Two years ago, when Bass Baritone Adrian Tamburini read Behrouz Boochani’s memoir No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, he had no idea that his visceral reaction to the book would inspire the production of a symphonic song cycle.
The multi award-winning book describes Boochani’s perilous journey as a refugee and the oppressive conditions of his forced detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, along with many other refugees. He wrote it to shine a light on the brutality of detention and its impact on asylum seekers. Boochani describes a system that dehumanises in many ways, including calling inmates by a number, not a name; housing them in cramped and hot prison-like conditions with nothing to do all day; and providing inadequate food, water and utilities. He described it as a system that is intended to punish and break those caught in it, in order to deter others from seeking asylum in Australia.
Boochani wrote the work in secret in Farsi over many years on a mobile phone, and sent it in hundreds of WhatsApp messages to his friends and collaborators in Australia and elsewhere. These were first compiled by translator Moones Mansoubi, and the book was then translated and edited by Omid Tofighian. It won the Prize for Non Fiction as well as the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature – the country’s richest literary prize – at the 2019 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.
Tamburini was reading the book during rehearsals of Ned Kelly, an opera by Australian composer Luke Styles. When Styles observed Tamburini’s reaction, he wanted to know what was moving his singer so deeply. After reading the book himself, Styles was inspired to write the symphonic song cycle.
“Boochani’s book is the most recent iteration of an important part of Australia’s story,” says Styles. “He was imprisoned on Manus Island, a place of incredible beauty and intense isolation. Australia is itself a beautiful and remote island that has incarcerated its own people, convicts, migrants, first peoples and refugees alike throughout its modern history.”
No Friend but the Mountains: A Symphonic Song Cycle premieres on Sunday 21 March as part of Live at the Bowl with Adrian Tamburini as soloist, Rick Prakhoff as conductor, the Zelman Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Bach Choir. Audiences will get to hear from Boochani himself in a pre-concert conversation with Raf Epstein (ABC 774 Drive Presenter), streamed via video. Boochani’s translator and collaborator, Omid Tofhigian will also attend.
This unique event is presented by Zelman Symphony in partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne and the Wheeler Centre.
Words by Margot Gorski