Ravi Shankar’s only opera ‘Sukanya’ to tour UK in world premiere

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The Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Curve present the world premiere of Ravi Shankar’s only opera Sukanya which tours venues across the UK in May 2017. With a libretto by Amit Chaudhuri, the semi-staged opera is directed by Suba Das and conducted by David Murphy, with soprano Susanna Hurrell in the title role, bass-baritone Keel Watson, Brazilian baritone Michel de Souza, the BBC Singers and the full force of a 60-strong London Philharmonic Orchestra. The Orchestra is supplemented with Indian classical instruments including the sitar, shennai, tabla, mridangam and ghatam. The innovative Aakash Odedra Company provide the choreography and dancers and Tony Award-winning 59 Productions are providing production design.

Shankar was composing his pioneering opera Sukanya at the time of his passing, an opera exploring the common ground between the music, dance and theatrical traditions of India and the West.  Conductor and collaborator David Murphy – who worked with Shankar for many years, notably conducting the world premiere of his Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010 –completed the opera with help from Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s daughter.

David Murphy says:

“Bringing Ravi Shankar’s only opera to life has been an amazing journey. A journey that was begun over a decade ago during the thousands of hours Raviji and I spent working closely together and which gained an unstoppable momentum in the last months of his life, continuing even during his time in hospital. Ever the practical musician, before undergoing what was to be his final surgery, he outlined the roadmap he had in his mind to take the work to completion – a vision so clear and compelling that it feels as if he is closely supervising the entire creative team as we move towards the world premiere in May 2017.”

Anoushka Shankar says:

“It thrills me that this final project of my father’s, about which he was so passionate, is finally coming to life. 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. 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. David Murphy has been so dedicated and sincere bringing my father’s vision to completion. I’m very grateful to everyone involved.”

Ravi Shankar was in a unique position to visualise the common ground between East and West. From Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary Western violinist, to George Harrison of the Beatles, his influence across the arts is legendary.  From a young age, he was steeped in the ancient musical and dramatic traditions of India through his guru Baba Allauddin Khan but also gained a deep knowledge of the music and drama of the west. As a young man he experienced the reaction of Westerners to hearing Indian music for the first time: although many found it exciting he realised that it needed to be presented very carefully for the untrained Western ear to realise its depths.

His friendship with Yehudi Menuhin inspired Shankar to begin looking at the connections between Eastern and Western classical music. Alongside Shankar’s forays into chamber music – culminating in the album West Meets East in 1967 – his first major western classical commission came in 1970 from the London Symphony Orchestra. He began working on his Concerto, which was premiered in 1970 and conducted by André Previn. The Guardian critic Edward Greenfield commented that “If East has to meet West, then few musicians have achieved it with such open joy than Ravi Shankar.” Shankar continued to work with western classical music and in 2010 the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave the world premiere of his ambitious Symphony, conducted by David Murphy.

Amit Chaudhuri’s libretto, based on the legendary Sanskrit texts of the Mahābhārata, also draws on texts as diverse as Tagore, Eliot and Shakespeare. The story follows the young princess Sukanya who must marry the much older Chyavana, a wise religious man, after a terrible accident. As love unexpectedly grows between the couple, twin demi-gods attempt to woo the beautiful Sukanya, leading to an ultimate test as Chyavana is transformed into a third twin. Faced with a choice of three now identical, handsome young men, will Sukanya be able to identify her husband’s soul?

Shankar was inspired to choose this subject while exploring the story behind the name of his wife, Sukanya Shankar, who says:

“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. With his busy schedule of touring, performing and teaching, it was shelved. In the last few years before he left his physical abode, he started to work on it with David Murphy who he was very fond of and loved working with. He was confident that if for some reason he was not able to complete the opera, Anoushka would complete it for him. Luckily, he worked even in hospital before his final surgery with David by his side and completed it. David has done a brilliant job of arranging and bringing to life this Magnum Opus work of Raviji. I am grateful to David and to Anoushka for their inputs.

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! This opera is a standing testimony to the ultimate in the amalgamation of East Meeting West as natural as can be.” 

The world premiere of Sukanya is made possible through generous philanthropic support from Arts Council England and the Bagri Foundation. The work also received seed funding from Norwich Arts Centre and a Kickstarter campaign.

Sukanya is a co-production between The Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Curve and 19 May performance is presented in association with Southbank Centre.

John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera, The Royal Opera:

“Opera is the perfect art-form for Ravi Shankar whose vision embraced text, image and dance as well as music.  His work on this new opera with Amit Chaudhuri and David Murphy has deep roots in the literature and the classical musics of both Europe and India.  I’m very much looking forward to hearing and seeing a hugely entertaining show which also carries an important message about the nature of love and the transformative power of music.”

Timothy Walker, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of London Philharmonic Orchestra:

“In 2010 we had the pleasure of working with Ravi Shankar on the world premiere of his first Symphony, a dynamic work that delighted our regular audience and enticed more people to experience the magic of a live symphony orchestra. We are thrilled to be co-producing the world premiere and tour of Shankar’s only opera Sukanya, a work that develops his vision of East meeting West, again working alongside David Murphy and some of the country’s leading arts organisations in this landmark event”

Curve Chief Executive Chris Stafford and Artistic Director Nikolai Foster:

“We’re thrilled to be developing Curve’s repertoire with not only our first opera, but also our first collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and The Royal Opera. Sukanya was first developed at Curve over two years ago, so it’s wonderful we are now able to bring Ravi Shankar’s only opera to life, presenting its world premiere as part of our programme to mark 70 years of Indian Independence.”

Suba Das, Director of Sukanya and Associate Director of Curve:

“Ravi Shankar brought Indian music into the modern Western world, asserting that South Asian culture isn’t in any way niche but truly world class in its own right. Working now with two generations of South Asian artists who have followed in those trailblazing footsteps, making work that powerfully brings together many cultures and perspectives, is an unparalleled honour. This first ever presentation of Sukanya to the world is about the music first and foremost, but with Amit Chaudhuri’s richly poetic text, that draws equally from Shakespeare and Tagore; Aakash Odedra’s stunning and sometimes menacing choreography that fuses Kathak and contemporary Western influences; and projection design filled with unexpected, fresh perspectives on India by Akhila Krishnan for 59 Productions; we’re also going to create a magical stage event. We want to celebrate the restless, ever-evolving shape of Indian and British Asian creativity, and it feels appropriate to do so for this love story full of mystical transformations and hidden identities. We hope that Ravi Shankar himself would be proud of the land beyond borders we’ll create onstage.”

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