Musical works featuring the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi have given opera a subcontinental touch.
Simultaneously considered to be the pinnacle of Western art and an example of melodramatic excess, opera is one of those rare art forms that assists in its own caricature. These large dramatic presentations of staged Western classical music are characterised by often-ludicrous plots that seem to be incomplete without a platoon of swooning women and drinking men.
Several operas feature a dash of the Exotic East. Oddly, far more operas set in the Middle or Far East have survived into the 21st century than those in South Asia. Many of those situated in the Indian subcontinent are known today only because certain arias in them survive as concert pieces for singers to showcase their talent.
Here are some.
1. Où Va la Jeune Indoue (India)
There are a few reasons the opera Lakmé should be known, and this aria, also known as the Bell Song, is one of them. Lakmé (French for Lakshmi), the daughter of a Brahmin falls in love with a British officer, Gerald. Those being more uncivil times, her father, who is the head of the local khap panchayat, makes Lakmé sing the Bell Song to lure Gerald out of a crowd, as one supposes Delibes thinks Indians charm snakes. The father stabs Gerald, who survives. There eventually turns out to have been no need for such violence because Gerald abandons Lakmé in the name of duty to his regiment, upon which news she kills herself.
There is a reason this is called the Bell Song – it ends with a coda where the soprano imitates the chiming of a bell that is, oddly, played on a triangle by the orchestra. Celebrated soprano Maria Callas sings this aria of the French opera in Italian.
2. Au Fond du Temple Saint (Sri Lanka)
The most famous aria from Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, or the Pearl Fishers, comes at a crucial moment in the lives of two pearl fishers hopelessly in love with a Brahmin priestess, Leila. They sing, enraptured at the passing Leila, before coming to their senses and vowing that their friendship will always come before any love. Of course, one of them does not know that the other has returned to Ceylon for the express purpose of wooing Leila and has already betrayed him.
This recording is a 1950 version by tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill, both of whose rich voices glide easily through Bizet’s mellifluous score.
3. Evening Song (South Africa)
Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, composed in 1979, is not technically set in India, but is about Mohandas Gandhi’s work in South Africa, which makes it count. It is also sung entirely in Sanskrit, continuing the grand tradition of nobody understanding a word in any given opera. This particular aria at the end is taken from the Bhagwad Gita, where Hindu god Krishna talks of how he returns age after age to earth to uphold good.
The first opera in Glass’s trilogy is Einstein on the Beach, and the third is Akhenaten, about the Egyptian pharaoh. Glass’s signature insistent circular music permeates them all, and depending on the state of your mind, can lead either to a headache or a trance.
4. Si J’étais Roi (Goa)
A rare comic opera set in the east, Si J’étais Roi, written by Adolphe Adam in 1852 seems to be loosely inspired by the Arabian Nights. The king of Goa decides to play a prank on an unsuspecting fisherman who claims to have rescued the princess, Néméa, from drowning and kept her ring as a souvenir. The king has Zéphoris brought to the palace while asleep and treats him like royalty for a day. The next day, after Zéphoris announces he will marry the princess, the king has him returned to his hut, also while asleep, so the fisherman thinks it was a dream. A subplot about Portuguese warships plays on the sideline, but Goa wins and the lovers get married, which is, after all, the point.In this titular aria, tenor Jean-Paul Passedat as Zéphoris sings of how easily the princess would fall in love with him if he were king.
Some argue that Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera L’Africaine is misnamed because it is not about Madagascar at all, but about India. About Vasco da Gama’s love travails after he is missing, presumed dead, he falls in love with a nice European girl, only to have a native princess he has taken slave fall in love with him. He travels to her homeland and upon seeing it, sings rapturously about its paradisal beauty, and is promptly captured as an outsider.
Although the princess claims he is her husband, he is still in love with his woman and eventually, the two sail into the European sunset, while his abandoned wife commits suicide.
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