Suba Das
Director Suba Das in Sukanya rehearsals. Photo Royal Opera House Bill Cooper.


By Reena Kumar

IT IS NO mean feat directing the world premier of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar’s opera, which was penned in the last few years of the sitar maestro’s life.

The task has fallen to Suba Das, associate director of the Curve in Leicester, who has drawn on the pop concert aesthetic to produce the highly anticipated show Sukanya, which will open later this month.

Shankar, who was credited with introducing Indian classical music to the West, revealed his plans for his ambitious opera to his longtime collaborator David Murphy days before what would be his final surgery. He passed away in 2012, aged 92.

Murphy is set to conduct the piece which will premiere at the Royal Festival Hall on May 19; he worked with Shankar’s famous daughter Anoushka to realise his dream of completing the opera and bringing it to the stage.

It explores the common ground between the music, dance and theatrical traditions of India and the West, and features artists and collaborators from as far afield as South Africa, India and Brazil.

Speaking between rehearsals just two weeks before opening night, Das spoke to Eastern Eye about his inspiration for the opera.

“The thing that’s been most useful to me is that I bloody love a good pop concert, so I would argue that the most important aspect of my career in terms of training and aesthetic has been the fact that I have seen the last seven of Madonna’s world tours.

“In the 21st century those are the productions that are live, theatrical, that are using projection, technology and dance and telling a story,” Das explained.

Sukanya rehearsals. Photo Royal Opera House Bill Cooper.

The director, who has staged global productions, said it had been “invaluable” to draw on pop concert vocabulary for the show.

Sukanya’s story is of a young princess who must marry a much older religious man after a terrible accident. It is drawn on a lesser known tale from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata.

Shankar chose the subject after learning about the story behind his wife’s name.

The libretto (words), which were created after Shankar’s passing, are based on legendary Sanskrit texts of, the Mahabharata, as well as texts as diverse as Rabindranath Tagore, George Eliot and Shakespeare.

Das, who recently directed the 20th anniversary revival of East is East, told Eastern Eye: “It’s challenging – there are hundreds of people involved all with very different needs and elements that normally don’t fit along side together.

“The orchestra wants so much space, but so do the dancers, the singers need to always see the director – so I need to manage all these conflicting things.

“That’s the hard work of this job, but then I step back and I go ‘I’ve got the London Philharmonic Orchestra and 20 ft projections and some of the most amazing voices I’ve ever heard in my life, not to mention Ravi Shankar’s posthumous gift to the world. I’m a very lucky boy.’”

Sukanya will feature Indian classical dance and the orchestra is supplemented with instruments including the sitar, shehnai (oboe), tabla, mridangam and ghatam (all percussion instruments).

Das described the piece as “incredibly complex without a simple linear story” and said he would be interested to discover who the audience would be.

“I hope if you are not familiar with any of the forms, you can go and say there is a powerful love story being told here. It’s the kind of visual story telling that any audience can latch on to,” he added.

Sukanya is a co-production between The Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Curve.