Before leaving the US last August, I had the impression that I would come to India and immerse myself fully in its musical offerings, leaving behind all semblance of my life as a western classical musician for a year. So I couldn’t have been more surprised to find myself immersed in hours a day of Mozart opera for a week in early January.
The project was called Mozart Magic in India, and was a series of scenes from Mozart operas, generously underwritten by the Neemrana Music Foundation, an outgrowth of the Neemrana Hotels, that sponsors western classical music ventures in Delhi. Overseen by Francis Wacziarg, The Neemrana Music Foundation is a rarity in India — it is one of the few organizations that has shown an unwavering commitment to western classical music in a country where there is little public understanding of or support for the form. Most notably, the Neemrana Music Foundation has staged a number of fully produced operas in Delhi over the last decade, including The Pearl Fishers, Cavalleria Rusticana and The Fakir of Benares.
The production was staged at the 2000-seat auditorium at Siri Fort in New Delhi. At the helm was New York based conductor George Mathew, originally from south India, who wanted to bring an authentic, unapologetic production of Mozart opera scenes to India.
It would have been simply a matter of logistics to bring a pre-formed opera company and orchestra to Delhi and engage them for a few nights. But George is a classic visionary, and seized an opportunity when he saw it: aside from the woodwind section of the ensemble (who came from Rouen in France) almost all the musicians were Indian. The string section was made up of players from the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, the brass section was from the Indian Police Band, the choir was the Neemrana Foundation Choir. Almost all the soloists, though many had studied and worked abroad, were born and raised in India.
Even more curiously, eleven of the twelve soloists were (or had at one time been) students of an incredible vocal teacher named Situ Singh-Bueller. Situ, who was raised in India, but who trained and performed extensively in Germany, opted to make her career in Delhi instead, offering world-class instruction to young Indians singers. She has a large studio of students, and has trained a steady stream of excellent singers who have gained admission in western conservatories and gone on to careers on European and American stages. It would be an understatement to say she is the most sought-after teacher of opera in Delhi: She is THE teacher of opera in Delhi.
The energy among the performers was palpable from the beginning. I don’t think many of them had participated in a production of this nature and breadth, with full orchestra and staging before — at least not in India. It was a huge undertaking, especially for the string section, made up mostly of young, talented amateur performers, who were required to rehearse and perform almost two hours of continuous music. Rehearsals lasted for upwards of nine hours a day, with intermittent breaks for chai and samosas. But even with the grueling hours that would never be possible for a unionized western orchestra, the musicians brought consistent focus and energy to the music.
A large part of that energy was the interaction between George and the performers. There was a certain resonance and camaraderie that I have rarely seen between an orchestra and their conductor, perhaps because it was so clear that even as long as George had lived in the US, he was still just as much Indian as he was American. From quirky, idiomatic Hindi being thrown into the mix (“Measure 84? Can we start there? Challo, 84.”) to more overt references to indian culture (“This passage… you need to just grind it up.. just chew on it, like paan,”) there was a very familiar, colloquial undercurrent to the rehearsal process that drew the ensemble together, and brought the music into the context of present time and place.
There were about a dozen singers with solo roles in the production, ranging from three high school aged girls singing the roles of the three Knaben in Die Zauberflote to older singers in their 30s who had trained at premier conservatories in Europe. While some of the singers had clearly performed a lot and were comfortable taking the stage, for others, there were many firsts.
One of the most beautiful moments came early in the rehearsal process. A tenor from Bihar was singing an Andante section from one of Ferrando’s arias in Cosi fan Tutte. Though he knew his part well, he had never sung with an orchestra before and was incredibly nervous, to the point where he simply was not breathing. His eye was steadily fixed on George’s baton, and he was clearly putting in 200% of the effort he needed to lock in with the orchestra.
George took him gently by the shoulder and turned him to face the first violin section, and said warmly, “They are playing your melody. Look at them. Make contact with all of them, up to that last stand of first violins, and breathe with them.” Suddenly, eight violinists heads came out of the music, and both the tenor and the violin section looked at each other, and connected — the body language of the violins changed as they led and supported the tenor warmly through the melody, and the tenor focused for a moment on the connection, instead of on his mounting nerves. Though he was still overwhelmed, there was a moment of understanding and genuine communication between the tenor, the section, and George, who had one hand planted firmly on the tenor’s back, and the other hand guiding the section gently with the baton.
That feeling of breaking new ground, both for the project overall and for the individuals involved, created an excitement around the music that is more rare in professional music-making than it should be. I think sometimes we get too comfortable – we know we can do something well, and we continue to do that thing well, to the point where the adrenaline rush that comes with taking risks is lost.
It was for that reason that during my three years on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music Precollege, that I looked forward to attending so many of my students’ recitals — the fact that these students had been feverishly preparing music for months that was at the outer limits of their ability, and that they were taking an enormous risk to present what was sometimes their first full-length recital in front of their family, friends and colleagues gave these events an unbridled, do-or-die energy. Sure they weren’t always note perfect, but it hardly mattered: it was some of the most exciting music making I have ever heard. Though the circumstances were different in this case, I felt a similar excitement.
Though my credit in the program was as the “Librettist to the Conductor” (how many conductors can say they have their own personal librettist?) (though sadly, I think it was just a mistranslation of “Orchestra Librarian”), my role in the production was multi-faceted: I did some vocal coaching with the singers — everything from banging out notes to discussing phrasing and interpretation to a bit of basic diction. I was pretty close to singing in the choir, but had to back out at the last minute, because I was needed as the librarian, to sort out parts and make sure everyone had the music they needed.
To be honest, it was the first time in a long time that I felt that my non-compositional skills were valued to such a degree. In the west, there is very little I do that other people can’t do just as well or better than I can. I would never be hired as a vocal coach or an accompanist or an orchestral librarian: though, as a working musician, I am knowledgeable in those areas, people get doctorates and have university positions doing those things – they are specialized fields. But here, it’s nice to feel that whatever knowledge I do have is important, and that I can help people at whatever level I’m capable. In the west, I am a composer of a very specific kind of music that appeals to a specific audience. Here, I’m a bit of everything. I like that.
Aside from these more codified tasks, though, a lot of what I did was to simply be there as an active observer, as someone who was reasonably familiar with the world of opera and understood how things should look and feel, and to seamlessly fill in any little oversights and blips to make sure things ran as smoothly as possible.
Needless to say, my role left me with a lot of time to listen and to think. Observing this whole process, from its early stages into the two successful performances was much more of an emotional experience for me than I had anticipated.
On one hand, having spent these months listening to almost exclusively Indian music (whether attending concerts of Hindustani classical music or Rajasthani folk music, or even hearing bollywood songs pumping through the speakers at a restaurant or in a particularly pimped out rickshaw), hearing Mozart suddenly felt so easy to digest. For once, I wasn’t trying to make out the words, or trying to figure out the raag, or trying to understand the technical facilities of instruments I had never seen before, or trying to develop a coherent understanding of something outside my body of knowledge. However much Hindustani music stirs my soul (and it does now, perhaps to an even greater degree than when I first came to India), Mozart and I have a long and tangible history. I can feel those characteristic chord progressions in my fingers, and because of that, the music seems inevitable to me.
So, oddly, this three hundred year old music from a Viennese composer, written largely in German and Italian, makes an Indian girl living in India slightly homesick for America.
On the other hand, there were numerous moments that the music brought tears to my eyes, as I began to think about how much it meant to me to see people who looked like me performing the music I have known and loved from childhood. I can’t even remember an instance growing up where I met another Indian person at a concert or competition, and it was only in the last few years that I began to connect with a handful of Indians who had found their way into western classical music.
I didn’t consciously realize it growing up, but now, living here, I realize how much that affected my conception of myself. Because somewhere in the back of my mind, for most of my life, was an irrational nagging thought that was validated at every stumbling block: “Reena, Indian people can’t do this. If they could, you wouldn’t be the only stupid one trying.”
So on a personal level, it means the world to me to finally meet so many Indians my age who have been working tirelessly towards the same musical ends, many of whom are now quite accomplished and decorated. Each one of them has a unique and unusual story: I haven’t yet met anyone who comes from a family of western classical musicians, or for whom western music was the obvious choice. Some of them switched careers from more typical ones into music, some of them maintain other careers on the side while performing as opportunities arise. Some have families who fully support their art, and others have families who don’t even know what they do. Some are married to europeans and have lived and worked both in the west and in India. Most of them also spent years looking out into audiences where no one resembled them. I recognize elements of my own story in each of theirs – specifically those elements that I don’t share with my peers in the west.
I can already see it happening: sometime next year, when I’m back in America, I will hear an aria from Die Zauberflote and feel homesick for India.