensity kept the focus on the personal struggling under the weight of the political.

Nearly an hour into the evening Sinno told the story of the event that drove them from their homeland: the arrest, torture, and eventual suicide of Sarah Hegazi, an Egyptian socialist and lesbian activist who dared to raise a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert. Sinno spoke and sang in emotional Arabic (with projected translations), sometimes through a megaphone, over a keening string accompaniment, and then left the stage. In a moment, they reappeared at the far end of the reflecting pool behind the seating area, kneeling on the floor. Accompanied now by buzuk (a pungent-sounding Arabic lute, played by Radwan Ghazi Moumneh), they proclaimed that Beirut was lost to him and wailed wordlessly. When Sinno fell silent, the string quartet played “Nero’s Lament,” a lush, mournful movement from their song cycle Poems of Consumption. It was a powerful and moving elegy for a lost homeland.

Find Hamed Sinno and links to interviews on Instagram at @H Sinno