IN A HIGH-SECURITY prison outside Istanbul, Osman, an inmate held in solitary confinement, spots two snails nestled in a lunchtime salad served to him by his guards. Longing for company, he decides to look after the gastropods, feeding them lettuce and rice. The snails reward him—with a song. “In some kitchens, we’d end up in a pot with garlic butter and seasoning,” they chant. “Our luck to be here with Osman, a man of such honour and reason.” But even a snail is bound to find prison life dreary. “It’s all very slow,” one of them sings, “even for me.”
So begins a ten-minute video opera, “Osman and The Snails”, produced by Opera Circus, a performing-arts company based in Britain. It is a clever tribute, based on a true story, to Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist best known for promoting dialogue between Turks and Armenians, and one of Turkey’s best-known political prisoners. Mr Kavala has spent nearly three years behind bars on outlandish coup and terrorism charges. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once referred to him as a “local collaborator” of the “famous Hungarian Jew”, George Soros. Other than those responsible for his continued detention, few Turks understand exactly why Mr Kavala, a kindly, quiet man with a love of the arts, ended up in the government’s crosshairs.
The opera project began as an exchange between Thomas de Waal, a writer and journalist, and Nigel Osborne, a composer, who have known Mr Kavala for years. Mr de Waal heard from one of Mr Kavala’s colleagues about the slimy cellmates his friend had adopted and joked that Mr Osborne should turn the story into an opera. The composer took up the challenge. “I wanted to honour Osman and the relationships he has curated,” he says. Mr Osborne says he infused his work with elements of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Balkan music, a nod to the bridges Mr Kavala tried to build between artists and communities divided by the bloody collapse of the Ottoman empire. A group of Mr Kavala’s friends and human-rights campaigners wrote the libretto and opera singers from across the globe recorded the songs. No money changed hands.
Mr Kavala was originally arrested over his involvement in the anti-government protests which convulsed Turkey in 2013. Earlier this year, a court cleared him of all charges and ordered him to be set free. But just as he readied to leave prison, Mr Kavala was arrested on new, even more preposterous charges, this time in relation to an attempted coup in 2016. (The evidence against him includes a chance meeting at a restaurant with an American academic who happened to be in Istanbul the night of the coup.) When Mr Kavala was told that he would have to move to another jail, he entrusted the snails to his lawyer. They are free; he remains behind bars. “This work is a reminder to the world of culture,” says Mr de Waal, “that one of their own is unjustly imprisoned.”
“Osman and The Snails” is available to watch on YouTube here