It started with a couple of LP records that my father casually picked up and brought from London when I was about six years old. They were lying about at home, largely ignored. I don’t remember what it was that impelled me to actually listen to them attentively a few years later. Till then, my musical diet consisted chiefly of the sort of stuff everyone listened to in those days: the Beatles, Elvis, Simon & Garfunkel, soundtracks of musicals such as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music and, of course, Hindi film songs. Suddenly, at the age of ten, I was gripped by something entirely different: a symphony orchestra playing something called the Overture to The Barber of Seville by somebody called Rossini. There were also several other overtures on that record. Russlan and Ludmilla by another strange chap called Glinka. The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. I had, at least, heard of Mozart.
Many of the names of the composers were strange to me. The music, however, was fascinating, elevating. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I would put on that record repeatedly, humming loudly along with it. The family were slightly bemused at this new obsession. But they were indulgent. As my interest and tastes expanded, fuelled by a lot of reading about this kind of music and seeking it out on the BBC and on AIR, my father would be presented with long lists of records to buy for me whenever he went overseas. And he would actually get me most of them.
For the first few years, my interest in western classical music was purely attuned to the instrumental: symphonies, concertos, sonatas and so on. Vocal music got very limited play time. The short overtures remained fascinating pieces of music in themselves, while the hinterland of the long operas they preceded remained terra incognita. The first complete opera I actually possessed and heard was Carmen, by Bizet. I liked it a lot, but that was all. It was a little later, about the time I started college, that my father brought me a complete recording of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. That did it. I had never heard anything in music that gripped me so totally – it was enthralling, exciting. It made me want to sing along, it made me laugh out loud, it made me think, and filled me with a sense of exaltation throughout its more than three hour duration.
Opera is arguably the most comprehensive of art forms in the western tradition, encompassing vocal and instrumental music, theatre, dance, design, costumes and lighting. It is theatre at its most heightened and intense level of expression, ranging across the entire spectrum - from the sublimely philosophical to the farcically comical.
As my passion for this kind of music grew, I wanted to share it with as many as I could. Since that time, I have striven at every stage of my life to spread the word through radio and television broadcasts, articles and reviews of concerts in newspapers, music appreciation lectures, as well as voluntary work with organisations devoted to the promotion of this amazingly rich heritage.
Among my recent endeavours in this direction is the monthly “Opera at Habitat” series. The idea and wholehearted support for it came from Vidyun Singh, head of Programmes at the India Habitat Centre. These screenings of video recordings of operas take place in the Stein Auditorium at the India Habitat Centre, with its exceptional video projection and sound system. Once a month, I select and introduce an opera, outlining its historical and musical context, as well as its salient elements and highlights, before we settle down and let the music, the drama and the spectacle engulf us.
The “Opera at Habitat” completes three years next month. The series commenced with a one-off screening in August 2013 of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and then got under way on a regular, monthly basis from January 2014.
The aim of the “Opera at Habitat” series is to build up a sufficiently large and informed audience which would not only support the efforts of local opera singers and productions, but also be motivated to attend regular screenings of live streamed operas in HD video-audio quality, such as those being offered by the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, to name a few. The India Habitat Centre already has a tie-up with the National Theatre, London for live streaming of their productions of plays. It is my hope that a sufficient audience will also develop for live streaming of quality opera productions as a result of this promotional effort.
Our audiences are gradually increasing and there is now a dedicated following that tries to attend each screening. I’m sure that, over time, more and more music lovers will be drawn into the enthralling world of opera, with its infinitely engaging variety of expressions of the human condition.
The next screening in the series is Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”, an operatic re-telling of the dramatic and ultimately tragic relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, at the Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre on Sunday 20th November at 7.00 pm. Entry is free and open to all.
Theatre actor-director, television anchor and broadcaster Sunit Tandon is President of the Delhi Music Society, the leading non-profit organisation devoted to the promotion and teaching of western music in north India.