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The Raj Libretto: Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ Goes Desi Fusing Italian Opera With Indian Classical and Bollywood Dances

The Raj Libretto: Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ Goes Desi Fusing Italian Opera With Indian Classical and Bollywood Dances

  • Directed by Brad Dalton, the new opera is conducted by Viswa Subbaraman and choreographed by Antara Bhardwaj.

Mozart’s classic opera “The Marriage of Figaro” is getting an Indian treatment during Opera San Jose’s 2022-23 opening season later this week. Set during the colonial era of the British Raj and Victorian imperial rule, the all-new production explores class and gender divides, which is central to the opera. Those themes are fused with the splendor of Indian classical dance. The production culminates in a sparkling desi wedding that will bring the exuberance of Bollywood to the stage.

Composed by Mozart in 1786, “The Marriage of Figaro” is a four-act opera buffa, featuring an Italian libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, that premiered in Vienna’s Burgtheater in May of 1786. Its libretto is based on the 1784 stage comedy by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. It highlights the struggle of servants Figaro and Susanna; they want to marry, but their master, the powerful Count Almaviva, wants Susanna for himself. This work is considered one of the greatest operas ever written and appears consistently among the top ten in Operabase’s list of most frequently seen operas. It was the first of three collaborations between Mozart and Da Ponte.

Steven Kemp’s set renderings for Opera San José’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Top photo, Antara Bhardwaj is the choreographer for, and will be featured in, Opera San José’s all-new production. Seen here is Bhardwaj in an Indian folk dance costume similar to the garments featured in OSJ’s production. (All photos courtesy of Opera San José)

Directed by Brad Dalton, the new production is conducted by Viswa Subbaraman in his first Opera San Jose appearance and includes choreographer and cultural consultant Antara Bhardwaj, Steven C. Kemp (scene design), Anshuman Bhatia (lighting), and Deepsikha Chatterjee (costumes). The cast includes Maya Kherani as Susanna, Efraín Solís as Figaro, and Eugene Brancoveanu as Count Almaviva.

Although the new production has an Indian setting, the tradition of the opera style is completely maintained. It is sung in Italian, with English and Spanish supertitles. Even the music is original, with no Indian sounds or instruments. “The Indian setting, the clothes, and the dances are all based on Mozart’s original music,” Subbaraman told American Kahani.

Internationally acclaimed conductor Viswa Subbaraman makes his company debut at the podium in Opera San José’s all-new production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

As a cultural consultant, Bhardwaj plays “a pretty big” part in the production, incorporating elements of Indian culture and dance. A dancer, teacher and filmmaker, she is the founder and artistic director of Mountain View’s Antara Asthaayi Dance.

“I’m really excited because I don’t know if this has ever been done before,” she told American Kahani. “It’s not just the dance element. We’re part of the scene, part of the story.”

According to her, the new production of Figaro has a lot of similarities with the original. “One of the big commonalities is that old world cultures are kind of similar,” she told American Kahani. She talks about a particular scene in Figaro which she translated into a ladies’ sangeet in the new production. In the original opera, all the women are coming to thank the countess. Among them is a male character, who dresses up as a female and sneaks into this event. “That’s something we have in our culture too, it’s a very common thing.”

The hierarchy in Figaro also translates well to the era portrayed in the new production, she stated. “There’s a count and a countess, and you have all the servants and staff who are working for these people and that translates well to the British Raj, where the white people were in charge and everybody else was brown, and was brown, and was serving them.”

She also pointed out another element in the story where there’s a hint of an uprising or a revolution. “There’s a character that’s being sent off to war, and again I think that’s translated so well to the new production that is set in the late 1800s.”

Bhardwaj is hopeful to attract the South Asian diaspora in Silicon Valley. “I think it’s such a wise move for Opera San Jose to take their traditional art form and place it in a context that’s familiar to a very large community that we have out here.”

Choreographing Indian dances to classical Italian music was a different experience for her. While Indian music is “so highly percussive,” with dhol, tabla, “a western orchestra literally doesn’t have a single percussion instrument,” she said. “There’s a really strong rhythmic quality to the music but it’s through violins or it’s through their instruments.” So “the interpretation of rhythm” was an interesting process for her. “I’m not really familiar with Western classical music and so when I started first listening to it, it kind of all sounded the same to me. But when I started spending a little more time with it, I started hearing the themes.” She feels like for someone who’s never been to an opera, “it’s really such a really unique experience.”

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Another highlight for both Bhardwaj and Subbaraman was the opportunity to work with so many South Asian artists. “I think for me the most exciting part is to be able to work with so many other South Asians; to be in a room where so many people look like I do,” Subbaraman said. “It’s a rarity in our art form to have that opportunity.”

He has had a similar experience with the India-based South Symphony Orchestra, for which he is an advisor. “The orchestra is made up of musicians from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, wage. And you know that’s probably the only other time I ever experienced having musicians who look like me performing together.” Subbaramn was one of the first in the South Asian community to go into this field, “so to see so many young musicians coming up is exciting. It is nice to see that as a sub-society of America, we are allowing more and more of our kids to explore other job opportunities. We are not limiting ourselves to the same old standards.”

Maya Kherani appears as Susanna in the opera.

With all these elements, Bhardwaj is hopeful that the opera attracts the South Asian diaspora in Silicon Valley. “I think it’s such a wise move for Opera San Jose to take their traditional art form and place it in a context that’s familiar to a very large community that we have out here.” She feels this production of Figaro is “a great gateway” into exploring something that people have never been exposed to. “On one hand, there’s going to be such a familiarity to it, whether it’s like the costumes, whether it’s the dance or the people on stage.”

Subbaraman agrees. For him, this production is “really more about storytelling Mozart through India.” For him, “it goes back to the excitement of being able to say that the story is universal.” He continues: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Indian, or African, or whatnot, and I think that, for someone who works in the opera field, is nice to see this, because you can have too many people who sit there and say opera is not for me, that I don’t like the music or I don’t know it. Well, it’s basic storytelling. Hopefully, it opens doors to the people to become fans of the art form.”

“The Marriage of Figaro”
By Mozart, presented by Opera San Jose; directed by Brad Dalton, conducted by Viswa Subbaraman, and choreographed by Antara Bhardwaj.
When: Sept. 10-25
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. 1st St., San Jose
Tickets: $55-$195; 408-437-4450,

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