“How helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat.”
— Garth Greenwell, “What Belongs to You”
On a warm afternoon in Sofia, Bulgaria, a visiting American poet encounters a charming, chip-toothed hustler in the basement of the National Palace of Culture. Money changes hands. An obsession begins.
Since its release in 2016, “What Belongs to You,” the debut novel by 2003 Washington University alumnus Garth Greenwell, has won international acclaim for its frank and insightful exploration of desire, identity and formative trauma.
On Feb. 11, Grammy Award-winning tenor Karim Sulayman will join Brooklyn-based new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound for a special one-night-only preview of a new opera-in-progress — based on Greenwell’s book — by composer and librettist David T. Little.
Little, himself a 2022 Grammy nominee, first encountered “What Belongs to You” when Alarm Will Sound co-founder Alan Pierson gave him a copy.
“Its vulnerable, confessional narrative haunted me,” Little writes in a program note. “For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, it occupied the same space in my memory as Schubert’s song cycles. I felt that it needed to sing.”
Like the book, the opera — which lasts about 90 minutes — is divided into three sections. The first centers on the unnamed narrator’s relationship, equal parts attraction and resentment, with the charismatic Mitko. In the second section, the narrator grapples with his father’s illness and his own difficult childhood in the American South. The final section finds the narrator a few years later, now in a stable relationship with a man from Portugal, yet still susceptible to Mitko’s increasingly erratic charms.
“Garth’s work is particularly well-suited to opera,” said Christopher Stark, associate professor of composition in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences. He notes that before coming to WashU, Greenwell studied voice at the Eastman School of Music, where his classmates included both Sulayman and Pierson.
“For anyone interested in music, literature, gender, sexuality or the LGBT+ experience,” Stark added, “I think this is a really special event.”
“What Belongs To You” begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, in the 560 Music Center. Tickets are $20, or $15 for WashU faculty and staff; $5 for students and youth; and free for WashU students. The performance is sponsored by the Department of Music. Tickets are available through the music department website.
The 560 Music Center is located at 560 Trinity Ave., at the intersection with Delmar Boulevard. To ensure the safety of all concertgoers, the concert hall will be kept at reduced capacity and campus visitors must show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter. For more information about campus COVID-19 policies, visit the WashU Together website.
In addition, Greenwell will present a Zoom reading of his work for the Writing Program in Arts & Sciences at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8. The event is free, but registration is required. For more information, visit the English department website.