The late sitar legend had a dream and had begun composing an East-West opera before his death 2012, then collaborators Anoushka Shankar and conductor friend David Murphy felt compelled to complete it. Its world premiere is in Leicester this evening and we speak to the male lead in the production…
By Suman Bhuchar
ONE OF THE highlights at this year’s Alchemy festival is the opera, ‘Sukanya’, composed by the late Pandit Ravi Shankar and completed by his protégé David Murphy, who will also conduct.
This opera taken from a story in The Mahabharata tells the story about Princess Sukanya and the sage, Chyavana and the libretto is written by the author and academic, Amit Chaudhuri. The show is directed by Suba Das, associate director at the Curve Theatre, Leicester.
There is a lot of excitement around this project, co-produced by Royal Opera House and www.asianculturevulture.com went to meet, Alok Kumar – the man playing the male lead.
Kumar, who is from New York, is a trained opera performer, and is making his debut on many fronts in the UK.
It will be the first time he’s performed for the Royal Opera House, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and in the UK.
He can’t believe he’s been thrown into such an amazing project.
“The whole process has been a dizzying experience; it’s been a whirlwind, so much to get done,” he enthused.
“I love working with Suba, (the director), “he’s appropriately irreverent so that we end up really digging into the humanity of what his vision of the piece is!”
Kumar is passionate about opera, which he said, “is drama conveyed through music. In Western classical music, opera is probably the most complete form of theatre, because it combines not only singing, symphony or musicians, but also the visuals of scenery, staging, costume design and dance.” (Just like a Bollywood movie, eh!???)
It is highly refreshing to see a young Asian professional in an artistic field considered to be ‘posh’ or ‘high art’ but Kumar makes it sound effortless.
He was born in Nagpur and his family is from Bangalore (Bengaluru) but when he was three years old, his parents, dad, Anil and mum, Hema Kumar, moved to the US and settled in Poughkeepsie, (a town in New York State), where he grew up and went to school.
“My first musical exposure was to Indian classical music at home, my parents played it, and my dad would sing along to tapes of Mukesh and KL Saigol in the car. I grew up in that environment, and initially learnt the tabla for two months and was introduced to Hindustani scale.”
However, when he was eight years old, his mother sent him to take voice lessons, and as there weren’t any Indian classical Indian musicians teaching where he lived, he ended up studying western classical singing.
“I was exposed to opera, from very early on. That was it! For no rhyme or reason, I just hooked into it and sang my first opera when I was 11 years old and never left it. I pursued it from that point onwards.”
Kumar discovered he had a natural ability for western classical singing and a voice was born.
Incidentally, his family name is Seshadri and Kumar is his middle-name that he uses for his professional work.
After his schooling he went on to pursue a degree of Bachelors in Music at the Peabody Centre in Baltimore, Maryland and then a Masters at the Shepherd School of Music, Houston, Texas.
Later, when he undertook some post graduate study in Boston, he met his Costa-Rican American wife Gabriella who is also a singer and involved in artist management.
However the journey for a young performer studying classical music is not simple or easy.
“I had grown up through the process, separated from the Indian community because I am an opera singer. At the time I was coming up as a young artist, I didn’t know of any other singers who are South Asian. It’s still rare, but it’s definitely changing.”
Kumar spent time working as a chorus member in a show at Spoleto Festival, Italy and in the early days sang in the baritone register. This means he sang in the lower voice type and played a variety of roles.
Baritones, he said: “Generally have certain types of character assigned to that voice type. They will be an instigator, sometimes they will be the antagonist, often times they go of in rage, or are comedic relief. It will be a role that’s secondary to tenor and soprano.”
After doing that for several years, Kumar was asked to move up a scale in terms of his vocal ability but that also meant the type of roles he got would alter.
Tenors are romantics, they are the lovers, he said, “but if you want to do it correctly you have to have a have a degree of vulnerability on stage and willing to be publicly vulnerable. At that time, I wasn’t ready to do that. I liked the roles, I was portraying as a baritone. I was comfortable doing that but I wasn’t content which is why I became a lawyer”.
So, he quit opera and got a job with the District Attorney’s office in Boston, where he started an initiative that became a national model for prosecuting gun crimes. He ended up studying law and began to practice as an attorney.
However, this period coincided with the economic recession so he returned to his main profession feeling ready to take on the more challenging roles of a tenor, playing tragic heroes such as Don José in Bizet’s ‘Carmen’.
It’s just as well he did, otherwise, we would never have met him. He is the only Indian singer, in this production with an international cast: “I love it, I love it, to be able to come to London, to make a series of debuts and to be able to do it from a story that I have known from my childhood – ‘Sukanya’ – as soon as the opportunity came up, it is truly amazing.”!
The opera promises to be a spectacle and will be sung in English with six performers.
It is semi-staged and will feature multi-media projections by 59 productions and choreography by Aakash Odedra.
The chorus is performed by twenty BBC Singers, and it will be conducted by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and include five Indian classical musicians and five Indian classical dancers. The production has been supported too by the Bagri Foundation.
‘Sukanya’ by Ravi Shankar (approx running time 150 minutes)
*TONIGHT 7.30pm The Curve, Rutland Street, Leicester, LE1 1SB. Box office: 0116 242 3595
More info/booking: http://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/ravi-shankars-sukanya/
*Sunday, May 14 – 7.30pm – The Lowry, Pier 8, The Quays, Salford, M50 3AZ Box Office: 0843 208 6000
More info/booking: https://www.thelowry.com/events/sukanya
* Monday, May 15 – 7.30pm Birmingham Symphony Hall, 8 Centenary Square, Birmingham, B1 2EA Box office: +44 (0)121 780 3333
More info/booking – https://www.thsh.co.uk/event/bc-sukanya#tab0=details
* Friday, May 19 – 7.30pm (as part of Alchemy Festival at Southbank Centre), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX Call: 020 3879 9555
More info/Booking: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/92642-ravi-shankar%E2%80%99s-opera-sukanya-2017
All pictures except Alok Kumar Bill Cooper for Sukanya
Only rehearsal pictures available ahead of premiere this evening
Announcement of Sukanya Project including musical excerpt (September 2016)- http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/sukanya-opera-late-ravi-shankars-first-to-premiere-in-uk-next-year/
A preview of The Alchemy Festival (May 19-29) 2017 will be published soon…