Thursday, November 19, 2015

Savitri and River of Light at Festival Opera

The East Bay's Festival Opera, in an ongoing attempt to resurrect itself from fiscal crisis, presented a double-bill of East Indian themed operas at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center this weekend that were an unexpected delight. On Saturday morning, I took a ferry boat to Jack London Square with West Edge Opera board member James Parr and coloratura soprano Mithuna Sivaraman, who was born in Singapore and raised in New Jersey. "We are counting on you to tell us how good or bad the cultural appropriation is at these operas," we told Mithuna, and she replied, "You mean, on a scale from one to Lakmé?"

The first chamber opera was the 1908 Savitri by Gustav Holst, written for three solo voices, a small wordless female chorus, and an instrumental combination of two flutes, a cor anglais and a double string quartet. In an episode taken from the Mahabharata, the soprano Maya Kherani as Savitri welcomes Death after he has come for her young husband, and manages to charm him into restoring her spouse.

The staging by Tanya Kane-Parry was a bit clunky, but the musical performance by Kherani, Jorge Garza as her husband, and Philip Skinner was superb, as was the chamber orchestra under conductor John Kendall Bailey. It's a wonder the opera is such a rarity because the musical forces are simple and beautiful, and the story of love overcoming death affecting.

The style is very austere, almost like Benjamin Britten in his Church Parables, but the women's chorus took the piece onto a new level of musical richness.

The companion piece was Jack Perla's River of Light, a 2013 opera premiered in Houston about a driven young career woman from East India who marries an American, and in this version moves to Oakland where she tries to negotiate her cultural displacement in a series of scenes set during American holidays like Fourth of July and Halloween. After the birth of a daughter, she has a homesick breakdown during Diwali, the Indian holy festival of lights, wondering how she can pass on her own culture to her child.

Kherani and Daniel Cilli as the mixed culture pair sang beautifully and were thoroughly convincing in their roles, joined by the entertaining Molly Mahoney and Michael Boley as neighbors at various holidays. What was genuinely exciting about the 40-minute piece was the integration of Eastern and Western musical styles in the chamber orchestra, which consisted of Arjun Verma on sitar, Nilan Chaudhuri on tabla, Brian Lee on violin, Amy Brodo on cello, and Ben Malkevitch on keyboards. This wasn't Western music masquerading as Eastern or vice versa, but something new, rather like the jam session I once heard at the SFJAZZ Center with tabla master Zakir Hussein along with bass player Edgar Meyer and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck.

"So was it a one or was it Lakmé?" I asked Mithuna on the ride home, and she confessed to being very impressed. "Maya was obviously the only one who sounded like she understood classical Indian singing during the raga section, but Perla added grace notes to the score for Western singers that imitated Indian style brilliantly."

Perla might consider adding an optional women's chorus to the opera because the pairing of the two chamber operas is an inspired match, and could easily become a new repertory staple for everything from music conservatories to small outfits like Festival Opera.


Hattie said...

Diwali is so important. My Indian friend that I was just visiting in Australia spent hours cooking special food for the day, at her mother's insistence.
I would have loved to have seen that special musical offering! The Bay Area is so rich in music these days.

Susie H said...

In our exploration of opera telling the stories of cultures around the world we were proud to stage Savitri and River of Light. Stay tuned!

Unknown said...

Both operas were so beautifully presented by the whole cast of singers, especially Maya Kherani, and the orchestra. As a person of Indian origin, I loved both stories, in the operatic style. Truly enjoyed the sitar by Arjun Verma and the tabla by Nilan Chaudhuri. Looking forward to seeing more of these productions!