Sarajevo Vespers

I’ve always been interested Bosnia. Though I was in elementary school when the war was at its worst, and pretty sheltered from the news (the Srebrenica massacre, of which I was oblivious, occurred on my ninth birthday), I remember having seen newspaper images of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn burning. In the summer of 2006, during my undergrad at USC, these images returned and I became interested in the former Yugoslavia. The more material I read, the more I sensed that the “ancient ethnic hatreds” the west conveniently blames for causing the bloodshed, were largely the achievement of a few corrupt Balkan politicians. Many of the firsthand accounts appealed to me as well. I came across a piece published by Zlatko Dizdarević (a true account, originally published in the Oslobodjenje paper), about a Sarajevo man who had sent his family abroad at the onset of the war. Many months into the siege, he received a video cassette message from his family, and through the help of friends, managed to “borrow” some power from the University Hospital and run it (through some 300 meters of cable) over rooftops and into his home to power his television. That the story was true, and, though set in such a difficult set of circumstances, was not a complete tragedy, struck me deeply.

As it happened, I had just premiered my chamber opera—my first foray into that genre, which I found particularly stimulating both as a composer and conductor—and I thought the Dizdarević story could be turned into a meaningful opera. Two summers later, with this in mind, I premiered the first of several Bosnian concept pieces in California—Srebrenica Fields, a symphonic brass commission. (Karadzić was actually apprehended in the same hour of our performance, which I found uncanny given when the massacre had happened.) That fall, I met Courtney Angela Brkić, a creative writing professor at George Mason University, through mutual friends. (She had worked as a forensic archeologist in Srebrenica in 1996, and had written a book about the experience I’d read earlier in my Bosnia research.) Between novels at the time, Courtney was interested in writing a libretto based on the Dizdarević—which she did. It’s a great extrapolation of the story, and benefits from the subtleties of her understanding of that culture. The language is poignant but not stilted—most of it is lyrical dialogue, which is what I had hoped for. It leaves great room for musical and visual development, and Courtney has been a joy to work with.

I began thinking about this project in 2006, shortly after the premiere of my chamber opera, The Stone House. Over the following few years, as the project was often relegated to the back-burner, I wrote a series of conceptual and Bosnia-related pieces, in preparation for setting Brkić’ text in its entirety. Recordings of this material are posted below. The first full draft of the opera is slated for completion in April 2013; we currently seek funding to record sections of the opera for submissions to venues.


Conceptual Sketches:


Act II, Scene 1

Fragment No. 1


Related Work:

Srebrenica Fields