Growing up, I remember watching Tamil films with my parents. Every time we reached a dance scene or a fight scene, my mom would say, “Chi chi” and fast forward. Not being able to see the fight scenes was so disappointing. My brother and I would chase each other around making the over-the-top fight noises of those Tamil films. (Looking back on it, perhaps she fast forwarded to maintain her own sanity as she already had two miniature Rajinikanths running around the house). Growing up, however, I spent my times outside the house trying to be American and my times at home trying to be Indian – the standard duality that many of us grow up with. In choosing to pursue “western music”, I chose a decidedly non-Indian career. I think the strength that we have as Indian-Americans is that we have the opportunity to pick and choose between cultures. We are slowly proving Rudyard Kipling wrong.
As a conductor and producer of opera it gives me the opportunity to take an artistic view of that very challenge of blending east and west. Having grown up with Carnatic music at home and western music at school, I’ve felt comfortable in both sound worlds though my expertise is more in the western music realm. The beauty of art whether western or eastern is that it speaks to our human experience, so I have always been confused by people who say things like, “Oh, opera is such a western art form, I don’t understand it.” Especially in this day of globalization, art should speak to humanity – not exclusive to the culture that gave it birth.
It was with this mindset that I approached the first show as Artistic Director and conductor of the Skylight Music Theatre. We decided to produce Fidelio the only opera by one of Europe’s great composers, Ludwig van Beethoven. I don’t know that we could have selected a composer more tied to the European tradition. In fact, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is Europe’s anthem. Whether we like it or not, one of India’s most recognized cultural exports are Bollywood films with those very same dance and fight scenes that my mom fast forwarded through when we were younger. It seemed quite appropriate to combine these two ideas in our production – Beethoven and Bollywood.
Artistically, I’ve been fascinated by this idea of a new globalized view of art, but I have always hesitated at rewriting segments of masterworks. In other words, the thought of adding tabla and mridangam to Beethoven’s work seems disrespectful and unnecessary. That being said, why can’t an opera be treated in the manner of a Bollywood film? The similarities on a superficial level are rather wonderful. Both Beethoven’s Fidelio and Bollywood film use dialogue to progress the plot. There are “random” moments in which the actor breaks out in song. In many Bollywood films there often seems to be that deus ex machina ending – someone random comes into save the day – as in Fidelio.
The goal behind the production was to honor each of the arts that is represented in making an opera happen: the visual arts in the scenic design, music, acting, and dance. The Indian artist Raghava KK brought his artistic inspiration and conception to the table, so the show incorporates many aspects of his current artistic perspective. The scenic design looks much like an Indian Dr. Seuss popup book, but as Raghava is also looking to expand the way his art is perceived, the show also incorporates a Microsoft Kinect and a brainwave scanner. Both of which allow us to render aspects of the scenic design and lighting as organic as the singers’ performances. I’m excited about Raghava’s multicultural view influencing the scenic design for the show as it gives us the perfect fantastical platform for a Bollywood film.
Finally, the Bollywood choreography will be taken on by Deepa Devasena. In much the same way I was not able to think of Beethoven rewritten to accommodate Indian instruments, I wanted the tradition of Bollywood dance to be represented in a way that was true to the art form. Deepa comes from a background in both traditional Indian dance and Bollywood dance. In many ways, she has the biggest challenge of all of us. Modern Bollywood seems to have gone the route of driving rhythm with a very American rock and roll, hip hop influence. Because we wanted there to be true connection to the music, we have gone back to the more traditional films of the 1950s and 1960s for inspiration. This project is proving to be one interesting artistic experiment. I think the fusion of such diverse worlds will be the new modern. More and more people themselves are fusions of diverse cultures. Why not our art?
We invite you to join us in Milwaukee to experience this East/West culture collision. The show runs from September 20 to October 6. More information can be found on www.skylightmusictheatre.org For opening night information, email Jennifer Samuelson at firstname.lastname@example.org and reference Indiaspora.