26 Aug - 1 Sep 2016 #823

Bhagvad Gita as opera

East meets West in the performance of Arjuna’s Dilemma at Patan Museum next week
Smriti Basnet

Eric Garrison
OPERA IN NEPAL: Rehearsals for Arjuna’s Dilemma are in full swing.

One of the most exciting events in Kathmandu’s cultural calendar is happening next week, as world-renowned opera performers offer audiences a trilingual rendition of the Bhagvad Gita.

Arjuna’s Dilemma recreates scenes from the epic Hindu scriptures written four millennia ago, with lyrics in Sanskrit, English and Hindi and a melodious blend of western and Indian classical and jazz, under the stage direction of Deborah Merola.

In a small room in Baneswor, rehearsals are in full swing as the actors glide in synchronised motion across the room, dancing and singing. The chamber opera picks up the story where doubt consumes Pandava Prince Arjuna about fighting the war against his kinsfolk, and he approaches Lord Krishna, the prince’s charioteer and guide, for advice. Originally composed by Douglas J. Cuomo, it will be staged by One World Theatre in Nepal from 3-11 September in the Patan Museum courtyard.

Various engaging and eternal philosophical questions about life, death and faith come up, and it is fitting that the venue for the performance is opposite Patan’s famous Krishna Mandir, which will itself be a focal point during the celebration of Krishnasthami, the god’s birthday, this week.

“The Gita is not a linear story, it has different meanings depending on the interpretation,” explains Merola, who is using an international cast and production team, trained musicians, and theatre artists, to tell this complex and compelling story through a western art form. The swift changes in the set, powerful voices of the opera singers, and soul-stirring rhythms of the tabla, cello, violin and saxophone keep the audience enthralled.

Premiered in 2008 at the BAM Next Wave Festival, the 70-minute fusion opera was Cuomo's brainchild, who wanted to pen a piece for his friend Amit Chatterjee to perform in. Having always been intrigued by eastern religions, Cuomo took the opportunity to explore the sacred text.

Greg Mitchell
all set: A 3D design of the set of Arjuna’s Dilemma, to be staged in the Patan Museum courtyard.

“The Bhagvad Gita is an emotional and dramatic text, when I discovered this I decided I would compose something around it,” said Cuomo. “I am hoping that the music is universal enough for people to respond to, because when one is not used to opera, the singing may be somewhat unfamiliar.”

The Patan performance will feature a live orchestra, with Jonathan Khuner as the music director. To make it more relevant to Nepal, Merola draws from the experiences and rituals of the country and blends these into the story. The April 2015 earthquake, which devastated the square outside the performance venue, will add poignancy to the performance.

“We have been very clear that we are not coming here as a group of westerners trying to interpret the sacred text. We are bringing in art forms that we are familiar with,” said Merola.

Opera singer Roy Stevens, who will be the voice of Arjuna, learnt Sanskrit only after he came to Nepal, and it will be the sixteenth language he will be singing in. “It is a true collaboration and cultural exchange. The opera is a fantastic piece that finds common ground between two different worlds of music,” Stevens said, terming opera as a “gift for the soul” that can give back honour and respect to Nepali society through this partnership.

Actor Rajkumar Pudasaini, playing the role of Krishna, also feels he has had to push beyond his comfort zone to accommodate an unfamiliar style and form, since the parts are sung separately by professional opera singers. Said Pudasaini: “As theatre artistes, we are trained in the audiovisual medium. In this I have to give my best to convey it only through the visual aspect. That has been a new challenge.”

Arjuna’s Dilemma

Patan Museum from 3 to 11 September (except 6 and 7 September)

7 pm onwards, Rs 750 and Rs 500 (Adults), Rs 200 (Students)

Ticket outlets: Patan Museum Gift Shop, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Shangri-La Hotel