The Nubian Word for Flowers

A phantom opera by Pauline Oliveros and IONE

Colonial Mind meets Nubian Soul on an island of flowers in the Nile.

The Nubian Word for Flowers
Music/Sound Design by PAULINE OLIVEROS
Concept/Direction/Text by IONE


In the wake of a WW1 mine explosion that sinks the warship on which he is traveling off the coast of the Orkney Islands, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War for the UK, finds himself on a surreal and not entirely benevolent version of a Nubian Island of flowers that he himself cultivated as a younger commander for Queen Victoria. Here he must come to terms with an enigmatic Nubian Boatman and the timeless phantoms that reside on the island. These include the tumultuous flowers themselves- as well as human representatives of a displaced Nubian people and culture- along with notorious historical figures from his own life. Ultimately, Kitchener, or K of K (Kitchener of hartoum, as he was called by an adoring Victorian public) is set free from the island by the power of Memory; but not before he has undergone a harrowing rite of passage that fundamentally transforms him and all who surround him.


The Nubian Word for Flowers is inspired by a real life Nubian Island in Aswan, Egypt and the resilient people who have resided in countries now known as Egypt and the Sudan since antiquity. In 1964, the Aswan Dam Project caused many of the Nubian homelands to be inundated by rising floodwaters.

The opera is also inspired by real life “Lord of War” and brilliant botanist Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum. Decisions made by world leaders throughout the many wars of this one man’s life, continue to haunt us today.

As a commander for Queen Victoria’s wars against encroaching Islamic fundamentalists, K of K was a key figure in the complex history of exploitation of Egyptian and Sudanese cultures by British and European colonialists. Ironically, it was Kitchener who, as a young surveyor, drew the lines delineating the Southern Levant, creating the grid system that continues to be used for mapping Israel and Palestine today.



In 1914, Kitchener is at the height of fame and dreaming of retirement to his island when an official telegram reaches him at the train station. It is an offer he cannot refuse. His destiny is to become Secretary of War for his country. “Your Country Wants You!” exclaim the iconic war posters with Kitchener’s likeness. Millions have already perished in “The Great War” by the time Kitchener’s secret mission to Russia aboard the HMS Hampshire is violently curtailed by a German mine. Though 737 were lost, Kitchener’s body was never found. 

The island that awaits K of K in The Nubian Word for Flowers is filled with lingering phantoms.  "Phantom” here is understood as a form of existence that intrudes upon a dimension that wants to consider itself “real.” Kin to the properties of a virus, the contact of phantom realities transforms the “host” reality irrevocably.

Among those emerging in the midst of disturbing floral growth and thick foliage - created through innovative projection mapping- are a prescient Nubian Boatman who communes with the timeless cosmos as well as his people’s earthly villages. Sounds and vibrant imagery unique to both ancient and modern Nubian cultures move like a great river through the opera. Languages lost to antiquity resurface to mesmerize and inform.

We also find a delicate fiancée who believes in destiny and a trusted Aide de Camp who never wants to leave his commander’s side. A chorus of distraught residents of the Orkney Islands who witnessed the sinking of K of K’s destroyer from the cliffs of Marwick Head try to understand what has happened to their hero and suspect a government plot. Which of his enemies has harmed him? And what is the role of the Government powers that be? Does he dream that the island sometimes fills with elephants, or that the Queen plays her golden piano for him while Churchill smokes a cigar and soaks in his tub? 

Keeping apace with the unfolding memories of Kitchener’s military life, the island flowers and plants mimic human struggles for territory. For K of K memories of peak moments of bliss in the Saharan desert mingle with those of carnage in the service of the Crown. Ultimately, be they memories of ghosts or ghosts of memories, they come alive to all on the island; revealing the inhabitants’ disturbing relationships to beauty and violence.  


We are grateful to the following donors for making this project possible