India’s lone male tenor wants to ‘Indianise’ opera

January 27, 2015

Opera singer Anando Mukerjee discovered his love for music while listening to crooner Al Martino’s Here In My Heart on state-run All India Radio when he was 13. Now, he is India’s only male tenor performing on the international stage.

Born in Bihar to Bengali parents and now living in London, Mukerjee studied at Cambridge University but quit academics for opera after getting a degree in molecular biology. At 23, he started getting singing lessons from vocal coaches including Nicolai Gedda, and went professional in 2006. He debuted at Belgrade’s National Theatre, and has performed in Italy, France, England, Scotland, Wales, Norway and the United States.

Mukerjee, who sang two arias in the capital on Jan.23 as part of an outreach programme, said his ambition is to expose the Indian public to opera through live performances, social media and by adapting the art form to an Indian context.

Mukerjee, who said he is in his mid-thirties (he wouldn’t give his exact age), spoke with India Insight about his plan to popularise opera, his interest in Bollywood and releasing a song in Hindi. The quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q. How and when did you become interested in opera?

A: I was listening to All India Radio. It used to have a weekly broadcast on the weekends of western classical music.  One day I was listening to this incredible sound that came out from the radio. And it came from a male voice. I was arrested by the sound, completely awestruck. This, I realized, was opera and the voice was that of a tenor … That really was the tipping point. When I heard this voice at the age of 13, I felt that I could actually recreate that sound and to my great surprise I actually found that I could. And then it became an obsession.

Q: What kind of tenor are you?

A: Italianate lirico-spinto tenor – I’m not a dramatic tenor, which is a very very heavy voice, nor am I a purely lyric tenor which is a light voice. I’m in the middle. So I can sing both lyrical and dramatic repertoire within limits.

Q: Do you have any plans to promote your art in India, and if so, are you tageting any particular audience?

A: I am targeting India, full stop. I happen to be the only internationally recognised Indian opera singer in the world, a tenor. And therefore it is actually incumbent upon me to share my art form with my people.

Q: What is your plan?

A: Partly it is visibility in the media, and I have a presence on the internet. I’m on YouTube and SoundCloud, I’m easily accessible. I’ll be having a website up very soon. And I’m coming back to India in December 2015 and I will be singing with The Symphony Orchestra of India, our own home-grown orchestra, and I’ll be singing at the NCPA in Bombay (Mumbai) and I’ll also be singing at Kamani (auditorium) in Delhi, and I also hope to combine this with a tour of other cities.

 Q: What is the level of interest in opera in India?

A: The youth, they don’t have an interest, not because of any fault of their own, but because they haven’t been exposed to it. Even though there is awareness, there is no interest because it hasn’t been done (performed). If it is done, if it is packaged right, if it is not diluted, if the artistic integrity of the music is not diluted, and it is given an Indian narrative and an Indian context, then there is no reason to suppose why it can’t work.

 Q: How do people in foreign countries react when they discover what you do?

A: When they find I’m an Indian, they are very vey intrigued. And I have to go through a similar process of explaining to them that it shouldn’t be surprising to you that an Indian is singing opera because after all, India was once a colonial country where not only the British import their own system of government, but they also imported their own cultural art forms, of which western classical music and opera was certainly one.

Q: Some people say opera is elitist. Is it?

A: There is a point when people say opera is elitist because many people go to the opera to be seen rather than go for the joy of the music. That’s when the opera ceases to be a great art form and become more of a social event. I personally don’t think in India that, I don’t think it’s the correct perception that opera is elitist. This is something that is peculiar to the West, because opera is so much in its nascent stages, I don’t think it’s reached the stage of being elitist.

And as I said, I am involved in a very important project to make it accessible – by being here, by connecting with the media, connecting to the people, doing concerts, doing educational outreach, doing lectures, doing demonstrations, going on tour, and also encapsulating opera in every possible medium… I’ve not had a Bollywood contract, but I have been in touch with Bollywood film producers who are quite interested in using me.

Q: Will opera ever have a steady following in India?

A: It’ll have to be packaged, it’ll have to be presented and managed and marketed in the right way. It has to be completely accessible… It has to be contextualized to India.

 Q: How?

A: You’re going to have great operatic work presented in India with an Indian cast. We have the Symphony Orchestra of India so that there is a sense of ownership with the audience. The opera taking place can no longer be operas coming from Italy and Germany and England to India because even though that’s a fantastic thing, it’s very expensive. Secondly, Indian audiences will not connect with a foreign company. They’ll enjoy it, but they won’t say this is our guy… it has to be Indianised. Therefore you can certainly have something like Carmen which is a great opera set in Spain, being set in India, Rajasthan. So you’re not masalafying it, you’re not chutnifying it, you’re not making it into a kind of fusion experiment. You’re simply contextualizing it to the Indian setting… And you can perform it either in English or Hindi or Bengali or any other regional language.

 Q: Have you ever sung in Hindi at an opera?

A: I have never sung any operatic aria in Hindi but when I was broadcast by the BBC (in India), my singing had Hindi subtitles.

Q: So in your concerts in December, do you think you will sing in Hindi?

A: The majority of the evening will be sung in the original language, be it French or German or Russian or Italian or English. But I think certainly as an encore, I certainly would sing one of the arias in Hindi.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacReports and David @davidlms25 This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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Opera is not so alien to India as this johnny-come-lately tenor or even this interviewer would have us believe. Every year for ten years, the Neemrana Music Foundation has been putting up well received productions in Delhi and a few other cities. These include Carmen, La Traviata, Don Pasquale, Orfeo, Rome & Juliet to name just a few. Frequently these productions feature Indian sopranos and tenors in significant roles.At other times Indian costumes and Indian settings are used in order to connect better with audiences. Operas with Indian/subcontinental stories such as the Fakir of Benares, Lakme & The Pearl Fishers have also been performed here to great acclaim.

Situ Singh Buehler has been giving young people operatic training in Delhi for years. Many of her trainees have been offered roles in the Neemrana productions and a few have been sponsored for overseas training as well.

All this is just Delhi – surely cities like Bombay and Kolkata will be even more familiar with opera and western classical music.

Surprised to see such an under-researched article from Reuters!

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