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Berlin play 'Negar' looks at secret lives of Iran's youth

October 28, 2022

Amid the protests in Iran, a new Deutsche Oper music theater production explores same-sex love and artistic pursuits of Iran’s youth as they struggle for emancipation.

Pressebilder "Negar" Deutsche Oper Berlin | Golnar Shahyar
Image: Eike Walkenhorst

Four years ago when director Marie-Eve Signeyrole and co-writer Sonia Hossein-Pour had the idea of doing a theatrical work about Iran, they had no idea how gruesomely timely the topic would be in light of the Iran protests. The fictional music theater piece "Negar” debuts at Deutsche Oper Berlin on October 29 and is about "Iranian youth today, their wish for emancipation and freedom” according to Signeyrole.

Iran is currently experiencing the strongest and bloodiest protests against the mullahs' fundamentalist regime in recent decades. The country's youth, and primarily its women, want their voices heard and are demanding political change, while security forces are fighting back violently, killing both protesters and innocent bystanders. The demonstrations began after a young Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini died mid-September in police custody. Police had arrested her for not complying with a headscarf mandate.

Candles surrounding photos of Jina Mahsa Amini with students sitting nearby
Khajeh Nasir University in Iran holds a memorial for Jina Mahsa Amini on the 40th day since her death in police custodyImage: UGC

"Negar” is set in Tehran earlier in history — in 2013 — the year moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was elected president, when the country was "reopening to the West” as Sonia Hossein-Pour described it. 

Risking it all for freedom

The plot revolves around Shirin, an Iranian woman who returns to Tehran after living in France for a decade. She reconnects with her childhood friends, Negar who is trying to work as a musician although performing in public as a woman is forbidden, and Negar's brother Aziz, a documentary filmmaker. Aziz and Negar both fall in love with Shirin and a love triangle forms — with dangerous consequences.

"Negar" takes the audience behind closed doors in Tehran, showing the risks one must take in the eyes of the law to find their own version of freedom. Hossein-Pour, who was born in Paris to Iranian parents, conducted interviews with young people in Iran and co-wrote the text, with some parts of the story based on her own experiences of spending her summers there.

A woman wearing a red piece of fabric and singing into a microphone with an image of her face projected on a screen behind her.
'Negar' is played by Canadian-Iranian artist Golnar Shahyar who mixes musical genresImage: Eike Walkenhorst

The purpose of her interviews, she said, was "to know what its like being a student there, how is it to fall in love with a man and live your relationship whatever your age — and even if you're not married. I also interviewed people in the LGTBQ community to know what its like to be gay there.” 

An impossible love

Iran is a society of contradictions. "You basically cannot do anything outside, yet inside the home you can do a lot of things that one cannot imagine” says Hossein-Pour. And as in every society, there is a darker side, which in Iran is almost entirely hidden from public view: "There are people who take drugs, abuse alcohol because they are sad — a lot of prostitution” she explains. "All of this is happening — and always behind the veil that society is putting on people.”

The two female characters in "Negar” falling in love, for example, is something that "cannot” happen according to the Iranian government. "There's this sentence from Ahmadinejad (editor's note: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President of Iran from 2005-2013), who said once when he was president that there were no homosexuals in Iran, which was a way to hide the reality,” explains Hossein-Pour. "Of course, there is a lot of homosexuality and it's, of course, forbidden. Yet it's important to say that it's happening” she adds. Homosexuality is prohibited by law in Iran and is punishable by death.

A woman in a tank top holds a camera at a man with his bare chest showing.
Although it is a fictional work, the plot of 'Negar' was based on interviews with Iranian youthsImage: Eike Walkenhorst

Persian and western classical music unite

The production also deals with "longings and projections that arise when different worlds collide” — for example, the differences between the life of a woman who grew up in France and a woman who grew up in Iran. "It's interesting for them to see who they could have been if they grew up in each other's countries — it's a mirror between two cultures” she explains. The cultural gap that has grown between the two is one of the reasons their romance is an impossible love, she adds.

"Negar” is set to music, which in itself is a collision of different musical worlds unique to a Deutsche Oper production. Composer Keyvan Chemirani also has Iranian roots — his background is in traditional Persian music and he is a world-renowned player of a Persian percussion instrument called the zarb, or tombak.

Keyvan Chemirani holds a percussion instrument during rehearsal, while musicians smile in the background.
Composer and percussionist Keyvan Chemirani mixed Persian music and western classical music in the score of 'Negar'Image: Eike Walkenhorst

"Traditional Persian music... has a certain rigor, is mathematical, but leaves room for improvisation” explains Chemirani in the program information. The score, therefore, combines both improvised and notated elements. Western classical instruments such as the cello and trombone play alongside instruments found in traditional Persian music, such as the Persian Kamancheh, a fretless bowed string instrument that dates back centuries. The singers also combine genres. Iranian-Canadian singer Golnar Shahyar, who plays the title role, mixes jazz, classical and Persian styles.

The team had hoped to invite more musicians from Iran to be involved in the production, but the subject matter — particularly the intimacy and sexuality depicted — put them at too much risk.

A woman identified as Sonia Hossein-Pour squatting on a carpet
Sonia Hossein-Pour during the rehearsal of 'Negar'Image: Jules Gassot

A revolutionary act

Berlin has long been a city in which artistic worlds collide with ease. In recent weeks, thousands in the German capital have marched in solidarity with the protesters in Iran. On October 22 an estimated 80,000 people demonstrated in central Berlin, chanting, singing and holding signs with the tagline "Women, Life, Freedom" in both English and German. Some people had traveled from other European countries to attend.

A woman cuts her hair in the middle of a protest.
Women around the world, including at this demonstration in Istanbul October 2, cut their hair short in solidarity with the women protesting in IranImage: Bulent Kilic/AFP

But of course the fact that "Negar” is premiering at the moment of the protests is entirely by chance — as are many of the similarities between the plot and real life. In one scene, explains Hossein-Pour, Aziz describes how his sister cut her hair short "like a boy” as a teen. "It was the description of her revolution and now the symbol of cutting one's hair has become exactly that in Iran. It's nothing new,” says the dramaturg. Since the death of Amini, women in Iran and around the world have cut their hair short in solidarity.

"The mirroring," says Hossein-Pour, "tells me that the story and the history repeats itself and that what we wrote at the time is not something visionary, unfortunately. It's something still going on. She hopes "Negar” can at the very least show audiences "a little something about this country; how people live there — their love and their freedom.”

Edited by Brenda Haas.

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist