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Indo-Norwegian partnership brings Puccini to Mumbai

9:45, 12th February 2013

India’s first fully-staged professional production of Tosca will receive two performances in Mumbai on 28 and 30 September. Opera Now Editor, Ashutosh Khandekar, reports on a unique collaboration between Bergen Opera and India’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).

Following a triumphant production Madama Butterfly at the NCPA in February 2008, international opera returns to Mumbai this September as the NCPA teams up with Opera Bergen to present another Puccini masterpiece, Tosca.

The Norwegian link has been in the pipeline for two years – a typical timeline, given the sheer complexity and financial logistics of opera. On this occasion, the catalyst was a meeting between Khushroo Suntook, the NCPA’s operaphile Chairman, and Anne Randine Øverby, the  founder and director of Opera Bergen.

Øverby i established Norway’s second opera company (after the National Opera in Oslo) in the city of Bergen on the west coast. She has produced and conducted more than 80 operas in her long career, which has included conducting tours to China, Egypt and the USA.

 Øverby has relished an opportunity to work in India, in part because of her strong personal connections with the country: “Actually, I was born in India and lived here until I was 18,” she says. “’My parents were missionaries in Bangladesh and then in South India, so the country is really in my blood. Bringing opera here is like a dream come true – a real personal voyage of re-connecting and re-discovery for me.”

Øverby has assembled a 90-strong cast to come to Mumbai, ranging from international soloists to instrumentalists and choristers. “I have to emphasize that this is a full-scale production created especially for Mumbai,” says Øverby. “We’re bringing a professional organist, rehearsal pianists, even six children who sing at the beginning of the great ‘Te Deum’ scene set in the church at the end of Act I. I was determined from the start not to cut any corners. If we’re going to do grand opera in India, it must be the real thing so that audiences are not short-changed.”

There are many local elements in the mix, however. The production will also feature 40 members of Mumbai’s Paranjoti Academy Chorus. And the entire production has been built in Mumbai, using local craftspeople and designers. “One of the great joys about a production like this has been co-operating with a local people and getting to know the spirit of Mumbai through its creative life,” says Øverby, who has visited the city five times this year in preparation for the opera.

With this level of resources and detail comes considerable financial commitment, but Øverby points out, “Opera Bergen is a small company that is used to having little money. We give our artists a lot of freedom in the way we work, so it’s not just a factory churning out productions.  As a result, I think people are more willing to give their time and energy to us at a rate that we can afford. In return, they can work in an interesting, more creative way than might be possible with other companies.”

Mumbai’s Tosca will be staged by Øverby’s long-time collaborator, the stage director Bruno Berger. What sort of approach has the production team taken for staging the opera? “We are presenting the opera in a very classical way,” Øverby says. “The drama will be presented in a clean, stylistic way and not at all exaggerated. The music is so powerful that it needs to come across very directly for the audience to feel its full force, so we’re trying to keep a clear focus in the staging.”

The hope is that Tosca will be the start of a series of ongoing collaborations involving opera co-productions with overseas companies. As the NCPA’s Chairman points out, the way forward for opera in India is to set up joint ventures that allow expertise and finance to be shared: “My love for opera is enormous, but it’s also enormously expensive!” says Khushroo Suntook. “One of the nice things that we got from this particular partnership is that Opera Bergen has brought a lot to the table, not least in the experience, integrity, and devotion that Anne has lent to our venture.”

“As for the future,” Suntook explains, “we are talking to people in continental Europe to do co-productions. We have a lot to offer to the opera world here in Mumbai. We have an economical orchestra and we have the facilities to build excellent sets and make wonderful costumes. The next step is to build up our singing talent and produce some good-quality homegrown singers. This takes time, but the Mumbai-born, internationally renowned soprano, Patricia Rozario, has been visiting India and holding masterclasses at the NCPA.  She has found some promising voices, who could have a future if the right opportunities are given.  So I’m looking ahead to February 2012/13 with a view to doing a short opera season based on the co-production model.”

Meanwhile for the forthcoming Tosca, Suntook, a great aficionado of the singing voice, is pinning his hopes on an international cast that is well-regarded and highly experienced: “We have a wonderful Georgian soprano, Iano Tamar, in the title role who has sung major roles at La Scala and Covent Garden. She comes to Mumbai after appearing Bregenz Festival. And I’m told that the Scarpia of Anooshah Golesorkhi is especially powerful. It transpires that he is a Zoroastrian by birth, so should be particularly popular with Mumbai’s strong contingent of Parsi opera lovers!”

A version of this article originally appeared in the September issue of On Stage, the monthly magazine of Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.


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