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‘Sukanya’ opera – Late Ravi Shankar’s first to premiere in UK next year

‘Sukanya’ opera – Late Ravi Shankar’s first to premiere in UK next year

September 21 2016

He was a musical genius and a groundbreaker in so many ways, now he has left us a work which aims to connect East and West with mind, body and soul…

A NEW opera blending ancient Indian mythology, the music of one of the greatest classical Indian musicians of our age – and deploying some of the finest operatic, dramatic, dancing and musical talents in the UK, was unveiled yesterday.

Anoushka Shankar after the acv interview

Sukanya” is a new opera conceived by the iconic Ravi Shankar – once described as ‘the most famous Indian’ in the 1960s when he was hanging out with The Beatles and other major cultural figures of the time.

Ravi Shankar enjoyed a long career playing the sitar around the world and is widely credited as being the first musician to popularise classical Indian music in the West. He died in December 2012 in hospital, near his home in California, aged 92.

Sukhanya” was an opera he was working on right up until his death and has now been completed by his friend and long-time collaborator, conductor David Murphy – with help from Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka, who is a well-established sitar player in her own right.

Sukanya”, the opera will premiere at The Curve in Leicester on May 12 2017 and will enjoy a short tour, culminating in a final performance of four at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank on May 19.

Taking a classic ancient tale, it will feature the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Indian Kathak dancing, opera singers Susanna Hurrell, Keel Watson and Michael de Souza, the BBC singers and a US-Tony award winning stage design company. It will be directed by Suba Das, The Curve’s associate director and the dancers will be choreographed by Aakash Odedra Company.

It has been financially supported by the charitable Bagri Foundation and Arts Council England.

David Murphy and Sukanya Shankar

The idea came to Ravi Shankar not long after he met the mother-in-law-of his wife, who carries the name ‘Sukanya’ and discussed its origins.

The name comes from an ancient tale in the Sanskrit/Hindu text, “The Mahabharata” and is about a young princess who is betrothed to an ancient blind sage, and is devoted to him – much to the displeasure of two gods who decide to intervene with terrible consequences.

Widow Sukanya Shankar and daughter Anoushka, both appeared yesterday at the Royal Opera House (ROH) to unveil the project that is “Sukanya” .

Serious work on “Sukanya” had started in 2010 shortly after the world premiere of Ravi Shankar’s first ever Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Murphy.

David Murphy introduces the opera 'Sukanya' at the press conference at the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

He worked with Ravi Shankar on the debut opera and was able to take it through to completion after the great musician’s passing, with help from Anoushka and his own instincts – knowing the man as he did.

Murphy told that his dear friend Ravi Shankar had first mentioned it to him in 2004 and it had taken real shape more latterly.

He told us: “I had started to work on it with him after our 2010 symphony.”

Even when Shankar was in hospital in 2012, Murphy was in touch with Shankar about “Sukanya”.

“Raviji had a very clear road map and vision and because of that I could continue and when there were choices on that road map I could consult Anoushka or call upon my experience of working with Raviji.”

He said he had looked to go back to the heart of both the operatic and Indian classical music traditions.

“It’s not fusion – which is confusion,” he joked. “I don’t want to get too technical but it’s about a harmonic series and amalgamation.”

He said he had started with a raga – a harmony in Indian classical music and developed it from there.

In a one-to-one, Anoushka told her father had been committed to creating an opera mixing both western and eastern musical elements.

“He talked to us about it as family and as a musician, it was very key for him,” Anoushka said.

Suba Das, associate director of The Curve will direct 'Sukanya'

She added: “My father was, of course, the first Indian classical musician to work with Western classical musicians, the first to write concertos for orchestra, the first to bring the music of India to a global audience.

“Even in his final years, he was the first to think further, to want to push even more boundaries, and bring Indian classical music to the context of opera. David Murphy has been so dedicated and sincere bringing my father’s vision to completion. I’m very grateful to everyone involved.”

Sukanya told her husband had not talked explicitly about the project with her.

“He never talked about it (with me) for a man of his stature and his busy schedule, to revive it after some 20 years is something.”

The insinuation is that he kept it from her because it was an act of dedication and a personal gift from a loving husband to a dear wife – and therefore, a surprise.

“He was such a romantic man and extremely romantic person,” Sukanya concurred. “I am really looking forward to this – it’s so unique, nothing like this has happened before – I don’t anything like this might (ever) happen again. I am so grateful to everyone, to all these vehicles, making it possible.

“Somebody asked me whether I miss him, I said: ‘No. He is still with me, within me’.

“Talking like this is new to me and I was extremely nervous but feel I need to do it, and it’s the least I could do for him. I see it as a ‘seva’ (a mixture of dedication, duty and selflessness).”

She added: “This opera is a standing testimony to the ultimate in the amalgamation of East Meeting West as natural as can be.”

Anoushka whose voice quivered with emotion in her introductory remarks, said her father was always keen to dismantle musical conventions and create new openings and that her input had been a labour of love.

In her one to one, she added: “It is emotional but it’s a way of reconnecting with him and reconnecting with him through the music.

“It will be challenging because of the scale of collaboration across cultures that hasn’t happened before – all these different elements of East and West and (practically) every medium of art – it will be challenging for everyone.

Pirashanna Thevarajah plays ghatam and mridangam

“The toughest part might be when we come to put all the elements together but it’s tough in a good way.

“When we finally get down to rehearsing and putting everything together – but that’s the part we all love getting our teeth into.”

Director Suba Das said the biggest challenge was the scale of the production – with some 100 people involved and felt his experience of Shakespeare would stand him in good stead.

“I directed a lot when I first started out and it is all about the musicality of the language and the rhythm – that is really important.”

Described as a semi-staged opera, “Sukanya” features a libretto (literally text) by the well-known novelist and musician Amit Chaudhuri, and a 60-strong London Philharmonic Orchestra set, and will be supplemented by Indian musicians on traditional instruments including the sitar, shennai, tabla, mridangam, and ghatam.

John Fulljames, associate director of ROH opera, said: “Opera is the perfect art-form for Ravi Shankar whose vision embraced text, image and dance as well as music. His work on this new opera with Amit Chaudhuri and David Murphy has deep roots in the literature and the classical music of both Europe and India.

“I’m very much looking forward to hearing and seeing a hugely entertaining show which also carries an important message about the nature of love and the transformative power of music.”

Guests at the Royal Opera House last night were treated to a special short preview with musician Pirashanna Thevarajah on mridangam and ghatam and Hurrell singing as ‘Sukanya’. See the links below…

Sukanya” is a co-production between The Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Curve and the final performance is presented in association with Southbank Centre.

Preview clip of Sukanya – click on picture to watch


Friday 12 May 2017 (world premiere) – Curve, Leicester
Sunday 14 May 2017 – The Lowry, Salford
Monday 15 May 2017 – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 19 May 2017 – Royal Festival Hall (in association with Southbank Centre, London)

For ticket and venue info:

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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