The Turkish civil society activist is nearing 1,000 days in prison. His unjust plight — and his generosity towards two small stowaways in his salad — spurred an opera company in lockdown to show and share their support.
When Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala was released from prison on February 18 after 840 days of solitary confinement, he walked to freedom carrying the companions that had kept him company in isolation: two small snails that had arrived on a bed of lettuce in his maximum-security cell.
Kavala did not know that Turkish authorities would rearrest him on highly questionable charges just a few hours later. He also did not know that he and his snails would soon become the subject of a digital opera, created during a global viral lockdown, to pay tribute to him and raise awareness of his ongoing solitary confinement as it nears 1,000 days.
Osman Bey and the Snails, a 10-minute English-language opera, also with Turkish subtitles, was released June 21 on Vimeo and YouTube. The British opera company Opera Circus is behind the production, with music composed by Nigel Osborne.
Osborne met Kavala in 2014 in Salzburg at a seminar on building peace through the arts. "I just met the person I expected to meet," Osborne told DW. "I'd been told of his generosity, his kindness, told about his dignity. I saw that. And I knew about the great work he'd been doing using culture to build bridges."
Kavala, one of Turkey's most influential civil society activists, has funded philanthropic projects around the world. He has been targeted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the ruler's crackdown on civil society. Erdogan's political opponents argue the president is unjustly trying to keep Kavala behind bars at all costs.
Osborne had long toyed with the idea of writing an opera about snails. When he read the story of Kavala caring for the snails in confinement and later passing them over to his lawyer before returning to prison, he was spurred in a flash to compose. He saw the story as an opportunity to show Kavala's care, his love of nature and beauty and dignity.
"This man who has been put in the most terrible conditions has time to look after two snails who turned up in his salad," Osborne said. "And the fact that he should be worried about them later on when he was set free for an hour and then rearrested … I thought it was a nice way of showing you who Osman is."
"Osman has helped culture and help the world with culture, so it's time the cultural world came to help Osman," the composer added.
A 'lockdown' opera about being locked up
Osborne wrote the music over two nights in early April, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, while simultaneously volunteering during the day for the National Health Service (NHS). He reached out with the project to his long-term collaborator and friend Tina Ellen Lee, director of Opera Circus, who unhesitatingly signed on as producer and quickly gathered a performing and technical team.
Everyone involved was in lockdown due to coronavirus, so production was entirely remote. Singers in different countries received the score and a recorded piano track. They then filmed themselves on cell phones, singing to a click track and following direction so filmmaker Robert Golden could later edit it together.
Technology issues meant Osborne and Golden spent hours over the phone counting frames to make sure everything lined up to the second. Osborne estimates that 500 to 600 hours went into the 10-minute production. Everyone worked for free.
Producer Lee said mounting an opera about solitary confinement during a global lockdown provided an unanticipated resonance for those involved, giving people "just a little sense of what that [confinement] might feel like."
"It makes you think very deeply about the current situation, the world," she added.
While Kavala has not been able to see the opera, he knows about it, as the team asked for his permission via his wife to stream the work. Osborne says that when Kavala's wife described the plot to him, he responded saying, "I find the snail's lines quite realistic, but I cannot say the same thing about the portrayal of the conditions here in prison."
"He felt that the prison officers in real life are much kinder and he said he's found only civility in jail," Osborne explained. "He is being treated well by the prison employees, not by his government."
Hoping for a future live performance
While thousands of prisoners were freed due to coronavirus fears, Kavala continues to be held in Silivri prison on charges of political espionage.
The opera's team does not think their production will lead to radical change, but they do think the message about Kavala's situation could reach new people and touch them deeply, or cause some to rethink.
"None of us have got the arrogance to think a little ten-minute opera is going to change the world, but you never know who's mobile phone it turns up on," Lee said.
"You can talk about things in opera which people might not be able to cope with other situations," she added. "People can get to understand things they might not have accepted through other media."
Osborne agreed: "I would not say an opera is going to change the world in any way, but it might help communicate the emotional truths. And it might also help to give people strength and support."
At the moment, the company has no further plans for Osman Bey and the Snails. But Osborne does have one hope: When Osman is freed, he would like to perform the team's tribute to him in person on the castle grounds in Salzburg where they all first met.