Opera is one of the great loves of my life, and yet it is an art from which I feel sometimes helplessly absent. It is, by its nature as a Western European art form, largely written by white ‘Western’ composers using the languages and symbolisms of these cultures. Symbols like white weddings and black funerals, symbols that are so hegemonically ingrained that most of the world don’t perceive them as symbols, systems of meaning, iconographic worlds that stir some folk more deeply than others. Other folk have different ways of loving, of being, of making meaning of out life.
Though born in Yorkshire, in many ways I am and I feel myself one of those ‘others’. Of course what I love most about Opera is that, through music, it transcends these worldly differences and aims (often) to tackle the heart of something that is above all divisions, to explore those things that are universally human – love, death, hate, dilemma, identity. Yet the anthropologist in me wants to remind you that all human experience, even these universals, are expressed in culturally specific, meaningful ways. In this sense, in opera, I am (as a young British South Asian woman of mixed heritage) utterly unrepresented.
There was a lot riding on Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya for me. After seeing Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at ENO last year I was so set back by the sense of disenfranchisement I felt from two hours of inaccurate, reductionist and (to me) frankly offensive Orientalism was so acute that I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it. I’ve dreamed for myself about what an opera bringing the two parts of me together would look like. I was simultaneously afraid and excited to experience Sukanya. If anybody could achieve a sure representation of Indianness through Opera, surely it would be Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ten minutes into the opera I was weeping like I wept at the end of Der Rosenkavalier – I felt real. I was seeing something of myself, something true about my life, in operatic art for the first time.
Sukanya will touch and stir people from diverse backgrounds (as it did last night), if through nothing other than the unspeakable beauty and elegance of its music. The music is, in its own right, thrilling. Between the vision of Ravi Shankar and the dedication of arranger and conductor David Murphy there is an imaginative fusion of Indian and Western Classical styles, forms and principles that is simultaneously true and authentic to both traditions in their vast complexity, without reducing or compromising either one. Indian instruments play alongside Western Orchestra. The arias and choruses make use of konnakol (spoken Indian rhythmic patterns) and improvisations on ragas, and the libretto travels through English story-telling to the words of Hindi prayers and shamelessly Bengali declarations of love.
The expression and Anglicised pronunciations of the Indian elements is curiously insignificant, even adding to the charm and the sense of art rising above divisions. The two traditions were full, supple, and unified, complementing one another, even elevating one another in new and jarringly peculiar ways. The singers were every one of them exceptional, and their bravery and skill in working between Western art music and raga-based improvisation effective and impressive. It was a joy also to see such an ethnically diverse cast – I have never seen so many different backgrounds represented on an ‘opera’ stage.
Akash Odedra’s company of dancers punctuated and enhanced the story through a fantastical fusion of Indian classical dance styles (which lend themselves to story-telling) and contemporary interpretation. Although semi-staged, this production was fully absorbing, and the dancers can take a large degree of credit for generating and cementing this effect.
For me personally this Opera was the most tender, affirming and terrifying work I’ve seen. After a lifetime of craving a way to bring together the two inseparable sides of myself – British and Indian, always neither, always both – now there is an Opera that communicates what that is like, what it looks like and sounds like and sings like, to the world. I wondered whether my response might be biased – but I know that if after all this time somebody had staged something so intimate as an operatic love scene in Bengali and missed the mark even a little it would have hurt me ten times more than the Orientalism of The Pearl Fishers and its ilk. This is a very special piece of work, musically groundbreaking and wonderfully crafted, and I look forward to its staging in a long-term run sometime soon.