Songs of India

ON Stage brings you excerpts from the NCPA Quarterly Journal, an unsurpassed literary archive that ran from 1972 to 1988 and featured authoritative and wide-ranging articles. In this multi-part article, scholar, curator and Indophile Robert J. Del Bonta explores operas that mention, are set in or are about India, delving into the oddities that creep in owing to a Western view of the subcontinent.

The hidden gems are rich beyond measure.

Unnumbered are the pearls thy ocean treasure.

Oh, wondrous land! Oh, land of India!

– “Song of India” from Sadko

In the opera Sadko of 1898 by Rimsky-Korsakov, the hero Sadko asks three merchants to sing of their native lands so that he can decide which one he wants to visit. The merchants are the Viking, the Venetian and the Indian. After hearing the three songs including the overly familiar and enticing description of India, “Song of India”, for some unexplained reason Sadko proceeds to choose Venice. I believe that Sadko made a terrible mistake. I say this in spite of the fact that I would describe India in a very different manner; in equally glowing but not quite so affluent terms.

Exotic references

There are many operas which mention or are about India from all periods of our musical heritage. Although many of these operas have been recorded or discussed in books, very little is ever said about their content. Much verbiage is given over to such things as “Hindu melodies”, referring to the oriental flavour of the music. This is especially true in reference to Massenet’s use of the unfamiliar saxophone for a waltz followed by “Hindu melody” for flute in the Paradise scene of Le Roi de Lahore. The use of the title “Hindu” is extremely misleading to a Western reader. No Indian would recognise such a thing as Indian, just as no Chinese would feel that Puccini’s Turandot sounds anything but foreign to his ear. These often-repeated comments are entertaining to read, but perhaps a more logical thing to say is that Massenet used the exotic situation of his opera to introduce exotic new sounds and strikingly original melodies. To call these melodies “Hindu” merely points out the European naïveté about things Indian. More important to consider are the plots of the stories. One must consider whether a French version of a love triangle set in Sri Lanka, as seen in Les Pêcheurs de Perles, is as Ceylonese as an Italian version of a Scottish story such as Lucia is Scottish. Despite the ltalianate quality of Lucia, one can view Europe as a cultural unit. But how do Westerners view something as foreign and remote as the Indian subcontinent?

Hogarth’s The Countess’s Morning Levée (ca. 1744), the inspiration for the Marschallin’s morning reception

Having been a student of India for all of my adult life and a lover of opera for almost as long, it has been a constant source of pleasure to me to hear India mentioned in odd contexts in a great many operas and directly dealt with in what are, in my opinion, some rather good works. When the Vendor of Animals in Der Rosenkavalier offers parrots from India during the levée of the Marschallin, I can almost hear the loud squabbling of those loveable creatures in the Islamic ruins of Delhi. When earlier in the same scene, the powder of the Queen of Golconda is mentioned, images of the Kohinoor diamond, which was probably mined there, and the climb to the top of the magnificent Golconda Fort near Hyderabad in southern India crossed my mind.

Other operas include Indian characters adding a cosmopolitan quality to exotic operas set in the East. The most well-known example due to performances in recent decades is the character ldreno in Rossini’s Semiramide of 1823. Indian titles for characters in operas happen in the 18th century as well, as seen in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes Gallantes (about many of the “Indies”) with its Persian prince who is also the King of India and Antonio Salieri’s Cublai concerning Kublai Khan, where an Indian princess finds her way to Central Asia. These characters are gratuitous additions, doing very little to further the plots of their operas. An opera with Indian elements which actually function in the plot is Sir Michael Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage of 1955, where two of the characters become transfigured as the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Parvati.

Metastasio: Alessandro nell’Indie, Herissant Vol. 4, Paris 1780

While these enticing allusions to India appear in operas from time to time, the ones that deal directly with India run the full gamut of our operatic heritage. The first use of India as a setting is found in the many operas based on Pietro Metastasio’s Alessandro nell’lndie. Metastasio’s text was set by a large number of composers during the 18th century, including Porpora in 1730, Handel in 1731, Galuppi in 1738, Gluck in 1744, Sacchini in 1763, as well as Cimarosa, Hasse, Cherubini, J. C. Bach, etc. The operas are variously labelled by the full title or after the Indian king Poro (usually called Porus in the classical accounts) who fought Alexander during the Indian campaign. The plot line suggests a knowledge of the classical sources, since after Porus’s defeat, Alexander restored him to his kingdom. A fictitious character, the Indian queen Cleofide adds the necessary soprano role to these opera seria.

Indian context

The operas to be considered here follow later conventions and there is an attempt to be about India rather than it being merely set there. The oldest opera about India still performed is Adolphe Adam’s Si J’étais Roi of 1852, which is the story of an Indian youth who scribbles the words “If I were King” in the sand and gets his wish.

A scene from Adolphe Adam’s 3-act opéra-comique Si j’étais roi, an illustration on the cover of an 1854 piano-vocal score of musical excerpts

The important thing about this opera is that it concerns Indians and isn’t merely set in India to illustrate the magnanimity of a character like Alexander. The choice of the setting is clearly for its exotic possibilities, but at the same time, this choice allowed composers more freedom from old traditions contributing a great deal to the development of romantic opera. From Si J’étais Roi to the most recent of Indian operas, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage of 1963 (first performed as Le Dernier Sauvage, a comic opera about a rich American girl’s anthropological aspirations and her search for the abominable snowman). Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha of 1980 (about Mahatma Gandhi) and Per Nørgård’s Siddhartaof 1983 (about the early life of the historical Buddha and his decision to renounce the world when a dancer dies before him), the audience is presented with a variety of lndias; in some cases over-romanticised, in others, fairly true to the realities of India, but always exotic.

Unlike Si J’étais Roi, many of the operas about India are no longer in the repertoire (the Adam opera was recently revived by a small company in London). Mentions of other little-known works such as Alfano’s La Leggenda di Shakuntala of 1921 tantalise my imagination. The latter, in particular, conjures up the finale to Puccini’s Turandot finished after his death by Alfano and memories of my struggle to translate Shakuntala, the most famous of all Sanskrit plays, over fifteen years ago. Both Louis Coerne (1904) and Felix Weingartner (1884) offered operatic versions of the playwright Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, while a ballet by Ernest Reyer with a book by Gautier premiered in 1858 and a famous overture by Karl Goldmark, by the same title that dates back to 1865. All of these were presumably based on the early translation by Sir William Jones of 1789 (translated from the English into German by Georg Forster in 1791 and into French by A. Bruguière in 1803), which was widely known in the intellectual circles of Europe. Even Franz Schubert began an opera based on the play as early as 1820, but he never completed it. Alfano’s opera was staged at the Wexford Festival, 1982, where apparently it was staged as a performance in a crumbling hotel during the English Raj.

Lev Ivanov in the ballet “La Bayadere”, St. Petersburg, 1877

While one can imagine the classical presentation of the Shakuntala operas, other titles offer only vague, tantalising hints of the plot lines, such as Donizetti’s Il Paria which hints at untouchables and was based on C. Delavigne’s Le Paria of 1821. Many references to pariahs are found throughout this period in both literary and theatrical works. Other operas which tempt us are Donizetti’s La Regina di Golconda of 1828. Franz Adolphe Berwald’s Drottingen av Golconda of 1864 (first performed in Stockholm in 1968), Berton’s Aline, Reine de Golconde of 1803, and Boieldieu’s opera of the same name of 1804, as well as a number of ballets with similar titles. These works are all presumably based on the play by S.J. de Boufflers and hint of the same Queen of Golconda who lent her powder to Strauss for Der Rosenkavalier. Mentions of Les Bayadères of 1810 by Catel (the famous ballet by Minkus of 1877 was entitled La Bayadère) and The Temple Dancer by John Adam Hugo, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1919, are equally tantalising. An operetta by Kalman called Bayadère is different from the other works since it is not about an Indian temple dancer but about an actress in a play by that title who is loved by an Indian maharaja.

An Act II scene from the 1916 Metropolitan Opera production of Les pêcheurs de perles by Georges Bizet

Besides these few operas a quick list of some of the operas still in the repertoire giving Western operatic impressions of the Indian subcontinent includes: Les Pêcheurs de Perles by Georges Bizet of 1863; L’Africaine (a title which refers to colour and not race or continent) by Giacomo Meyerbeer of 1865; Le Roi de Lahore by Jules Massenet of 1877; Lakmé by Léo Delibes of 1883; Savitri by Gustav Holst of 1916 (but written in 1908); and Padmavati (an opera-ballet) by Albert Roussel of 1923.

Many of these operas have had productions in North America during the last decade or so: Les Pêcheurs de Perles in San Francisco and New York; L’Africaine in San Francisco; Le Roi de Lahore in Vancouver; Lakmé in Dallas, New York and Chicago; Savitri in San Francisco and Baton Rouge; The Last Savage in Charleston; and Satyagraha at Artpark in Lewiston, New York.

This article was originally published from the Archives section by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the October 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.