Opera is like Bollywood without the popcorn,” says Vikrant Subramanian. The 20-year-old, who studied opera with Situ Singh Buehler in Delhi before going to the National School of Music in Paris, goes a step farther. “Some moments are like a Govinda movie – when Kader Khan says, ‘Teri aukat kya hai?’ (What’s your stature?)”
Some deeper links between the two worlds are discernible on the wings of the upcoming production of French comic opera If I were King, in which Subramanian plays Moussoul, king of Goa. Mumbai-born Aude Priya, who sings soprano as Moussoul’s daughter Néméa, says, “Many of the French artists have come here at pays less than what they usually make… India still makes the West dream — today, it’s largely because of the ‘Incredible India’ that Bollywood projects.” No wonder that one of Priya’s recent Facebook uploads is a picture of herself with Saif Ali Khan.
If I were King is a triangular love story set to music by Adolphe Adam in 1852. But director Jean-François Vinciguerra has spiked the ‘Orientalist’ drama, set in the pre-Portuguese Goa of 1510, with intriguing traces of modernity. Apart from 130 Indian, 60 French and 10 Sri Lankan artists, the production features a golf cart, mobile phones and a vacuum cleaner, informs executive producer Antoine Redon.
Vinciguerra says, “I like Bollywood’s mix of tradition with modernity… Also, to me, it’s a children’s tale, meant for those who do not distinguish between the 19th Century and the 16th.” The opera opens with children bringing the artists to the stage “as if placing toy soldiers”.
The links go beyond Bollywood and opera to India and France. Francis Wacziarg, whose Neemrana Music Foundation has produced two other Orientalist operas (Leo Manuel’s Fakir of Benares in 2002 and Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in 2005) before this one, dreams of making India an opera destination. “If Cairo can have its Aida, Beijing its Turandot, why can’t Delhi have its own?” says Wacziarg, a French-born businessman who made India his home more than three decades ago. To create a buzz that can lead to more cross-pollination, the Foundation invites foreign troupes “provided they give a master class for students of opera”.
What about the anachronistic Orientalism? “To the poor people in the West, Orientalism was an abstraction. To colonial Europe, such operas gave a good conscience, a paradox comprising attraction and repulsion,” says Vinciguerra. “It’s one of the fashions the world has gone through,” says Wacziarg.
Well, another French opera after the fashion – Léo Delibes’s Lakmé – lent its name to the first Indian cosmetics brand. But that’s another story.