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When I heard that Opera San Jose’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” a Mozart masterpiece, would be set in India of the Victorian times, it was impossible to not be a wee bit skeptical. It seemed like an incongruous mingle-mangle, like the new Princess of Wales getting her hair styled — in a Pizza Hut T-shirt, no less — at Cupertino’s Supercuts.
The opportunity to watch this latest production by Opera San Jose presented itself, and I went to Downtown San Jose’s California Theatre on opening night, even though a large part of me refused to believe that conflicting ideas could be meshed with aplomb, vision and style. All it needed from me was a willing suspension of disbelief and an open mind that barred all preconceived notions about both India and the opera.
The first thing that strikes the audience in the opening scene of “Figaro” is the imposing set evocative of the Mogul period. In the background are distinctive symmetric arches in red sandstone and white marble with wide open courtyards and gardens. The girls in the workshop sport jasmine in their hair in this reimagined India. The scene is in the servants’ quarters of the opulent digs belonging to Count and Countess Almaviva.
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As the curtain opens, Susanna, clad in a red lehnga, choli and a gold odhani, sits behind a sewing machine. She’s not far away from an altar to the Hindu god Ganesha inside a workshop reminiscent of tailoring shops traditionally run by Muslims in northern India. In India, both then and now, a Ganesha altar can spring up in a sconce just about anywhere, for Ganesha may be as dear to a Christian or a Muslim as to the Hindu.
While watching “Figaro,” I found one too many disparate details of India fused together in somewhat dissonant ways. Yet, the overall effect was charming and visually captivating.
What was probably even more striking was the diversity of the cast, several of whom are Indian American, Chinese American and Sri Lankan American. The opera features Maya Kherani as Susanna, Efraín Solís as Figaro, Eugene Brancoveanu as Count Almaviva, Maria Natale as Countess Almaviva, Deepa Johnny as Cherubino, Tahanee Aluwihare as Marcellina, Matthew Anchel as Dr. Bartolo, Zhengyi Bai as Don Basilio, Krishna Raman as Don Curzio, Melissa Sondhi as Barbarina and Jesús Vicente Murillo as Antonio.
The crowning glory of this production is that its celebrated music conductor himself is of Indian American descent. For conductor Viswa Subbaraman, this opera has offered a rich and unique experience.
“When you set a show in India, you have an opportunity to bring in so many varied performers,” Subbaraman says. “For me it was an exciting thing … the opportunity to work in a room where so many people looked like me.”
In the words of one of the opera’s fresh faces — Raman, who performs this season in his first professional gig, and has been cast as Don Curzio — it’s this diversity of performers that has made “Figaro” unexpectedly exciting.
At first, Raman found himself a little weirded out, dressed as he was in his Indian attire while singing traditional Western music. Until this opportunity presented itself, however, Raman, like many Indian Americans, led the dual life; he assumed his Indian identity at home or in celebrations involving Indian festivities, and he led a distinctly different life in the world of Western opera.
Mosaic America, a Silicon Valley nonprofit organization that’s striving to bring artists from different cultures together, refers to this tendency among distinct communities as living within their “cultural silos.” In its push to move American communities “from diversity into belonging,” Mosaic America encourages diverse artistic backgrounds to find points of commonality.
For “Figaro,” Mosaic America offered sources of talent. “Had it not been for Mosaic America, Opera San Jose will have had a much-delayed, a more arduous task of finding culture-bearers, who, in turn, would have had to undergo a nebulous auditioning process,” says Mosaic America co-founder and chief programming officer Priya Das.
A Mosaic America dance fellow, Antara Bhardwaj, an exponent of kathak dance, was chosen to be “Figaro’s” cultural consultant on India. Bhardwaj has loved her deep dive into the world of opera. She’s particularly proud of the famous wedding scene in “The Marriage of Figaro” for which she came up with the concept.
“The weddings have been done the same way,” she says, pointing out that in this new version, however, the villagers of India could not be expected to step into ballroom dance as in the traditional wedding scene in “Figaro.” Instead, she choreographed a scene that embodies the chaos and the color of an Indian wedding. “It’s a completely outside-the-box approach.” The closing scenes are indeed vibrant and redolent of a big fat Indian wedding.
While it puts a new twist to an old opera, Opera San Jose’s “The Marriage of Figaro” remains topical even three centuries after its creation. When it was composed in 1786, “Figaro” ventured into sensitive territory for those times. The simmering, contentious relationship between the classes made Figaro popular, especially because the content was always mired in controversy. The original play written in 1778 by Pierre Beaumarchais was banned by the ruling authorities in France. Some years later, Mozart’s opera, too, made the Austrian monarchy jittery.
Almost three centuries after its creation, the inequities in the world have multiplied. “Figaro” continues to be relevant, reminding us that rank and privilege will always skew the world, no matter the time or the time zone. This fact alone makes the decision to set this opera in India intriguing. What viewers soon begin to realize is that underneath the shade of our skin, no matter where we are, our problems, our fears and our frustrations are invariably the same.
Where this new take on “Figaro” makes the most impact, especially in this new age of #MeToo and whistle-blowing, is in how its women deal with men who cross the line. The women in “Figaro” transcend class to band together to teach Count Almaviva a lesson, an uncommon act of courage and vision that’s still largely lacking in our contemporary world. That being said, “Figaro’s” flippant and often comical references to sexual impropriety feel malapropos in this brave new world in which inappropriate sexual advances and cavalier attitudes toward them are objectionable.
While I would give props to this version of “Figaro” for being innovative, it certainly could have taken more risks. Period costumes and setting, unfortunately, are merely visual treats.
What would have been grander still given the choice of the Indian backdrop — while staying very true to the operatic form — may have been the addition of Indian classical percussion and melody at the end. For what is an Indian wedding without the aural flamboyance of the dhol and a wind instrument? Above all, here was an opportunity to showcase India’s own magnificent cultural gifts to the world of classical music. Now that would have been bold. It would have been surprising. It would have been remembered. It may even have forged a new path in the world of opera.
Opera San Jose’s “The Marriage of Figaro” runs for four more performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 2 p.m. Sept. 25, all at California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Currently, all four are sold out. For more information, visit https://www.operasj.org/.