Author: Beverly Pereira

Long live the Operetta!

Operetta, a precursor of the modern musical, is often considered less serious than opera. We delve into the history of the ‘lighter’ side of opera to understand why the form continues to thrive in musical theatre of the 21st century. 

Operetta emerged in the second half of the 19th century as an off shoot of the French opéra comique, German Singspiel and even Italy’s commedia dell’arte. While opéra comique is akin to a full-length stage work with tragic plots (think Carmen) and Singspiel more of a light-hearted music drama, the operetta can be thought of as a shorter, lighter version that tackled topics ranging from the satirical to the romantic and from the comic to the absurd. Falling somewhere between an opera and a musical and differing in scale and complexity from opera as we know it, operetta is a form of musical theatre that blends song with orchestral music, spoken dialogue and dance. 

Some of the most notable operetta composers include Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár and the due Gilbert and Sullivan. From the Merry Widow to Die Fledermaus right up to The Mikado and the nautical-themed H.M.S. Pinafore, operettas continue to enthrall, albeit as sparkling new productions in a world far removed from the 19th century.

Origins of the operetta

French composer, conductor and librettist Louis-Auguste Florimond Ronger, better known as Hervé, might have written the first operetta (L’ours et le pacha) back in 1842, but it was the German-born French composer Offenbach who is widely regarded as the father of the form. Offenbach wrote over 100 operettas between the 1850s and the 1870s, successfully taking the art form to new heights and stages beyond Paris. In 1850s France, the genre gained recognition as a light-hearted alternative to operas and mainly to satisfy the need for shorter works at a time when state-funded stage works were given a preference. Theatrical composers were up against the French government, which forced them to limit the number of speaking and singing characters to just two artistes. Still, Offenbach is said to have flourished at the time. Robert Planquette and Charles Lecocq were also notable; the French composers wrote popular operettas like La Fille de Madame Angot and Les Cloches de Corneville.

Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), Offenbach’s first full-length operetta written in 1858, was considered a true hit not only in Paris but also far beyond. The composer took the genre all the way to the US, Austria-Hungary and England. His influence reached England by the 1860s, when Gilbert and Sullivan composed Cox and Box (1866) in response to the Offenbach’s Les deux aveugles (1855). 

Even as Offenbach staged some of his works in Vienna in 1861, his popularity was short-lived as the entertainment-hungry public had begun to turn their attention to Viennese composers who had begun to write operettas of their own. Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, also known as the “Waltz King” remains one of the most famous operetta composers in the German language. His 1874 work Die Fledermaus (The Bat) would go on to become the most performed operetta in the world. Strauss the Younger of “The Blue Danube” fame wrote 16 operettas in his lifetime, all of which enjoyed successful premiers. His works were marked with a signature Viennese style of waltzes, marches and polkas. 

A play on plots

Operettas can be described as the ‘lighter’ sibling of the grand opera, both in terms of music and dialogue. But it also has much to do with the fact that operettas are based on more frivolous and sentimental plots, oftentimes tinged with parody, satire and wit. The orchestration, however, was just as imaginative and the librettos, always supreme. Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan (1855) was a hit one-act operetta that told the story of Che-i-noor, or China, being ruled by three Chinese who turn out to be a Parisian trio in disguise. Not only was it a satirical take on contemporary politics, but it also challenged the conventions associated with grand opera. 

Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore parodied English party politics and the Royal Navy through the operetta’s comic plot that focusses on romantic liaisons between members of different social classes. In Die Fledermaus by Strauss II, we are treated to a rather ludicrous plot that involves mistaken identities, a masked ball, a character dressed as a bat and elaborate schemes with a few white lies thrown in for good measure. 

Operettas can well be considered the forerunner of the modern-day musical, even as both forms of musical theatre simultaneously existed in the early part of the 20th century. The genre had now reached far and wide, including Mexico, Cuba and the United States even as it thrived in the countries of its origin. Fresh adaptions of classics by Strauss II, Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach laid the groundwork for a new genre that would soon take over. Oklahoma!, for example, took America by storm with its commentary on social issues expressed as the perfect amalgam of song, dance and spoken dialogue. It’s safe to say then that the operetta had given birth to the musical as we know it; the musical had become a new genre in itself. 

Next month, a fully staged production of Die Fledermaus directed by Hungarian film director and screenwriter SzinetárMiklós is set to arrive at the NCPA. A production of the Hungarian State Opera, the beloved operatic masterpiece has been a part of the Hungarian opera’s repertoire for over 100 years. The fresh rendition of Strauss II’s comedic tale, still among the most successful musical dramas of our time, is one that’s not to be missed. 

A fully staged version of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II will be presented by Hungarian State Opera on 12th, 14th and 16th October at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. 

* This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of ON Stage, the monthly arts and cultural magazine by the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai.

With the World on a String

A weeklong music camp, hosted by Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in partnership with the NCPA and the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), presented a golden opportunity for young violin and viola players in Goa to interact with and learn about chamber music from the SOI’s string musicians. 

On a late summer’s day in May this year, a group of 11 budding musicians were immersed in plucking and bowing their violins and violas. Ranging from eight to 18 years, they were a part of a weeklong music camp organised by Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in Panjim, Goa, in partnership with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) and the NCPA. Three string musicians from the SOI travelled from Mumbai to Goa for the violin- and viola-intensive camp that drew in participants from various corners of the coastal state. The camp involved individual lessons as well as coaching in duos, trios and quartets for chamber music, and interactive music appreciation sessions. 

Led by Dr. Luis Dias, CPIF was established in 2009 as a registered music education trust to instil positive values and provide social empowerment to India’s disadvantaged children through imparting classical music lessons. Today, CPIF teaches violin, viola, cello, recorder, transverse flute and piano to around 60 children across three locations in Goa. Besides a choir project of an additional 40 children, the foundation also started the Camerata Child’s Play India orchestra of senior students, teachers and local musicians, and the Junior Camerata Child’s Play made up of younger students. 

Where it all began

If the idea behind the foundation’s offerings is inspirational, the story leading up to its inception is just as special. Dr. Dias, Founder and Project Director of CPIF, is a fourth-generation doctor with a specialisation in gynaecology and obstetrics who first practiced in India for a decade and then in the U.K. for another. He is also a musician, having trained on the violin since the age of five. Years of practise, exploration and exposure led him to question why his own country was not producing more professional musicians trained in Western classical music. Then, the idea to make accessible an education in Western classical music to people of all socio-economic backgrounds arrived after he had attended concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2007 that presented two exceptional orchestras comprising underprivileged children from South Africa and Venezuela. A year later, the doctor gave up his career in the U.K. and returned to Goa with his wife to work towards bringing that idea to life. Together, they gave birth to CPIF. 

“Like so many Goan Catholic children of my generation, I had violin lessons very early in life, and like many of my generation, music education was linked to the church. I received music instruction from my parish school, St. Cecilia Music School. I also came from a background that loved Western classical music. If I had had the access to the teaching that the SOI Music Academy imparts today and that SOI musicians get as part of their on-the-job training, I have no doubt I would have pursued music instead of medicine. This is what I want to help future generations of India’s children receive, across the socio-economic spectrum, regardless of their parents’ income,” he says. 

The first of its kind

Ever since the trust was founded, Dr. Dias had stayed in touch with the NCPA and the SOI, looking for ways in which the two could collaborate. “The musicians of the SOI embody many things. They stand for professionalism and the pursuit of excellence in music, particularly in ensemble music-making. This makes them powerful role models for our children to aspire to,” he says, adding that discussions about the possible ways of working together started during the pandemic.

The music camp that ran from 8th to 18th May at the CPIF premises in Goa’s capital city was open to young participants from disadvantaged as well as privileged backgrounds. They were selected via an audition process to assess their ability to sight-read music and to be able to play to a basic to intermediate level. There were, of course, many more youth from Goa and even Bengaluru who were keen to be a part of the camp. But space constraints and keenness on the part of CPIF and the SOI faculty to offer each participant focused attention did not permit a group larger than eleven. 

Building confidence

On the very first day, the mood was abuzz from the get-go as the SOI string players listened to the young musicians play their instrument to gauge the level of playing. Much like an icebreaker of sorts, Day 1 proved to be fruitful. From there on, SOI violinists Averell DeSouza and Prabhat Kishore worked with young players in groups of three, while Deon D’Souza worked with two viola players. “Our aim was to get the participants to play in ensembles, rather than play solo. That’s what they do on a regular basis anyway,” Averell explains.

Days at the music camp spanned 10 am to 4 pm, beginning with instrument tuning and practising of scales, arpeggios, left hand exercises and several types of bow strokes. This was followed by one-on-one lessons with students practising a solo piece. Post lunch, the three string musicians practised duets and orchestral works with their students every day. “I had a great time teaching the violin. Some students were at a great level and were good at reading music. They would go home and practise their musical difficulties and play it again the next day,” says Kishore. Averell echoes him, saying, “I was quite surprised with their level of playing because in Goa there aren’t many opportunities to learn the instrument at a good standard. I was impressed with all the students and most played with the right technique.”

Two viola players tutored by Deon worked on a classical piece arranged for viola. “The level of playing was fairly good,” he says, even as he noted that their understanding and level of playing as an ensemble was poor. “Instilling discipline during group rehearsals was a bit of a task. We encouraged each child to play their part. The style of playing bow strokes was new to them. They did manage to correct some bad technical habits in this short period of seven days,” he says. Dr. Dias was always around and ready to lend a hand to those who needed assistance with music camp homework at the end of the day, while his team handled logistics and was involved in all the behind-the-scenes work.

Interactivity at its best

Widening the range of the camp were audiovisual music appreciation sessions. Led by Deon, these interactive sessions were lively and unlike formal lectures. The first session included an introduction to instruments and sections of the orchestra, which in turn encouraged the young participants to think beyond their instrument and observe the presence of other orchestral instruments. “They were encouraged to listen to the music as a whole instead of listening to their part only. Videos of all orchestral instruments were shown to help them grasp the unique sound they produced. They were further asked to guess the sounds without watching the videos,” he explains. At the second session, they were introduced to important eras of Western classical music with masterpieces of prominent composers from those eras played for the group. Besides, faculty members shared their stories about their journey to become full-time musicians. 

“Children need this exposure to widen their horizons and to be aware of various career opportunities in music for those who are thinking of deepening their study of music,” says Dr. Dias. “The SOI is potentially an enormous resource for music education, and we experienced this first-hand during the week of the intensive, quite exhilarating, music camp.” The week culminated with the youth putting on an enjoyable concert for their families, featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s Adagio from String Sinfonia no. 8 and Pieces for 4 violins, Op. 178 by Charles Dancla. The faculty then enthralled the audience with performances featuring Dvořák’s Terzetto in C major, op. 74 and Baryton Trio Hob. XI:14 by Haydn. 

Dr. Dias says, “We look almost instinctively to the SOI for its assistance. It is the country’s only professional orchestra, and of exceptional calibre. This collaboration with Child’s Play is a form of outreach into Goa, arguably the country’s most fertile ground for the blossoming of music, particularly Western classical music. It makes perfect sense for the SOI to make inroads here, given also that Goa is quite close to Mumbai. We look forward to having even more robust and sustained pedagogic collaborations with them again.”

This feature was originally published in the July 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai

The Kids Are Alright

Why is opting for a career in music, especially Western classical music, not an easy decision? We learn about the concerns and fears of the parents of three SOI Music Academy alumni who are pursuing or about to embark on a higher education in music overseas. We also speak to the students themselves to understand how to navigate the stressful application process.

Is my child on the path to shaping a career that will pay the bills? Will they be able to survive and thrive in this cut-throat world? When it comes to life choices, parents or guardians will always worry about their children. This is especially true in the world of music, where apprehensions about making a viable career out of a passion are all too real. Marat Bisengaliev—violinist, conductor and Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra of India who established the academy and remains deeply involved in its operations—says, “Yes, parents tend to be hesitant about enrolling their children in higher education institutions, specifically for Western classical music. They worry that their child might not have a sustainable career at the end of it all. But, as we have seen, many of the young learners who have secured admission abroad are now thriving in their practice and will one day embark on their careers. We are hopeful they will return to play in the SOI.”

To this end, the NCPA seeks to create an atmosphere where professional musicians can find employment and display their talent to the rest of the world. “Indians are naturally talented musical people and with the right kind of guidance and dedicated hard work, there’s no reason they cannot do well,” says Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, Chairman, NCPA.

The realities of a life in music

Cyrus Nallaseth, father of SOI Music Academy alumnus Soli Nallaseth who has been studying at the Royal Academy of Music, London, for the last four years, says, “My wife Simi is an artist and has never had any doubts about Soli pursuing music. Soli too is confident about his career choice, but even today, I wonder about his future and worry. Nowadays, generally, it is not the most musically talented students who thrive but the ones who win major competitions. So, much more emphasis is placed on technical proficiency than musicality, and to win competitions one needs an element of luck.”

Soli has been playing the piano since he was four, and on graduating from the SOI Music Academy, pursued his A-levels at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester at 16. Currently on scholarship in his first year of a two-year Master of Arts degree at the Royal Academy, having received his Bachelor of Music Degree from the prestigious school, the 23-year-old is well aware of the realities of pursuing a higher education in music. “The one thing you do not get is stability; music is a volatile field and studying it and progressing is never linear. Polarising highs and lows are part of the nature of the job, and there is no way to eliminate or circumvent them. That, in fact, is the nature of all forms of art. However, you get to wake up every single morning and go to university knowing that you are about to study something that you are passionate about and makes you happy. On the whole, any difficulties musicians experience are worth putting up with for that privilege.”

Shabnam Minwalla, mother of SOI Music Academy graduate Aaliya Ramakrishnan, also believes that music is unfamiliar territory and that, like other artistic endeavours, a steady income is not always possible. “At least if you play Indian classical music, you know how you compare to your peer set,” Aaliya’s father Vivek Ramakrishnan adds, referring to the much greater number of learners who take it up professionally. “Western classical is daunting because through the years you are confronted with videos of geniuses elsewhere in the world and it’s hard to know where you stand musically,” he says.

Newer avenues

Having applied to some of the finest schools in North America, Aaliya’s choice of courses is a reflection of the many streams music has to offer. She has secured admission to study music composition at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University under a full merit scholarship, film scoring at the only undergraduate programme in the U.S. at NYU, music production at the Thornton School of Music at USC, electronic music at Carnegie Mellon University, and computer music and music for new media at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. “We were tense through the application process because we had no idea where Aaliya stood in terms of music compared to other applicants from around the world. While she has learnt the violin, piano, Solfeggio and the history of music at the NCPA, she has never learnt music composition formally,” Minwalla says of her worries in this regard. It was during a Solfeggio class at the academy, however, that teacher and SOI pianist Aida Bisengalieva remarked, “Maybe, Aaliya will grow up to be a composer.” Aaliya received further encouragement when Bisengaliev, who took her composition skills seriously, played one of her pieces with the SOI.

Indeed, a career in music is not just limited to concerts, recitals or recordings. One can bring their musical skills and talent to the table at recording studios for advertising commercials, films and beyond. Echoing this, SOI Music Academy alumnus Yohan Pastala-Gupte’s mother Vijaya Pastala says that although most Indian parents, including herself and her parents, still worry that a career in music will not be financially viable, “We need to become aware of the opportunities. Today’s world is so different to the one we or our parents grew up in. The opportunities are endless, and Yohan can even get into music production or advertising or become an entrepreneur.” Her son who graduated from the programme in 2021 was enrolled at the academy since the age of 10. Now 19, he’s been studying classical trumpet at the Institute of Music at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences in North Germany for the past year. He has had to learn an entirely new language—an aspect his mother worries about. Despite getting into music programmes offered in English, he opted to study under his professor of choice who happens to tutor only in German.

A change of thought

So, what is it that convinced these parents to be supportive of their child’s aspirations and what are the factors that have somewhat quelled their fears? Soli’s father says, “He told me that he loves music and would much rather ‘be poor and happy’ than ‘earn a good living and be miserable’. Khushroo Suntook was instrumental in further convincing me. He gave me an example of a famous musician dad who didn’t want his son to become a musician and what a loss it would have been for the world of music had he not pursued his passion anyway. I am grateful to Mr. Suntook. Marat Bisengaliev, Aida Bisengalieva and Dr. Cavas Bilimoria also encouraged me but my apprehensions still exist.”

When pursuing a career in music, Mr. Suntook believes, “the path taken is as great as it is hazardous since all may not make the top grade. But even if they don’t, they are doing something they love instead of being stuck in a staid job.” Pastala mentions an important factor when it comes to backing your child’s career choice. “The guiding principle for supporting them in whatever they want to do is that they need to be ready to work hard. They need to enjoy what they’re doing, follow their passion, be happy and most importantly, in the end, be able to take care of themselves financially,” she explains, adding that Bisengaliev and the academy teachers have played an important part in encouraging Yohan to pursue music at a higher level.

From instilling in students a love for their instrument and the importance of disciplined, honest practice, right up to guiding them to see the bigger picture about music as a career, the role of the academy at the NCPA is immense. In fact, during the lockdown, students were given access to the Little Theatre so that they could record audition pieces for the admission process without missing deadlines. Minwalla says, “None of this would have happened without the NCPA and the SOI Music Academy. As these were incredibly selective universities and programmes, we were filled with trepidation. Aaliya’s admission is a clear demonstration that the academy is indeed world class. The teachers truly love their students and believe in them. An outstanding music education apart, they have learnt so many things. They’ve learnt to take a deep breath, smile and perform in front of a 1000-strong audience; to play with others as part of ensembles and the orchestra; and to set out on the long path to musical perfection. We grew up with certainties and formulae that no longer always work. In a rapidly changing world, the best possible path that a child can choose is the one that they love and enjoy.”

Navigating the application process

  • Aside from researching a music school’s reputation and course design, opt to
    go where you get the best professor for your instrument.
  • The earlier you start, the better. Prepare everything at least six months to a year in advance. You need to prepare for audition pieces well in advance to be able to record your portfolio to a very high standard.
  • Take time to write a good personal statement for British colleges or essays for American colleges.
  • Scholarships are reserved for those who need financial aid, but they are also offered on merit basis. Browse through websites and write
    to music schools about questions related to eligibility, deadlines or priority considerations for scholarships.

– With inputs from Aaliya, Soli and Yohan

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai

Grace under fire

By Beverly Pereira 

Based on Charles M. Blow’s book by the same name, Terence Blanchard’s landmark opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones—to be screened at the NCPA in the first week of June—digs deep to unearth the unspoken struggles and suppressed pain associated with the Black American experience. 

Last year, 27th September marked the first time a work by a Black composer and librettist was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in the 139 years of its existence. After 18 long, silent months of a forced shutdown due to the pandemic, the storied New York institution had finally reopened to the public. The 2021-22 season opener, an opera titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is the creation of Grammy award-winning jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Centred around the tension and trauma of growing up as a Black man in the American south, the opera shattered the definitive silence that relates to the Black experience and, consequently, the Black Lives Matter movement which had gained traction only a year prior to this. To further the reach and sense of urgency that the opera and its theme command, it was simulcast as part of the Met’s award-winning Live in HD series that brings live transmissions of some of the greatest operas to theatres across the globe. 

Blanchard’s groundbreaking opera had first created a stir when it premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Missouri in 2019. An adaptation of the eponymous 2014 memoir by author and The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, it is set in and around the small, poverty-stricken town of Gibsland in northwestern Louisiana and at the author’s alma mater, Grambling State University. Journeying from Blow’s childhood in the 1970s to his adulthood in the 1990s against the background of dire poverty of the rural African American community and the struggles associated with systemic class and race discrimination, the narrative’s central theme focusses on the traumatic impact that an incident of sexual abuse by a cousin had on the seven-year-old Charles. 

Historic firsts 

Blanchard, whose works are rooted in jazz, is revered for noteworthy scores composed for a long list of Spike Lee films as much as he is for his first opera titled Champion (2013). With Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard composed a score well grounded in the classical tradition and richly suffused with his signature form-defying jazz. Reflecting his experience in film scores, a notable feature of the opera’s music involves the use of lyrical sweeps that intend to propel the action forward. 

Directed by acclaimed stage director James Robinson and choreographer Camille A. Brown and conducted by the celebrated Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Fire Shut Up in My Bones features a talented cast well-suited to the rigours of the compelling opera. With the Met premiere, Brown, who has also choreographed the production, became the first Black director to present a mainstage Met production. Yet another historic first associated with the opera is the fact that it features a libretto by celebrated screenwriter, film director and first-time librettist Kasi Lemmons. Together, Blanchard and Lemmons bring to life a range of emotions—rage, sadness, fragility, loneliness and pain—that play out sensitively across the three acts of the opera. 

The performers are a skilled and seasoned set led by the Grammy-nominated baritone Will Liverman as Charles and celebrated soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’s mother Billie. The sensational soprano Angel Blue, who performed with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) at the NCPA in 2015, plays an equally weighty role as Greta, Charles’s love interest. Blue’s charisma guides two more characters, Destiny and Loneliness, to represent the forces that shape Charles’s life. Young Charles (known as Char’es-Baby) is played by the talented 13-year-old Walter Russell III who made his Broadway debut as Young Michael Jackson in MJ The Musical and had performed across the United States and Canada as Young Simba in the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King

Turbulent roads 

The opera opens with a college-going Charles driving down a Louisiana backroad with a gun in the passenger seat. The viewer is introduced to characters like Destiny, Char’es-Baby and his mother Billie at the very start as Charles begins reliving memories from his childhood. Adding depth to the writing are the frequent interactions between Charles and his younger self throughout the opera. The harrowing incident of sexual trauma perpetrated by a cousin on the seven-year-old Char’es-Baby unleashes a lengthy process of shame, anger and sadness that spanned years. As times moves on, Charles finds himself struggling in his relationships. While the personification of Destiny challenges him to consider his place in the world, the personification of Loneliness lays claims on him not only with his love 

interest Greta but also with his mother whose love is clear but not always available. Charles must confront a range of internal conflicts depicted as musicalised internal monologues that give voice to the character’s psychological journey to self-acceptance. 

“In the opera, Charles is faced with a brutal choice and looks back on his life to understand what has led him to a potentially life-ruining crossroads,” explains Robinson in the Met’s programme notes. “He questions his role in certain traumatic events and wonders how he could have changed the course of his own personal history. His is a journey of self-loathing, self-discovery, and eventually self-forgiveness. Charles states that he is a ‘stranger in my hometown,’ and I find this idea deeply affecting, for many of us have felt the loneliness of not fitting in or not belonging, even in an environment that should be comforting and familiar.” 

Two phrases in the opera—“Sometimes you gotta’ just leave it in the road” and “I bend, I don’t break, I sway”—resonate with co-director and choreographer Brown who, in her note, says that the lines speak to the specificity of the Black experience but also call upon a universal theme of determination and the need for personal resolution. Step, a social dance rooted in African American history and culture, can be traced back 200 years to West Africa. “It is also embedded in the fabric of Black fraternities and sororities, which were intentionally created as safe spaces when white Greek-letter organisations would not let Black men and women join them,” writes Brown. The energetic style of dance finds a fitting place in the opera. “At one point in history, Black people were not allowed to perform on stages like this one and, even more so, were not able to authentically portray our own narratives. The full spectrum of our real lives [was] unseen. But we did not break. Once invisible, now beautifully and vibrantly visible. Past, present, and future, we sway,” she adds. 

Fire Up in My Bones deals with the complications, pain and trauma specific to Black people and minorities, even as it unearths a range of experiences that holds immense contemporary relevance to race and culture. Ultimately, it is an achievement in storytelling that is testimony to the human spirit’s need for validation and belonging. 

Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be screened on 2nd June at the Godrej Dance Theatre. 

*This piece was originally published in the May 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai

The Queen of Soul

The music of Aretha Franklin has endured in the hearts of people across the world since the early 1960s. In the month of her 80th birth anniversary, we retrace the late legendary singer’s journey, right from her gospel beginnings to the singular role she played in defining the golden age of soul.

Aretha Franklin’s body of work is timeless. Her music has left an indelible mark on generations and will, unquestionably, impact those to come. Mirroring a life that had more than its fair share of troubles, her powerful songs channelled her own experiences of love and heartbreak, stardom and setbacks. With a recording career that spanned over half a century, Franklin’s music spoke to both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Among the most distinctive voices of our time, hers boasted an astonishingly powerful vocal range. Today, the ‘Queen of Soul’ lives on through her music. This month, two concerts at the NCPA will celebrate the works of Franklin and a host of other powerful women who have left their mark on the world. The first is a Women’s Day special on 5th March, led by vocal powerhouses Samantha Noella, Shazneen Arethna, Suzanne D’mello and Eden Alexander, backed by Shanelle Ferreira and Shanaya Sequeira and an exquisite band to match. Later, on 25th March, Franklin’s birth anniversary, the soulful Keshia B will pay tribute to the icon of soul along with some of the world’s greatest female artistes. We look back at the life of the iconic singer, songwriter and pianist.

Finding her voice

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942 to the influential pastor and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin and Barbara, a gospel singer and pianist. Franklin displayed prodigious talent as a child. But just as her affinity for singing started young, so did a life of turmoil. She was just six when her mother left the family due to a troubled marriage with the pastor, and almost ten when her mother succumbed to a heart attack. Living in the Franklin home in Detroit, she learned how to play the piano by ear and was encouraged by her father to sing. Not long after that, she started singing solos at New Bethel Baptist Church where the pastor had gained a reputation for his powerful sermons. When her father began to manage her, Franklin, on the brink of teenagehood, started to travel with him to gospel programmes across America. She would soon go on to gain recognition for her vocal prowess. It was evident that the influence of gospel greats like Clara Ward and James Cleveland, many of whom frequently visited her family home, had rubbed off on the impressionable Franklin. It was also around this time, when she was just 12, that Franklin gave birth to a son; she would go on to give birth to another son two years later in 1957 and two more sons in 1964 and 1970. Her grandmother and older sisters helped raise the children, allowing Franklin to focus on her musical career. After having installed recording equipment inside New Bethel Baptist Church, J.V.B. Records released Franklin’s first single in 1956 when she was 14. This was followed by the release of four more singles; all five tracks would eventually make it to ‘side one’ of the album Spirituals released that year. So electrifying were her first recordings that they eventually went on to get reissued under various labels with the most recent remastered version released in 2019 by Geffen/UME. In those days, when she wasn’t on tour with her father, she would travel with the pioneering gospel music group, The Soul Stirrers, and even traverse the gospel circuit in Chicago during the summers.

A change of tune

With her father’s permission, Franklin switched from sacred to secular music just as she turned 18, leaving her hometown of Detroit for New York City upon securing a contract with Columbia Records. Her first release with Columbia, ‘Today I Sing the Blues’ (1960), was a product of the very first session. It remains a classic to date. She would go on to release an album in 1961 which featured ‘Won’t Be Long’, her first single to chart the Billboard Hot 100. She was beginning to make a name for herself at American clubs and theatres during these years. But, even as her releases with Columbia showcased her keen ability to sing everything from Broadway ballads to diverse genres like vocal jazz, doo-wop and R&B, it was evident that something was amiss when it came to commercial success. The period between 1966 and 1979 saw Franklin return to her gospel-blues roots when she signed with Atlantic Records. It was during this time that her ‘I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)’ (1967) reached number one on the R&B chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. The songstress brought her unique brand of musicianship to the table even when she covered the work of other artistes, giving songs like Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ new depth while she made them her own. A popular favourite, her rendition is remembered as both a feminist and civil rights anthem. She went on to score many more top 10 singles during this commercially successful period, and by 1968, after releasing acclaimed albums like Aretha Now, she was widely regarded as America’s most successful singer.

Fulfilling her true potential

The year 1968 saw many more successes including two Grammy awards, a Time magazine cover, and her first foreign appearance when she enthralled fans in Amsterdam. That year, when she visited Detroit for a concert, she was lauded with a day named after her. On 16th February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. Franklin had toured with him in her early gospel days—presented the 26-year-old with an award to mark ‘Aretha Franklin Day’. She would sing at his funeral service two months later. By the early 1970s, she had played to a packed house at the Fillmore West, and embarked on tours of Europe and Latin America. Then came the 1972 album Amazing Grace—a live recording of her performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles—which is revered as one of the greatest gospel albums in the history of modern music. From then on, it was onwards and upwards for Franklin who had signed with Arista in 1982 and became the first woman to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Many honours came her way, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She sang for presidents and received honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities, among many others. Rolling Stone magazine called Franklin ‘the greatest singer of her generation’, while President Barack Obama rightly pointed out that “American history wells up when Aretha sings”.

Franklin closed what would be one of her last performances with ‘Say a Little Prayer’ at the 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York. Today, almost four years after Franklin’s demise, her soul lives on through her music. It is also alive in the many tributes to her genius, whether as concerts in every corner of the world or through films, such as the 2021 biopic Respect directed by Liesl Tommy and starring Jennifer Hudson as the late singer. Such was Franklin’s impact whose spiritually tinged music continues to give people—no matter their religion or race—the hope they need to get by.

Fierce, Free & Fabulous will be presented on 5th March at the Tata Theatre. One Night Only – A Diva Special Featuring Keshia B will be presented on 25th March at the Experimental Theatre.

This piece was first published in the March 2022 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai

To the SOI, with love

To commemorate 15 years of the Symphony Orchestra of India, four regular concertgoers at the NCPA look back at some of their favourite performances and fond memories of India’s first and only professional orchestra

Ever since it was set up in 2006 by NCPA Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook and violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev, the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) has delighted audiences, both new and old. The home- grown ensemble has delivered spectacular performances under the batons of renowned conductors and, in recent years, been a grand success on international tours. This momentous milestone coupled with the reopening of the NCPA after a long, forced closure is reason enough to celebrate with gusto. We spoke to some of our audience members—Western classical music aficionados who have regularly attended SOI performances over the years—to better understand the significance of the existence and growth of the orchestra.

Gerson da Cunha

Theatre & film actor, author and social worker

There were just two city symphony orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s: First, the Bombay Symphony Orchestra with Jules Craen as conductor and Mehli Mehta as leader, and later, the Bombay Philharmonia, now called the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, under Cecil Mendonca. Both symphony orchestras were high-quality and performed great music at the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall at the Institute of Science, Mumbai. I find it hard to recall particular concerts and events served up over the years in the rich and varied fare that the city of Mumbai has enjoyed. But I do remember my first experience of music at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. I stepped into the hall to notice Jamshed waving me to a seat beside him. He was in row ‘J’. “Here is where the sound is best,” he said, “J for Jamshed”. And who was to know better than Jamshed Bhabha himself about the theatre that was named after him. Truly, it was a great sound and a great performance of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nacht Musik’ played by a superb Viennese ensemble.

I find it difficult to detail what exactly I had heard the Symphony Orchestra of India play when I heard them back in 2006 and forward. But, there is little doubt that they set a new standard in the Western classical music one was listening to. The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is also hugely different from the old Cowasjee Jehangir Hall, now the National Gallery of Modern Art. I believe that a chamber orchestra is a great idea and one to be encouraged as an economical way of programming good music. For now, it is, perhaps, enough to say that for some of us, a pall was cast over us when the SOI was temporarily unable to perform because of Covid-19 restrictions. With every good wish to the SOI!

Dr. Kashmira Mody

Professor of Economics

When it was announced in 2006 that we were going to have our very own symphony orchestra, I was thrilled. No more would we have to wait for occasional appearances by foreign orchestras (not that I don’t enjoy those performances). Here was an opportunity to regularly see and listen to live performances. The 15 years that I have attended SOI concerts have been special. We have been treated to a wide variety of classical music from different eras and composers; Baroque to Classical to Romantic eras and even music from modern composers. From just the strings to a full-sized orchestra, from combined choirs to operatic soloists, from full productions of operas to opera galas and even a musical theatre gala; we have had the opportunity to see and listen to it all. From the music connoisseur to the beginner, there is always something for everyone. I am not an expert on music, but like most people who enjoy listening to music, I can feel the difference between a good performance and one that could be better. Over the years, our orchestra has definitely improved. The players seem to gel together to give us a better sound each time. We can see and feel the hard work that has gone behind it all.

There are many fond memories of concerts, but the ones that stand out include the most recent one of Scheherazade, the 10 year celebration concert, the 50 years of NCPA gala, Handel’s Messiah, Holst’s The Planets, Wagner’s Ring without Words, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, Rachmaninoff’s PC No.3, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Overture from the Thieving Magpie, Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Beethoven’s PC No.5, the encore piece Moliendo Café, and even the concert at the Kala Ghoda Festival where they played the Magnificent Seven theme magnificently! Besides the concerts, what has been interesting are the special programmes arranged to give us insights into the compositions and the composers by SOI’s Associate Director Zane Dalal. The pre-concert talks were a condensed version of these. Of course, the very well-produced programme brochures are collector’s items. Yes, music is the food of life … So, play on SOI … play on!

Chetan Sharma

National award-winning animation film maker, writer & illustrator of children’s books 

My tryst with the Symphony Orchestra of India has been relatively recent, but it has nonetheless been quite intense. In all the formative years of the SOI, I was engaged in lengthy animation projects and had in fact shifted out of the city. For me, Western classical music, even with all the great music that exists, was often just really good background music at the time. Then, when I learnt of the existence of a professional symphony orchestra right here in Mumbai, I was fascinated. Thereafter, I attended most concerts over the last few years and was completely blown away. I often sketch at live shows, but sometimes I really cannot seem to do it when I’m at an SOI concert. I am always too stunned, as one would be, when soaking in the energy and vibrations of the music while watching the musicians and conductors who have put in all the hours of work leading up to that very moment. Of course, purely sketching ideas that surface from the music listening experience itself is great fun — the music at an SOI performance actually comes alive, enveloping you and tickling your imagination too.

I must admit — when it comes to knowledge of the music, I am nowhere close to the audience at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. For me, every concert is both a sensory and learning experience. Still, if I had to mention a few recent SOI highs, many come to mind — like the epic Beethoven 9th, Zane Dalal’s awe inspiring Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scherazade’, the Alexander Lazarev-conducted ‘Petrushka’, the Wagner gala and the gala concert with the Bolshoi soloists, Mikel Toms’ Mozart Chamber concert and even Ustad Zakir Hussain’s experimental ‘Peshkar’. These concerts remain standouts for me, personally.

Abbas Shahiwalla

Youth Director of Rotary Club of India & Portfolio Manager

I feel connected to the NCPA since my school days when I’d regularly attend plays and musicals in English, Hindi and Gujarati. I remember those evenings at the NCPA as nothing but classy and fun. I am a lover of both Western and Hindustani classical music, and used to play the guitar, sitar and a bit of the piano. The Symphony Orchestra of India is undoubtedly the most fabulous and fantastic musical experience Mumbai could ever have. You can understand that it is a product of the vision, passion and hard work of the respected Jamshed Bhabha and, of course, Khushroo N. Suntook. The first SOI concert I had attended was an achievement in itself. Today, the orchestra has grown beyond words to an international standard.

That said, we do need more young Indian musicians to join our very own SOI. We also need more chamber concerts by the SOI, and Prithvi Theatre is a good way to reach and develop newer audiences. Perhaps, performances at colleges could make for a nice and effective way to promote Western classical music in India so that the youth can listen to and understand this grand music. I strongly believe that the pre-concert talks on composers and compositions prove to be very important and enlightening for us all. These talks by Zane Dalal at the NCPA and by Dr. Cawas at Prithvi Theatre are superb as they give us details of the composers, the idea behind pieces, and how compositions evolve with a break-up of each movement. I always look forward to every new season of the SOI at the NCPA. If I had to name a favourite performance by the SOI, it would have to be the orchestra performing under the baton of conductor Charles Dutoit in 2013. The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra of India experience is world-class, and we are thankful for their presence.

This piece was first published in the December 2021 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai