Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Opera Time

Unusual as this may sound in a city whose Western musical taste is largely herd-motivated, February is turning out to be a very exciting month for something rather different. In a first, the NCPA has managed to tie the tiny, egotistical and infighting western classical music community of Mumbai together, to combine them with a bunch of Kazakhs, a couple of 'maestros', two trained opera instructors and some fabulously talented soloists to stage what is easily the largest undertaking of art music the city has witnessed in a while.

Saturday , the 18th of February saw the first of three runs of the double opera performance - Pagliacci by Leoncavallo and Cavaleria Rusticanna by Mascagni.  Both operas demand large choruses - the Paglacci set was  designed for seventy five and that of Cavaleria exceeded a hundred. The Carmina Burana, a profane, repetitive work by Carl Orff which is to be staged later this month demands a huge chorus as well; this is what will wind up the entire festival and is an appropriately loud ending to it all.

In Mumbai, many of us who have studied music for years, indeed a large number of music teachers in the city, bypass opera completely when it comes to musical instruction. We are taught our respective instrument, the pretentious and the interested attend the occasional concert for that instrument - at the very maximum, Zubin Mehta's symphonic concerts are given some importance. In a city which has an entire area known as 'Opera House' , opera has remained a caricature for most of us - the word invokes images of a fat lady singing F6 and breaking wine glasses in the process. For others it is viewed suspiciously , as something dandy and elitist. Still others look down upon it as being overblown, over-dramatic and altogether ridiculous.

What most us who have been a part of this experience( I was singing in the chorus too before I was chucked out in absentia) have  realised, is that opera IS all those things. The stories are ridiculous, the emotions they invoke are overdone and the results are virtually  impossible. Furthermore, the plots are mind-numbingly similar : Tenor wants to sleep with soprano, bass strongly objects to this (generally, bass is father/husband of soprano), contralto tries to counsel soprano, soprano pigheadedly  ignores counselling, tenor has his way with soprano, bass erupts like a microwaved egg yolk,  delivers furious harangue to wall or terrified manservant,   challenges tenor to duel, kills tenor (sometimes tenor kills bass)  and soprano is left weeping .

Stop to think for a minute. Can anyone take repeat after repeat of this, albeit to different music and sets, seriously? Indeed could anyone, even the most eighteenth century of eighteenth century Italians have been actually entertained by it all?
The answer is no and yes. For here lies the true secret to the fascinating world of opera love - opera is never meant to be taken too seriously. The very characteristics that make it foolish and ridiculous are the ones  that make it so very spectacular .  Just suppose the Queen of the Night had politely told her daughter that she had had enough of Sarastro and it was time to administer a spot of  arsenic in the evening soup. Altogether a much more plausible scenario than the mixture of yelling, singing and brandishing of  knives that Mozart actually used; but ask yourself : would the divine notes of Der Holle Rache been possible had it actually panned out this way? I think not.

There is a lot one can find in opera when one does go into its finer points, the most notable being that it is the closest one can get to complete live art ( I quote Wagner) - a combination of music, art design and drama. However, appreciating completely each aspect and then appreciating the whole is still some distance away; we are just beginning and it is certainly an acquired taste.

I genuinely hope that this does not end up being a once in a decade event about which we reminisce, misty-eyed, in our dotage. I would even be so bold as to wish the NCPA  make this Mumbai's yearly opera season - progressively bigger and grander. And most importantly, I hope that this is the start of an opera culture in our city. Mumbai needs it.


  1. But ask yourself: would the devilish notes of Der Holler Rache etc etc