REVIEW: Sukanya – Indians can do opera

Even if you’re not familiar with classical Indian music you’ve probably heard of the global sensation, composer and musician Ravi Shankar. At the age of 90 ‘Pandit’ Ravi Shankar began to write his only opera -Sukanya, which is a love letter to his now, Widow Sukanya Rajan.

Sold as a semi staged production the story is a tiny segment from the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. With an amalgamation of a fifty-five piece London Philharmonic Orchestra, five Indian musicians, nineteen BBC Singers, an international cast, dancers from the Aakash Odedra Company and libretto from Amit Chaudhuri, you no doubt walk into the auditorium with plenty of expectations.

Alok Kumar sings Chyvana and Susanna Hurrell sings Sukanya

Sukanya begins and we’re introduced to Chyvana, an old sage who sits to meditate for so long that he becomes cocooned by an ant hill. When the unaware Princess Sukanya stabs at the ant hill she accidently blinds Chayvana. To make amends her father King Sharyaati offers his daughter to the sage. The loving marriage is disrupted when two jealous demigods challenge Sukanya, asking would she still recognise her own husband if he was of similar resemblance to them. She declines the challenge but her husband accepts on her behalf.  

Admittedly there was a sneaky dread that Sukanya may become lost in its own grandness, thankfully this wasn’t the case. The Opera was beautifully directed by Suba Das who made his Royal Opera debut. The six singers sang their roles well, the demigod duo (Aswini Twins) singers Michel de Souza and Njabulo Madlala enjoyed great chemistry. The choreography and dancers were effortlessly perfect, mesmerising us with their swirls, turns and stamps.    

The magnificent Welsh conductor David Murphy was also making his debut. The Easter and western music effortlessly danced into the air in perfect harmony, there were moments you could have easily closed your eyes and be lost in the magic. The musical utopia gave you shivers down your back and goose bumps on your arms.

The demigods were sung by Michel de Souza (L) and Njabulo Madlala (R)

The stage was designed as three staircases, with the central staircase including steps large enough to allow performances to sing or dance on, which worked perfecting when a fifty-five piece Orchestra sat at the base. I’m very fond of video imagery, the mood and space is created perfectly and quickly. However there were times when the imagery projected on performers and the background was not the background, which was a little off putting if you want to be lost in the world of the story. Saying that, one of my favourite visual moments was when the ant hill formed around Chyvana, it was a greatly effective and creative use of video projection.

Although there is love for a fusion of music and an admiration for a multicultural cast, I’m not sure it worked so well when Keel Watson (King Sharyaati) a black singer and actor played the part of a white Susanna Hurrell’s (Sukanya) father. It did lead me to ponder over questions of lack of opportunities and representation. The brilliant Alok Kumar who played Chyvana is a beyond capable singer and performer but it was clear that this character was referred to as ‘old’ and then begins the spiral down questions of where are the mature actors? Does it make a difference? How old is old? Should it make a difference?   

During the interval a white lady turned to me to say “I didn’t even know you had opera” I had to get her to repeat two more times, purely because I didn’t understand the statement. It was evident my repeated ask unintentionally made her and her friend very self conscious and unintentionally I allowed an uncomfortable politically incorrect feeling fill the air.  
She didn’t know I had opera?
What I concluded from that was “I” meaning “we” meaning South Asians did Opera. To be honest nor did I, but if it comes my way looking and sounding anything close to what Sukanya did, I’m not going to complain.

Excited for the future development of Sukanya and hoping the full production will be alive and touring in the very near future.

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