Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s last composition – an opera called Sukanya, inspired by a Mahabharata character after whom his wife was named – opens in the UK today (12).
Shankar worked on the opera during his last days in hospital with conductor and collaborator David Murphy.
It was completed by his daughter and disciple Anoushka Shankar after his death in 2012.
“It thrills me that this final project of my father’s, about which he was so passionate, is finally coming to life,” Anoushka said.
The opera tells the story from the Mahabharata of Sukanya, King Saryat’s young daughter, who marries the ancient sage, Chyavana, after she accidentally blinds him.
Shankar’s widow recalled the day he asked her mother the story behind her name.
“My memory is very vivid and fresh of the day when Raviji was asking my mother about the story behind my name, Sukanya, sometime in the mid-nineties. He was so excited and wanted to do an opera,” she said.
The premiere takes place at the Curve theatre in Leicester and will be followed by a series of UK-wide shows with a finale at the Royal Festival Hall in London on May 19.
“Even in his final years, he was the first to think further, to want to push even more boundaries, and bring Indian classical music to the context of opera, Anoushka said.
The text of the opera (libretto) has been written by author Amit Chaudhuri. The semi-staged opera – a musical with few props – is directed by Suba Das and conducted by Murphy, who had worked closely with the sitarist-composer.
Shankar, a disciple of the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar, collaborated with a host of musicians, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composer Philip Glass, singer George Harrison and saxophonist John Coltrane.
“My father was, of course, the first Indian classical musician to work with Western classical musicians, the first to write concertos for orchestra, the first to bring the music of India to a global audience,” the daughter said.
The opera brings together an international set of artistes including British soprano Susanna Hurrell in the title role, Indian-born American tenor Alok Kumar, British bass-baritone Keel Watson, Brazilian baritone Michel de Souza, South African baritone Njabulo Madlala, the BBC Singers and a 60-strong London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The orchestra will also feature Indian classical instruments such as the sitar, shehnai, tabla, mridangam and ghatam.
“This opera is a standing testimony to the ultimate in the amalgamation of East meeting West, as natural as can be,” Sukanya said.
Chaudhuri’s story-line also draws from texts as diverse as the works of Rabindranath Tagore, T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare.
“My husband, an enigmatic genius, was a cluster of energy, creativity, love and inspiration who never ceased to surprise me in all our time together and has done it again,” Sukanya said.