Jean Francois Vinciguerra has come to New Delhi from Paris to direct the French opera If I Were King. He claims, in reasonably fluent English, to be a fan of Hindi films. It sounds like one of those public relations statements until he likens the opera’s story to that of the Hindi film Nayak, and then adds, “In fact, it is somewhere between Nayak and Jodhaa Akbar.
The world is becoming smaller and maybe the idea of a French opera artist who watches Hindi films is not so unbelievable anymore. After all, an opera is like a play where the characters sing rather than talk, somewhat like the song and dance routines the rest of the world associates with Indian films.
The fact that Vinciguerra is here to help stage a French opera written in the mid-19th century shows that like commerce, cultural traffic flows both ways. If I Were King is set in Goa and, Vinciguerra points out, was written by Adolphe Adam at a time when “Orientalism”—a fascination with the supposedly mystical and mysterious East—was in vogue in Europe.
Being shown as part of Bonjour India, the two-month long cultural festival of France, If I Were King is the fifth opera being staged here by the Delhi-based Neemrana Music Foundation, in as many years. The Indian and French cast of the opera will tell the story—set in Goa in 1510 before it was invaded by the Portuguese—of a poor fisherman who saves a princess from drowning. They fall in love; the inevitable complications and twists ensue until the lovers are united.
Staging an opera with an onstage cast of 130, comprising almost equally of French and Indian actors, with an orchestra of 30 French and 10 Indian musicians cannot be very easy. But the mood is relaxed inside the auditorium of the British School in Delhi where the opera is being rehearsed. The even proportion of brown and white faces, dark and blonde hair in the auditorium, and the convivial air, brings home the intangible pluses of a genuinely cross-cultural endeavour. Vinciguerra points out that the highlight of the production includes a “Bollywood dancing” sequence. The opera itself begins with 40 children singing a Goan fishing song.
Spectacular: If I Were King being rehearsed. Parikhit Pal
The other vital aspect of staging an opera in India is the opportunity it affords to those few here who have chosen to make a career in Western classical music. Vikrant Subramanian was introduced to opera singing at a workshop organized by the Neemrana foundation and is currently training to be an opera singer at the L’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. He says that being a soloist at this early stage in his career is a very valuable learning experience for him. “Actual performance is not something you can learn in the classroom,” he says.
The sentiment is echoed by A.V.S. Raman Rao, one of the seven singers in the choir who are training to be Western classical vocalists at A.R. Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory in Chennai. “We see ourselves as singers, but here we are performers,” he says. “This is the first time we were directed by someone. It’s win-win for both—they need professional singers and we get practical exposure.”
As Vinciguerra puts it, “It’s a big musical adventure and also a human adventure… It’s a fantastic meeting ground.”
If I Were King will be staged on 12, 14, 15 January at Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi. Tickets are available at the Neemrana store at Khan Market and the Alliance Francaise, Lodhi Road, New Delhi.