Exchanging Notes

Dipanita Nath

The opera, by an all-women team, is drawn from everyday acts of gender violence

On a shaky coach of a Mumbai local, women balance boards on their knees and chop vegetables to make a quick bhaaji when they reach home. They belong to a large sisterhood that works 24x7, unseen at home, and barely noticed outside. The work of women is one of the primary images of Daughters Opera, directed by Delhi-based Anuradha Kapur with libretto written by Australian independent producer Tammy Brennan, which opens in Delhi today. The opera is a direct call to action and is part of a larger social activism artwork, The Daughters Opera Project. Kapur, former Director, National School of Drama, is a veteran of plays that push the envelope on form and content, such as 2013’s Viraasat, a complete retelling of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Wada trilogy. “I enjoy attending operas because I have an interest in music but I haven’t directed an opera before, so this project was very challenging as it deals with a difficult and complex subject,” she says. Excerpts:

Daughters Opera has been several years in the making. How has it evolved over time?

The project started as a conversation in 2013, when Tammy Brennan was in Delhi to perform at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav (the annual theatre festival of NSD) and we were responding to the intensifying brutal violence towards women and children across the world in the 21st century. The dialogue that stared at the time turned into an opera when she wrote the piece, as a librettist and it was composed by David Chisolm in Australia. We met over the years, discussing it and seeing how the piece happens. Finally, there was a concert in Australia last year of all the 12 pieces of music in the Fado form. The Fado is a Portuguese form of music that evokes a longing and nostalgia for things that are lost and you knowingly mourn.

What is the storyline of the opera?

There is no distinct storyline but an excavation of violence on women. It is a process to understand the figure of a working woman on stage in reference to a musical tradition. Deepan Sivaraman, the scenographer, and I had to figure out how to find a place for action and singing. In an opera, there is singing as well as an orchestra and our main proposal was: ‘how do you mesh action with that?’, ‘how can we make a narrative on the experience of women with this?’ We have a series of images which mesh, but there is no storyline other than that of women labour. We have tried to think up on how women expand their day, which is a 24-hour work day every single day. We look at the women's work through action, while the music runs parallel and intermeshes in various ways. At the end, three pieces are sung.

How did the Indian and Australian artistes come together in this piece?

We invited actors, singers and dancers. Victoria Hunt from Australia, who is a brilliant dancer and a movement language expert, agreed to collaborate and has done the choreography. The Indian and Australian artistes have been a part of the body language and musicality of the piece. There are small singing sections and a fair amount of movement section. The latter is contemporary, about everyday movements, just as the costumes are saris and track suits and, if the women are in factories, boiler suits.

Opera is not common to India and most auditoriums here are not equipped for it. How did you address this problem?

We have an opera tradition in the sense that nautanki is an opera because it has more singing than speaking. There are some other traditions where there is more singing than speaking. Sangeet-natak has a huge amount of integration, with a large number of songs. But, we won’t call it an opera even if it has 11 songs by artistes such as Bal Gandharva. We will call it natak. In the West, when speech moved away from Greek drama in one direction and music in another, it became spoken drama and opera. This hasn’t happened here except in the naturalistic tradition. In that sense, we have our auditoriums built for music but not for opera like in the West. The Western opera has a slightly different requirement, as we see in Mumbai. We should not necessarily build for the Western opera but take into account the accoustics of any auditorium.

How does Black Box, which is an intimate space, add to the experience of Daughters Opera?

We chose it because we wanted an intimate space as there are two guitarists, a singer and a double bass. It is a small, classic chamber music. The venue provides performers a sort of a residency. We have been performing and building here. We could use the material of the space, which used to be a factory, such as the walls and the concrete, in the work.

From January 3 to 5, at Black Box Okhla, Delhi. Donor pass available at the venue