Dress Rehearsal Program: Unholy Wars – Student Newsletter

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Unholy Wars



Latin and Italian with English subtitles


May 29, 2022


Mary Kouyoumdjian

Claudio Monteverdi

George Frederic Handel

Giulio Caccini


Karim Sulayaman

is a Lebanese-American tenor. A native of Chicago, Karim’s musical education began with violin studies at age three through high school. He spent years as an alto in the Chicago Children’s Choir and was hand selected as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Orchestra. Karim graduated with high honors from Eastman School of Music and earned a Master’s degree from Rice University. In 2019, Karim along with collaborator Sean Shibe, won the Grammy award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album for Broken Branches, an personal project that explores the close musical ties between Eastern and Western cultures.


LENGTH 70 minutes


identity and belonging, belief, cultural survival


The Holy Land

11th century


Based on Claudio Monteverdi’s operatic scena Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The libretto is drawn from Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata


Tancredi (bass-baritone) a Christian soldier who has fallen in love with Clorinda

Clorinda (soprano) a Muslim woman who goes into battle disguised as a man

The Narrator (tenor)


Reframed through a Middle Eastern lens, Unholy Wars is the narrated story of Tancredi, a Christian soldier, who falls in love with Clorinda, a Muslim woman who goes into battle disguised as man. Tancredi and Clorinda fight, not recognizing one another through their armor and the veil of night, Tancredi mortally wounds her; it is only when he removes her helmet that he recognizes his love. In her dying moments, Clorinda forgives Tancredi and asks to be baptized as a Christian so that she may see Heaven.

Check out these significant musical moments in Unholy Wars! Each song helps tell the story and gives us insight into how the characters are feeling.


Karim Sulayaman

What made you decide to be a singer?

I grew up singing in a children’s choir all the way through my senior year of high school, and the power of raising your voice with other people was palpable, even as a small kid. As years went on, it became clear to me that being a musician was my calling. And as tough as the business was and continues to be, I have a hard time envisioning any other occupation for myself.

Listening Guide

“Magnificat: Gloria Patri”

“Magnificat: Glory to the Father” from Vespers of 1610 by Monteverdi

Two tenor voices are front and center in this piece, taking turns singing a complicated series of notes. These two voices create an echoing effect, while a third, higher voice and the instrumental accompaniment hold out longer notes, providing a kind of angelic halo of sound. The text is central to the beliefs of Christianity and praises the “Holy Trinity”: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost.

“Odi le spade”

“Hear the swords” from Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda by Monteverdi

This is a part of Il Combattimento in which Tancredi and Clorinda are battling each other. The narrator and the instrumental ensemble both get very excited as they describe the fight. You can hear the strings playing very quickly and the narrator singing a kind of fast tongue-twister. This is a technique called “stile concitato” or “agitated style,” which Monteverdi often used to create a kind of sound effect for action scenes.

“Lascia, ch’io pianga”

“Let me lament” from Rinaldo by Handel

This famous aria is the only piece by Handel included in Unholy Wars. The words, “let me lament” are illustrated in the music by its slow tempo (speed) and minor key. This aria fits with the theme of Unholy Wars because the opera it is from, Rinaldo, is about the crusades. In this aria, the character Almirena, who is the daughter of the leader of the First Crusade, has been captured by the Queen of Damascus and begs to be released from her captivity.

Unholy Wars is a powerful piece—what was the inspiration behind creating this work?

We’ve seen a shift in the conversation around inclusion in the world, and as overused as this is these days, representation matters. Unholy Wars delves into my own ethnicity and one of the periods under the classical music umbrella that I love the most—early Italian Baroque. Arabs are few and far between in Classical music, but there is so much of our history that has been used as inspiration for those works. But some of the “problems” (for lack of a better word) with the repertoire is how it is all filtered through the lens of a “Western” composer or poet who has very little or no actual experience with the thing they’ve chosen as a subject.

Unholy Wars puts the marginalized people at the center to reclaim the stories and to create a new space for these stories to exist in. For me, a true conversation about inclusion and reshaping our landscape comes with action from an authentic place. Not just ticking boxes and having Zoom conversations about it. Further, Classical music has had such an identity crisis of late and constantly comes up against the statement that it’s a dying art. I don’t agree. If we don’t treat these things as museum pieces and interpret them the way they’ve been interpreted time and time again, but rather challenge ourselves to find their relevance in the world we live in today, then I think ultimately Classical music proves itself to be as relevant as it was when it was brand new.

“Dalla porte d’oriente”

“From the gates of the East” by Caccini

This song has a dance-like feel that make you bob your head as you listen. It has a strophic structure, like many of today’s pop songs: the same music repeats for each verse even though the words change. The text compares the dawning of the day to the dawning of new love. The title of the song is “From the gates of the East,” which could refer to the sun rising in the East and/or the imaginary division between Europe and the lands East of Europe, a part of the world that Europeans found very alluring in the 17th century.

“Tremar sentì la man”

“He felt his hand tremble” from Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda by Monteverdi

This clip begins when Tancredi realizes that the man he thought he was fighting was really the woman Clorinda. The narrator’s speech speeds up, then pauses, before he cries out in surprise at the moment of recognition. The last words are sung by Clorinda as she dies: “Heaven opens. I go in peace.”

What is on your “recently played” playlist?

Well, I’m seeing Beyoncé on Saturday, so it’s been all Beyoncé all the time for the past couple of weeks, and I’m sure it will stay that way for a few more after.

1. 2.
3. 4. 5. Provided to YouTube by NAXOS of America. Simon Boccanegra: Prologue: Oh de’ Fieschi implacata (Simon, Fiesco, Paolo, Pietro, Chorus). Dmitri Hvorostovsky Verdi: Simon Boccanegra ℗ 2015 Delos. Released on: 2015-04-14 Artist: Dmitri Hvorostovsky Artist: Ilda Written by Lily Kass, Scholar in Residence


Weaving the works of Baroque composers with an Arab American perspective, the setting of Sulayman’s Unholy Wars is inspired by Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and its depiction of the First Crusade.


Arab–Byzantine wars

Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire fight for territory and socio-economic power


Schism of the Christian Church into Catholicism centered in Rome, and Greek Orthodox centered in the Byzantine Empire’s Constantinople


Byzantine–Seljuk wars

Turks of the Seljuk Empire migrate from central Asia to southwest Asia, conquering Byzantine territory

Mar 1095

Byzantine Empire requests Pope Urban II’s military aid against Seljuk Turks who have migrated into Asia Minor

Nov 1095

Pope Urban II preaches the First Crusade

Apr–Oct 1096

The People’s Crusade

A majority peasant class leaves for Jerusalem and massacre several Jewish populations before falling to Seljuk Turk forces

Aug 1096

The Princes’ Crusade Official beginning of First Crusade set by Pope Urban II and funded by the church

June 1099

Crusade capture of Bethlehem


Crusaders seize territory in Nicea, Dorylaeum, Antioch, Edessa, and Ma`arat al-Nu`man

July 1099

Siege of Jerusalem

Crusaders seize Jerusalem and massacre Muslims, Eastern Christians, and Jews

Aug 1099

Al-Harawi of Damascus leads group of refugees to Baghdad and tells the Caliph of the loss of Jerusalem

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