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Opera - Bombs bursting in air

From Belgrade to Atlanta, Otello director confronts the horror of humanity with opera

During the 78-day bombardment of Belgrade last year by the NATO alliance, Dejan Miladinovic was busy directing opera at the National Theater of Belgrade.

"My opera house was working in between alarm sirens," he says. "We were giving performances for free, so the house was packed." One night, near the end of Atilla, a bomb knocked out the electricity. The audience sat calmly in the dark. They waited until the emergency lights came up, and the performance resumed. The magnificence of the stage was in such stark contrast to the falling bombs and the brutality of Slobodan Milosevic's reign, that the audience and the performers wept through the applause at the end of the performance. "It didn't mean anything to the government," says Miladinovic, who is directing the Atlanta Opera's upcoming production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello. "They didn't care about people, so who cares about opera?"

During the bombardment, Miladinovic prepared a production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, based on Aleksandr Pushkin's poem about a cynical man who casts away his one chance at true love and happiness. Miladinovic's plan was to premiere the opera when the bombs stopped falling. He and the cast were driven on by hope: "Hope that the bombardment will stop, of course, and the hope that we'll see the end of Communism in our country." Two days after the bombing ended, Eugene Onegin premiered. They produced the opera, Miladinovic says, "To reaffirm the strength of the human spirit, to reaffirm the power of artistry."

On Oct. 5 of last year, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs rose up in protest and overthrew Milosevic from power, Miladinovic's daughter Dejana was among the demonstrators. When forces loyal to Milosevic fired tear gas into the crowds, Dejana, along with many friends and colleagues of the family, sought shelter in Miladinovic's home, located near the Parliament building. Miladinovic's wife Vesna, a former journalist who was fired when Milosevic came to power, played host to the protestors.

At the time, Miladinovic was in Atlanta directing the Atlanta Opera's production of Puccini's Turandot. On the day that Milosevic was overthrown, the cast greeted Miladinovic at rehearsal with some selections from the opera and some improvised ribald songs about Milosevic.

Miladinovic, who had undergone surgery for a heart attack he suffered during the NATO bombardment, says directing Turandot did more to heal his heart than any medication. "When I'm in the process of creation or rehearsing, then I forget everything else. You forget that you're sick; you forget about your problems; you are in another world in another realm."

Sending Miladinovic to Atlanta seems to be good for Serbia. Miladinovic was flying to Atlanta on April 1 to begin production of Otello when Milosevic was finally arrested. Once again, Miladinovic celebrated with the cast. "I feel here like I'm in my own family," he says, "and that's exactly how it should be." Small wonder that Miladinovic feels this way: From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, his father, Dushan, was the artistic director and chief conductor of the National Opera in Belgrade, and his mother, Milatza, was a leading mezzo-soprano. Between the two of them, they were responsible for many European premieres of Russian works, including Rodion Shchedrin's score for the ballet Anna Karenina, given to Dushan by Shchedrin himself.

Though they knew nothing of smart bombs and little of genocide, Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, well understood the shadows of the human spirit. In the second act of Otello, which kicks off the Atlanta Opera's season of Verdi, the villain Iago delivers his credo: "I am evil because I am a man. And I believe man to be the sport of an unjust fate." After a lifetime of suffering, Iago asserts, no peace will balance our pain. "Death is nothingness," he says. "Heaven is an old wives' tale."

There is much in Otello to support Iago's nihilistic claim. A remorseless villain tricks a jealous and violent man, Otello, into killing the woman he loves and committing suicide. Through Iago's eyes, Verdi and Boito saw that, yes, there is violence and jealousy and hatred and cunning. There is death. But Otello offers an alternative to Iago's despair. "Otello ... is jealous because he is enormously, powerfully, more than this world in love," says Fred Scott, artistic director and conductor of the Atlanta Opera. After stabbing himself with a dagger upon discovering Iago's treachery, Otello dies kissing Desdemona and singing, "A kiss ... another kiss ... ah ... and yet another kiss."

In Otello, Verdi does not refute that there is evil in the world, that there is violence within each of us. He simply reminds us that there is also love, and that it is sometimes entangled with rage in the most perplexing of knots. The music in Otello, says Miladinovic, "touches the deepest and darkest parts of our hearts, and it moves them." You go to Otello not for diverting entertainment in the scandalized mode, not to hiss and boo at the villain, but to search for truth inside yourself and in this way to cleanse yourself. "Music can do that," says Scott. "Music has such an enormous power for your spirit."

To explain the cathartic effect of opera, Miladinovic compares it to the story of Spring Storm, an early and little-known play by Tennessee Williams. Throughout most of the play, the characters are waiting for rain. "Everything is covered with dust and sand, and everything is filthy and dirty." The play is replete with bad relationships, nasty thoughts, jealousy and wrong moves. Then, in the end, the rain finally comes. "It takes away all that dirt," says Miladinovic, "so we can see clean souls, clean people, as it should be."

For Miladinovic, opera is not about escaping from horror. Rather, opera asks you to face the horror openly so that you can see the beauty beneath it, revealed as the rain reveals spring's new life under the dust and sand. Find love beneath the rage of a jealous husband. Find beauty in the ruins of a broken city.

When the bombs were falling on Belgrade, Miladinovic's opera house hung out a banner. There were pictures on it of Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and other great artists of words and notes. On the banner was written: "The theater is the shelter of our free spirit." Everyone knew that people were dying. They knew that neighbors were slaughtering neighbors, that the bombs were converting their magnificent city to rubble. Yet still they insisted that there was also art, that there could still be beauty, that there was yet love. "This art is the only safe haven I have," says Miladinovic, "which I think gives the answer from horrible, horrible violence ... to peaceful times. It is the shelter."

When this weekend's performances of Otello are complete and the post-production celebrations have come to an end, Miladinovic will once again return to Belgrade. Though his many productions in the United States have drawn considerable praise, he continues to direct the National Theater of Belgrade, providing that "shelter of our free spirit" that the people of his city so desperately need.

The Atlanta Opera will perform Otello May 3-6 at the Fox Theater, 660 Peachtree St. Thurs. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 7:30 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. $18-$126. 404-817-8700.??



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