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Sharon Singer’s Talk at St. Lawrence Centre

March 25th, 2016 by admin

TALK St. Lawrence Centre, Sunday Feb. 7, 2016 by Sharon Singer

“ISIS AND OSIRIS , Gods of Egypt” A New Canadian Opera

Composer Peter-Anthony Togni, Librettist Sharon Singer

Produced by Voicebox:Opera in Concert


The story of this opera comes from the pre-history of Egypt, perhaps as much as 6000 years ago, when the Egyptian creation myth was born. This myth recounts how  the world began: in the beginning, primeval waters covered the earth. Rising from these waters a mound of earth emerged,  and on this mound the self-begotten god ATUM stood and created all living things. Atum had two children –the air and moisture: Shu and Tefnut. They mated and brought forth the god of the earth, Geb, and the goddess of the sky, Nut. The children of Geb and Nut are the main characters of the myth and of this opera – Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nepthys. These are the first gods to descend and live as human beings on earth.

Of these four siblings, Isis and Osiris are predestined to be king and queen of Egypt. They share a great eternal love. Together they bring civilization to Egypt—the gifts of agriculture, weaving, animal husbandry, a code of laws, the arts, and worship of the gods.

Isis and Osiris are both devoted to– order, truth, law and justice. The Egyptians had one word for these four principles:  Ma’at . OSIRIS is a great king a visionary. ISIS is a woman of power, a queen, a goddess of magic and healing.

I made some additions to the myth to demonstrate the idealism of Osiris. One of these is the Great Policy of Peace which Osiris announces at the Jubilee Celebration in the opening scene.

Isis and Osiris have created a paradise on earth. But just as in the Bible, there is a snake in the garden. Isis and Osiris have a brother Seth who is jealous and power-mad. He thinks he should have been made king. In so many ways, he is completely different from his three siblings – he is cruel, deceitful, and treasonous. He makes a plan that will rid him of his brother Osiris so that he can usurp the throne. He murders Osiris — twice. The first time he sends him down the Nile in a gold sarcophagus. But when Isis finds Osiris and brings him back, Seth descends into the most brutal and chilling mindset in order to rid himself of his brother for good. Seth  cuts up the body of Osiris into pieces and has his soldiers bury the parts all over Egypt. Chaos and terror are the result. Seth has ushered evil into the world.

But Isis, impelled by love and duty to Egypt, and her total devotion to Osiris, goes on a perilous journey to find the fragments of her husband. She travels throughout Egypt sensing his presence, using her prophetic and magical gifts. Finally she assembles his body, creating the first mummification. Osiris is not alive, he is not dead.  Then all nature holds its breath as Isis attempts to resurrect Osiris.  With prayer, magic, charms and unguents and with the help of the gods, Isis brings breath back into the moribund body of her husband. She has performed the very first resurrection. It’s a shocking revelation to all who witness it since it had never been done before.

The Composer of Isis and Osiris

Peter-Anthony Togni is so well known both for his own compositions and his many years as a CBC Radio broadcast. The recording of Peter’s “Responsio” is nominated in this year’s JUNO awards in the Classical Album of the Year: Vocal or Choral Performance category.

We know that the ancient Egyptians loved music, and they had a lot of it –it fills their wall paintings. And their musical instruments have been discovered in tombs to entertain pharaohs in the afterlife. There are flutes, harps, the tambourine-like sistrum, bells, drums and trumpets.

Even knowing all this, nobody knows exactly how the music of ancient Egypt sounded.   So Peter Togni  had a big challenge in writing music for this opera.  But he has created something wonderful. He describes it as “ancient yet modern, at times tender and lyrical,  sometimes quite spare, sometimes romantically rich and wild.” I think it’s  contemporary music with an ancient gusto.

I love large concepts, big works. Opera is at home with BIG!  Opera requires larger than life stories, unforgettable characters, epic, grand, iconic, and usually tragic tales. And I love that opera is such a beautiful  expression of ALL the arts – poetry, drama, acting, singing, music, the visual arts,  dance, architectural sets, and fashion in the costumes.

Only opera, I felt,  could encompass the grandeur of the myth of Isis and Osiris, and this opened up extraordinary artistic possibilities.

So here was this amazing strange myth just waiting to be turned into an opera, just waiting to be united with this grand art form. It was an irresistible combination.


It was very important to me to incorporate authentic Egyptian words, concepts and facts into the opera. I found ancient sayings that fit right into the text. And it was also a challenge to incorporate the magic and supernatural elements of the story without making the opera too ritualistic.

For examples, ancient Egyptians believed that the flesh of the gods was imperishable, made of the most valuable precious metals. So after he murders Osiris, Seth sings these words: 

The bones of the gods are silver

their flesh is gold, and yes, immortal

but I have found a way to end a god.

Egyptophiles like myself might recognize sayings like “ Life, prosperity, health.” a traditional Egyptian blessing. At Seth’s Banquet for Osiris, they drink dark Khenemes beer, an actual ancient Egyptian beer, and the food served is what was eaten by Egyptian royals: roast ox in garlic, quail with leeks, gazelle basted in honey. 

The characters in the myth are archetypes, they have no personality, so I needed to flesh them out,  give them dimension, motivations, a personal history. I had to try to understand them, and express what they wanted and how they felt about it. I had to find their flaws and smooth out the rough edges of the story so that it would have a coherent dramatic flow.

A major theme of the opera is the conflict between good and evil—good governance for all vs personal desire for power. Think Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump. In this case it’s the idealism of King Osiris, versus his brother Seth’s lust for power for its own sake. Larger questions are raised such as when, if ever, it is justified for a nation to go to war.

There is a duet between King Osiris and Seth, in which Osiris tries to convince his disgruntled  brother that PEACE is a better path than WAR.  Seth, a violent, rapacious would-be tyrant believes that only WAR will give him the power he desires.  Don’t we read about this very struggle every day in the news?

So I didn’t have to work very hard to make this story contemporary. Another aspect that is very contemporary is that in the myth Queen Isis holds equal power to king Osiris. How’s that for up-to-date?


Ancient Egypt has long been a passion of mine –ever since I saw those beautifully painted mummy cases in the ROM on high school outings. It still has a fascination for me that knows no bounds. I have been to Egyptian exhibits in Toronto, Los Angeles, Berlin, Chicago, London, Paris and New York.  The Temple of Dendur with its reflecting pool, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is truly awe-inspiring.

Our educational system, in fact, western civilization, has never accorded ancient Egypt its rightful place in the development of western culture. For instance, the Great Pyramid was the tallest building in the world for over 3800 years. About 50 stories high!

Even though the Greeks thought of themselves as intellectually superior to all non-Greek “barbarians,” the Egyptians were an exception, and the impact of ancient Egypt on Greek culture cannot be underestimated. The Greek philosopher Plato studied with learned Egyptian priests for 13 years.  The Greeks viewed the Egyptians as a prime source of ancient and venerable wisdom.

Egyptian civilization lasted over three thousand years and it was still a powerful force in the world during the Roman Empire – there were temples dedicated to the goddess Isis throughout the Roman world until the 4th century. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, everything considered “pagan” was banned. Hieroglyphics were no longer written.  Then Egypt fell into darkness. The culture of ancient Egypt disappeared to the outside world, and was forgotten, a mystery of the ages.

Then in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was discovered and when it was translated, it became astoundingly clear that the ancient culture of the Egyptians had great depth, complexity and superb beauty in its literature, poetry, and mythology.

And it is fascinating to realize that despite all the technological improvements through the millennia, human beings don’t change. Human nature,  human emotions remain the same, through the ages. And that is why it is so easy to identify with the characters in this opera.


The Egyptian government has been very supportive of this work and they want to produce the opera in Egypt at the pyramids! So the world premiere is very important. We need to sell out the house!

For more information:

Sharon Singer, Book Writer/Librettist Isis and Osiris, Gods of Egypt


ISIS AND OSIRIS, Gods of Egypt, WORLD PREMIERE April 1 and 3, 2016.

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