WHEN THE Neemrana Music Foundation open-ed its doors to the public in 2002, there had never been an opera in Delhi—leave alone a dedicated venue to organise such an event—and the Siri Fort Auditorium in the heart of the national capital was flagging off its orchestra pit for the first time. “It was like a real adventure. None of us had ever produced an opera, and there were no less than 140 artistes involved on stage. Muzaffar Ali (filmmaker) was so excited about the idea of directing the first show, The Fakir of Benares, that he got himself lessons on piano and on French (the opera was sung in that language),” says Aude-Priya Wacziarg, managing trustee, the Neemrana Music Foundation, one of the pioneers of the opera movement in India.
Since then, there has never been a dull moment. The foundation, founded by Aude-Priya’s father Francis Wacziarg, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a grand show featuring excerpts of the nine operas it has produced over the past decade. The show took place at a spectacular hall in the premises of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium with a capacity of over 2,000 seats.
Among the highlights of the event were a choir of a hundred singers, including children from the Blind Relief Association and from underprivileged families from the NGO Khushii; ten soloists, all Indians and trained by The Neemrana Music Foundation; three dance groups including Kathak, modern ballet and Kalaripayattu; over 500 costumes made by designers Muzaffar and Meera Ali, and Parvesh & Jai; and an orchestra including 50 musicians from all over India and Europe.
Around the same time as the Neemrana event, noted Odissi danseuse Reela Hota was taking the challenge of putting together a show that would redefine the contours of the traditional western classical art form—a ‘Ramleela in opera’. Along with opera artistes Mattia Olivieri (who played Ram), Raffaele Abette (who played Lakshman) and Federico Benetti (who portrayed the character of Hanuman), Hota —herself portraying the role of Sita —successfully showed the world that cultural differences do not come in the way of opera, or any other classical tradition for that matter.
The ‘Ramleela opera’ was a part of Hota’s International Ancient Arts Festival (IAAF), a multi-arts event that she founded four years ago with an aim to showcase unity and spiritual significance of culture through dance and music. Hota’s recent fusion act also saw performances in Indian classical dance forms such as Yakshagana (Karnataka), Purulia Chhau (West Bengal), Odishi (Odisha) and Manipuri ( Manipur).
“It was my mother Bijoylaxmi Hota’s idea to fuse the styles. We experimented in 2012 with six different Indian dance styles for Rabindra Abhivyakti, a fusion dance on the spiritual aspect of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems, and it worked very well. In 2013, it was Odissi and ballet from Bucharest National Opera House. The international fusion was such a hit with Delhi’s audiences that we had to close the gates of the performing theatre due to excessive turnout. We had a similar experience when we took the fusion production to Romania. This year, we decided to fuse opera with different musical and classical traditions of India at the IAAF,” explains Hota.
Adds Swati Bhise, Bharatnatyam dancer and choreographer and artistic director of Bravia Sadir Theatre Festival Production: “I feel art is a universal language that can bridge chasms between countries and help us understand different cultures and people that clearly lead to greater understanding and, hence, peace. When we spend time with good theatre, we understand the political, social and economic conditions and the thought process of an entire ethnic group. What better way to become global and continue our own personal growth and understanding?” asks Bhise, who recently organised The Peony Pavilion, a sophisticated, stylised and lyrical opera, rated as one of China’s best-loved classical operas, at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi.
To date, the China Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre has received 24 national awards for new productions and more than 75 awards for the company’s individual artistes, among them numerous Meihua (Plum Blossom) Awards —the highest recognition for Chinese traditional opera—as well as Baiyulan (Magnolia) Awards, honouring all forms of theatrical arts.
“My father believed that India deserved to be on the international map for opera, as much as China is,” offers Aude-Priya of the Neemrana Music Foundation. “In fact, opera is a very spectacular art form, combining music, singing, dance, costumes, sets, lights—all for expressing feelings like love or grief, very much like Bollywood movies. So it wasn’t a surprise that from the beginning, our operas were a hit with the audience, whether they were set in India, like If I were King (set in Goa), or they made the spectator travel like Carmen (set in Spain); whether they were a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet or a comedy like Don Pasquale, An Old Man Turns Groom,” offers Aude-Priya.
Recounting her formative years, Aude-Priya, an accomplished opera singer herself, says when she started studying opera singing, she was told that it would take ten years to become an accomplished singer. “I didn’t believe it or perhaps I might have given up right then. But actually it is true. We need to fill ten years of apprenticeship with exciting exposure. Young singers should have more opportunities. And being on stage helps a singer grow and learn things that cannot be taught in a classroom,” she recalls.
The Neemrana Music Foundation is now aiming at touring its shows and conquering new audiences in cities like Ahmedabad. “As far as Delhi is concerned, what we lack till today is a proper hall. We may have finally discovered such a venue, the spectacular weightlifting auditorium in the premises of the Nehru Stadium,” Aude-Priya says. This time, The Neemrana Music Foundation had invested in fixing a front bar to light the stage—at a height of 40 feet. “It’s easier said than done. But much still needs to be done to turn the auditorium into the perfect opera house that Delhi lacks,” she adds.
Hota too agrees that opera still has a long way to go in the country. “In India, opera is extremely popular. But in Europe, many opera houses have shut down. I feel that the operas along with other classical traditions must attune themselves a little to contemporary tastes and interests,” she says.
Hota’s show was for only about an hour and a half. “We must understand that in big cities like Delhi, people have to commute for a long time to reach a cultural venue after office and then a similar duration to get home. People simply do not have the time and the patience to sit through a two- to three-hour show. Plus, there is a certain sense of fatigue to see old stories and songs being repeated. Our operatic fusion worked very well on all those counts,” she adds.
Going forward, the pioneering work that Neemrana Music Foundation has done with singers is now to be done with the musicians, in order to build a full orchestra for the future, says Aude-Priya This is starting under the guidance of Philippe Engel, head of the music department in The Neemrana Music Foundation, who had coordinated the orchestra and the scores for the gala show on Saturday. In partnership with the Delhi School of Music, the foundation also plans to organise workshops with teachers on violin, viola and cello; with teachers who will come on a regular basis and also coach the teachers at the foundation. The programme will then be extended to other instruments in the orchestra, she adds.