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

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

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.

click to enlarge Jack Perla (left) and Rajiv Joseph (middle) at a press confernce. - ERIC WOOLSEY
Jack Perla (left) and Rajiv Joseph (middle) at a press confernce.

Shalimar the Clown was the first opera Jack Perla ever pitched when he set about on his madcap plan — his words — to be a known opera composer. It was also the last to be commissioned.

Fresh off a three-year stint writing music (more than 1,000 pieces) and directing voiceovers for the educational entertainment company LeapFrog, Perla threw the idea out in 2007 to a some major companies and opera-scene folks while living in San Francisco. It got a warm reception, he says, "but they had other things."

But the opera world — at least the part of it that develops new works — is a small one, and eventually his treatment found its way to Robinson. The story is a lesson in sticking to great ideas: Nine years after its initial conception, Shalimar is about to find its way, fully realized, onto the stage at OTSL.

The company, which mounts a full season of shows each year at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University, has built a national reputation for its commitment to producing new operas, including 27 (2014), Champion (2013), The Golden Ticket (2010) and Loss of Eden (2002). According to Opera Fusion: New Works' co-artistic director Marcus Küchle, OTSL is an ideal company for premiering new works: Mid-sized companies seem to be more agile when it comes to changing business models.

And while larger institutions like the Met in New York do produce (excellent) new works, there's something about being located in a middle ground — in a "second city" with a medium-sized company — that lends itself to being unbound by venerable tradition, to taking risks and to pushing the envelope creatively. Minnesota Opera, for example, has just produced an adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining.

"At least in North America, it's a golden period for opera because there's so much new work being created that just picks up where old opera already was," says Küchle. In Europe, he adds, the focus is instead on reinterpreting older works in increasingly conceptual ways — an approach that in the U.S. is "met with a certain sense of disapproval" by audiences.

Küchle adds that ambition like Perla's is not an anomaly: There's no shortage of singing talent coming out of schools or of composers who want to write opera.

For Perla, the lag time between his initial Shalimar pitch and actually writing it proved to be a blessing, in a way. Of all his ideas, he says, "it's the biggest and the most ambitious."

It was also a work where he could exercise the full range of his compositional capabilities. With solid source material — the plot surges with classic soap-opera elements: sex, political intrigue, ideological clashes — he divided the novel up into scenes, sketching out a libretto (the opera's "script") and developing a synopsis.

But an opera needs both music and words, and, once OTSL picked up Shalimar for production, the hunt turned to finding a strong librettist — something the opera world is a little short on at the moment, Küchle says.

One was secured, Perla says, but dropped off the project after a year and a half due to geographical challenges (he was in the U.K.) and a busy schedule. So it was back to the beginning.

And then Joseph came on board. The playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, 2010) had never written an opera before, but bring Rushdie into the mix, and the opportunity to write an opera based on Shalimar was a no-brainer. "Immediately, I was like, 'Yeah, I'd like to do anything that's Rushdie-related,'" he says. Besides plays, he's also written for Nurse Jackie and co-wrote the script for Army of One, a feature film due out this year starring Nicolas Cage and Rainn Wilson.

"The first meeting we had was amazing because I was so tempted to tell him all the ideas," Perla says. "I had so many ideas at that point, and [Robinson] advised me ... he said, 'See what he's thinking.' ... [Joseph] had many ideas I never would have thought of, but there were several big key items that we were absolutely on the same page... There were things that really grabbed him in the book, specific pages and passages that to me, too, were just incredibly powerful."

Joseph hadn't seen a ton of opera before he started writing the libretto. "I'm not this 'opera expert,' so I feel like many people, I think, who aren't used to opera," he says. "I find it a challenging art form.

"It was a totally different experience than writing a play — or even writing a musical, which I've done also," Joseph adds. In opera, the libretto and score are so closely intertwined that you can't really blame a novice for not knowing where to start: "When I asked [Perla] what comes first, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'Well, the libretto! I can't do anything until I have the libretto!'"

So Joseph gave himself a crash course: He began seeing more opera and listening to it a lot, and his brother, a classical musician, gave him advice and more operas to listen to. Robinson and Perla chimed in with their own suggestions, too, as well as librettos to read — "and that's when it started making sense to me," Joseph says.

But his task wasn't just to write an opera: It was to turn a nearly 400-page novel about a disputed region in Asia into an opera.

"Whenever I'd be on a subway or on a trip, or at the gym, I'd be listening to it to get the words and the language into my bones a little more," Joseph says (he also read Shalimar twice and listened to it on audiobook while writing).

First, he pared down the source material, letting the narrative shine through. He agrees that he and Perla were on the same page from the beginning — well, pages. "When I met [Perla], it was great because we clearly had thought about the book the same way," says Joseph. "We saw the moments in the book that seemed theatrical and dramatic. Because the difficulty is that it's a very complex and sweeping novel, and to work that down into a magical size for a performance is difficult."

Joseph got a big sketchpad — he uses a different type of notebook for each project — and began to write down ideas. Perla and Robinson sat him down to warn him that a sung sentence winds up about about ten times as long as a spoken sentence.

"So the key to writing a libretto is ... you want it to be as spare and short as possible," Joseph says. "That's a different sort of artistic approach to creating dialogue than the one I'm used to."

Eventually, the ideas turned into the dialogue he needed to carry the opera. He started writing in December 2013 and finished six months later. From there, there was a back and forth between Joseph and Perla and Robinson: phone calls and emails to bounce ideas off each other, refining and refining and refining. "I'd hone it, and hone it, and hone it, and then I had a libretto," Joseph says.

Meanwhile, Robinson would help facilitate the creative process, asking questions, keeping an eye on dramatic pacing and making sure that ideas that can be expressed in ten seconds of music don't take two minutes. He also teased out clarity and made sure the team stayed collaborative — which, with a different creative team that had more ego, could have been difficult.

"We all have our eyes on the same target: The goal is to have the piece work," says Robinson. "It's not like anyone gets territorial — they maintain the integrity of what they're doing ... it's not like everyone's digging in and drawing lines. The most important thing is to collaborate."

The team also met with Rushdie during the writing process, sitting down to talk with him for about three hours one day, Joseph says. He now counts the New York-based novelist among his friends, though Rushdie was pretty hands-off, letting the team take his story and run with it.

"He didn't want to kind of really interfere," says Joseph. "He was very happy that we were doing it. He was very supportive. ... Again, since the book is so big, we had a bunch of ideas and he would be able to gently say, 'Well, don't lose track of Shalimar. The book is called Shalimar.'

"And I'd be like, 'Oh yeah, you're right. We've lost track of the main character of the story. We've been obsessed with these two other characters,'" says Joseph. "He was helpful, but since then he's happily stayed out of it and he's excited to come in here. He's listened to some of it and he's very supportive, which I was very happy about.

"One of the fears is that he would hate what I did, and I could see and understand why he would, because — I'm not proud of it — I had to change the story," he says. The cutting room floor inevitably saw some casualties during the adaptation process.

"There's a couple of characters that I cannot believe are not in this, but you can't go down that road because you want every character to be fully alive," says Joseph. "The audience would be sitting there for two days."

Meanwhile, as Joseph wrote the libretto in L.A. and Brooklyn, Perla was working on the score for the long-awaited opera from San Francisco, calling up musical knowledge that he'd first started developing more than a decade before.

Before his LeapFrog stint, he'd been involved with projects in San Francisco's Bay Area, crossing paths with world-class Indian musicians like Zakir Hussain, Aashish Khan and Sultan Khan. "I had been thrown into the midst of that group and learning a bit really by osmosis and just on the job," Perla says. There was also a project with Arjun Verma, a Bay Area sitarist: a small one-act opera that involved Indian music. While Perla composed the words, rather than the music, it's how, he says, he got his "feet wet."

Perla drew on the vastness of Indian musical tradition — "incredibly rich and multi-layered," he says — to build out his score. He did it most notably through the use of raga, a melodic mode used in Indian classical music. For those not familiar, "raga is like a collection of melodic ideas, do's and don'ts," Perla says, adding that "it's been really interesting and powerful to see how those materials can enhance the drama enormously — and challenging to make it work."

Part of the challenge was creating a bridge between two cultures' musical traditions. In Western music, he explains, there's a "love of harmony and the movement of harmony," whereas Indian music is "intensely melodic" and can bring the listener to a different place from where they began.

"There are parts that are really dense and barely tonal," Perla continues. "They are dissonant and clustery and strange and then there are things that are utterly simple, all the way down to major and minor triads and spare textures."

But there's also the audience to consider: The debut, after all, is not taking place in India but in the American Midwest.

"Some parts of the opera it's really 'Indian music lite,' and other places it's quite thorough going," he admits. "There are one or two scenes that were really much more a thorough working-out of a raga and working in all its components and parts."

click to enlarge The Opera Fusion New Works public reading of Shalimar in Cincinnati in October 2015. - PHILIP GROSHONG AND CINCINNATI OPERA
The Opera Fusion New Works public reading of Shalimar in Cincinnati in October 2015.

But there's always a middle ground, and when I spoke to Perla the first time, the weekend of the workshop's performance, he was finishing the last part of the opera — and found it there: "We've taken themes and melodic ideas from these ragas that have been now used throughout the opera, but now I'm making them modulated and move through all those harmonic pathways and it's really interesting. It's very powerful," he says.

"There are parts that are really dense and barely tonal," Perla continues. "They are dissonant and clustery and strange and then there are things that are utterly simple, all the way down to major and minor triads and spare textures."

The day after the performance, Joseph and Perla and Robinson got together for a huddle. They talked through the previous night's debut, going over what worked well and what didn't work as well as they thought. Although they were getting closer to the final version — certainly further along than they had been at the beginning of the workshop — they had notes to take home for a few cosmetic changes, as Joseph says.

"This is one of those challenges of adapting a book: We know the story in our heads, but then we don't know if that story is necessarily coming out," he says. When you know something like the back of your hand, you can almost get bogged down in the knowing of it — and it might not translate to the audience, who haven't heard it at all.

So the team reworked and refined, had a recording session, workshopped it again in San Francisco in January. Work was done, as it always had been, over Skype and email and the occasional instances where everyone happened to be in the same city at once.

"It's not like sitting in a room and creating a musical or creating the theme song to Oklahoma!," says Robinson, who was based in Brooklyn while Shalimar was being written. "What we do is look at things and respond to what's being written and share our reactions and that's how the process goes. We don't need to all be together to make the process work."

And then there were more revisions and more tweaks, and finally, by the beginning of May, singers were arriving in St. Louis and rehearsals were about to kick off. By that point, Robinson says, the opera was pretty much in its final form.

"Once you start rehearsing, you don't get a lot of time to make significant changes. It's not like a Broadway musical or something where you have 30 previews and can keep working on it," he says. Instead, he says, the hope is that with the workshopping and reworking, problem areas are resolved before rehearsals for the premiere begin.

Before I came to Cincinnati, I'd had the general feeling that opera was "old," that a work like this was rare because it was modern. When I thought of the plots and themes of the few I was familiar with, I pictured them wrapped alongside some wigs and tucked away firmly in the past until the next performance.

But that's looking back to these classic operas from where we stand now — and in doing so, we forget just how contemporary (and edgy) those older productions were in their own time. Somehow, this seems so much less obvious with opera than, say, with literature.

But after watching Shalimar, after realizing just how contemporary its themes were and how much they spoke to us (and how understandable the singing was), I thought back to an earlier conversation with Küchle.

"The use of modern themes and modern circumstances that are newsworthy in art is not necessarily a new thing," he said. "It's just something that continues in opera."

I wondered if Joseph, who told me that he previously "didn't know anything about opera," had found himself equally swept away. What's next? I asked him. Would he do an opera all over again?

"Now I'm hooked," Joseph replied. "I feel like I would love to get another chance to write a new one and use what I've learned to my advantage. I love working with [Perla] and [Robinson], and it's very exciting — because it can be a fast process, it's all the more interesting."

Dream project?

"I'd love to find something that you'd never think would be an opera and then go for that — something really low culture and then elevate it."

I suggested Friends.

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