To thousands of opera lovers the world over, Carmen instantly conjures up fiery images of red lips, flamenco heels and the beautiful, wild gypsy girl working in a cigarette factory in Seville.
But the Neemrana Musical Foundation, in association with the Ashok Hotel, will reimagine Carmen as a Kathak-dancing bidi maker who falls in love with a Bollywood actor.
This Indianized version of Carmen, on a budget of Rs90 lakh, steps aside slightly from the foundation’s tradition of bringing opera about the subcontinent to the subcontinent. Normally, it tries to bring operas based in the region, such as last year’s popular The Pearl Fishers, set in Sri Lanka, or next year’s planned If I Were a King, set in Goa. Neemrana Music Foundation founder Francis Wacziarg says the foundation chose Carmen due to popular demand, at which point it seemed obvious to transplant the scenery, costume, dance and setting of the opera to India.
Carmen, written by Georges Bizet and first performed in 1875, tells the story of a beautiful seductress and the man who won’t let her go. When it was first performed in Paris, it was greeted with stony silence, and after scathing reviews (some called it “immoral”), considered a failure. But it has since become one of the world’s most performed operas, due in no small part to its passionate music and soaring dance scenes.
Those dance scenes have been reimagined by renowned Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, who will teach north Indian dance to the international cast. The costumes will also be changed from the flamenco style of southern Spain to a modern Indian dress—a flamboyant fusion mix that Neemrana consultant Priti Jain has dubbed “Delhiwood”.
The French soloist Elsa Lévy, in the role of Carmen, captures the sultry flirtatiousness of a woman capable of driving men to the brink of madness. With the choir swelling behind her, Lévy trills out the famous Habanera with a saucy glint in her eyes.
Girl power: Elsa Lévy rehearsing for her role. (Sanjay Sharma / Mint)
Lévy is one of four singers brought in from France by the foundation. The rest have been gathered from India and Sri Lanka; of the nine soloists in Carmen, three are from India and two from Sri Lanka.
One soloist, Vikrant Subramanian, joined the foundation three years ago at age 15. Impressed by his talent, the founders sponsored his schooling in France, where he moved last year to study opera. Though back in Delhi to perform Carmen, he will return to school after the performance.
It is singers such as Subramanian that the foundation hopes to discover and nurture in an attempt to foster an opera culture in India. Antoine Redon, the programme’s coordinator, says that unlike in other countries, where foundations and grants support training in opera, India has nothing for it in terms of financial or infrastructural support. The music foundation hopes to change that by awarding scholarships to promising young performers, by producing locally based operas and holding musical workshops with international and local talent.
The long-term result, according to Jain, could be a tourist attraction as prominent as performances of Aida at the Pyramids or Turandot in Beijing. “So many people visit Egypt just to experience the magic of Aida in the country of its setting," she says. “There are a surprising number of European operas that have India as their locale, and their performance could develop into a huge draw, especially if we can provide a core group of musical talent.” Other future projects include Jules Massenet’s The King of Lahore and Leo Delibes Lakmé, from where Simone Tata derived the name of the now ubiquitous beauty brand.
Wacziarg, the French-born founder of the Neemrana Music Foundation, who has spent the last 38 years in India, says that before the foundation, an opera hadn’t been performed here since 1992. Encouraged by recent successes, however, international troupes have been drawn to the subcontinent. Wacziarg says he never wanted to just bring in outside singers; he wanted to nurture home-grown talent. “We’re not impressarios,” he says. “We really want to build something that will stay here.”
(At the Kamani Hall, New Delhi, from 18-20 April. Tickets are available for Rs250 and Rs500 at The Neemrana Shop, 23B, Khan Market, New Delhi, and Alliance Française, 72, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi)