How Opera Theatre of St. Louis Turned Rushdie's Shalimar Into Opera 

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On October 17, 2015, in a church-turned-event-space that only recently had a tree growing out of it, an opera was being built. Shalimar the Clown, a new work based on the eponymous Salman Rushdie novel, would make a quiet, public-facing debut that night after ten days of intensive workshopping.

The workshop, held in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Cincinnati, was part of a joint venture between the Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music called "Opera Fusion: New Works," which offers composer-librettist teams a chance to workshop in-progress compositions — and conservatory students a chance to learn and perform opera. Shalimar, as it happens, was ramping up to make its world debut with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) on June 11.

OTSL artistic director James Robinson was also in attendance. It's exactly the type of workshop that he likes sitting in on: young singers "presenting material so you can actually hear it," he says.

"That kind of workshop isn't about the performance of the piece but how the opera itself is working," he adds. "You learn a great deal about the pacing of the piece, how works sound in certain registers of the voice, whether scenes seem too slow or too fast."

Unlike him, I hadn't been on hand for more than a week of five-hour evening rehearsals (doubles on the weekends) and note-taking and revisions, followed by the performers re-learning parts as things got added and subtracted. I was there to watch, to see what happened when it came to life. As staffers bustled around, tuning a piano and setting up heavy wooden chairs for the audience and risers for the singers, I noticed a rug at the front of the stage — a spot, I was told, for the sitar player.

I was intrigued.

If you're like me — passably familiar with opera but no Juilliard grad — you don't hate opera. You're open to it, but maybe you see it as a little antiquated. A little dusty. You really liked the absurdist modernity of last year's OTSL production of Barber of Seville because it was so obviously appealing, but the more traditional La rondine was a little slow. Or maybe opera just seems too highbrow or bougie or fusty to you.

Shalimar isn't set in a royal court, and there's not a powdered wig or breastplate to be found. It springs from a novel by one of modern literature's greats. It's mainly set between 1989 and 1990 in a remote village in Kashmir ("It's not just a sweater," as librettist Rajiv Joseph quipped before the debut).

To greatly simplify a complicated history, the region has been under dispute since 1947, when the modern shapes of India and Pakistan were drawn along Hindu and Muslim lines. After war in 1965 led to a U.N.-negotiated ceasefire, tensions remained high (another war in 1971; allegations of election rigging in 1987). In 1989, pro-Pakistan and pro-independence guerrillas struck, ushering in a lingering conflict and driving almost all the Hindus out of the region. The setting is a far cry from the Eurocentrism you associate with many classic operas.

Like much of Rushdie's work, magical realism permeates the plot. A celebration in the opera's village, inhabited by dancers and acrobats, is interrupted by a man Rushdie calls the Iron Mullah (in the opera, he's called Bulbul Fakh) — who's made completely out of scrap metal. But as badly as magical realism sometimes translates to film, in opera it seems almost perfectly at home.

"He has this mechanical voice, and he's terrifying, and he's interrupting this choice occasion to warn people that they're infidels and that there's a war about to begin," says Joseph. "It's very chilling and striking, but also it's born to be an aria. It's amazing — it's like this perfect moment in the opera."

The workshop was the first time that the creative team had heard the opera sung straight through. Joseph had previously heard the music, of course: Composer Jack Perla had sent recordings to him, but the synthesizer used on them, while adequate, wasn't exactly the same as a live sitar. And though Joseph and Perla both knew the words, they'd never heard them sung by a full chorus.

"I remember the first day and hearing it and thinking, 'Wow, this is complex' — and that was the first thought," Joseph says. "Then after about ten minutes into it, it was like, 'Wow, this is beautiful.' My own rhythm had to kind of adjust to hearing opera, but once I kind of sank into it, it was magical."

I felt the same way during the performance. It took me a second to align with it — watching an opera is more active and more involved than, you know, streaming Netflix. But then something shifts and clicks into gear, and suddenly opera doesn't seem so strange at all. It sweeps you along with it.

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