An ancient Savitri verbally spars with Yama, the God of Death; a modern, immigrant Meera vocalizes a pang of longing and responsibility: on stage, in English, in operatic style.

The two characters are part of a program presented by (East) Bay Area based Festival Opera Association. “In addition to pursuing works of great power, beauty, wit and heart, Festival Opera is on a quest for true resonance with our community. With the Indian community burgeoning in our region, it seems vital that we tell stories that are meaningful to them and honor the rich Indian culture,” says Sara Nealy, General Director.

As many probably know, Savitri is a heroine from ancient Indian mythology who argues with Yama to bring her husband back to life. Meera is the central character in River of Light, a modern career woman who gets pregnant and realizes that she needs to pass on her Indian heritage to her child.
Savitri was considered revolutionary when written in 1908, by Gustav Holst, a famous British music composer, arranger, and teacher. It was the first English chamber opera since the end of the seventeenth century. The libretto (lyrics for the Opera) for River of Light have been written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, music is by Jack Perla. The conductor and music director for the production is John Kendall Bailey.
The idea to pair the two stories was Nealy’s, who explains, “The ancient Savitri is the underpinning for the production and the contemporary world with its challenges of assimilation tugs to that potent and rich past. How powerful to have the character of Savitri be portrayed by the singer we see in the second opera, River of Light, as a modern Indian-American woman! It helps us understand that, even though she may not be in touch with it, we feel the power of where she comes from, her heritage. In River of  Light Meera discovers this herself.”
Playing the lead character in both is Maya Kherani, an Indian-American Soprano (singer with highest vocal range) artist. India Currents interviewed Kherani.

IC: How come you do Opera instead of Indian classical? Most desi kids don’t get the option or opportunity in the United States.
Maya Kherani: Opera is something I fell into in college, but I always had a passion for western classical music growing up. I started singing in choir in elementary school, and started western voice lessons at the age of 11. I also studied Karnatik music at the same time, but since the techniques were pretty different, I found myself having to choose. I also loved the acting/theatrical aspect of western classical vocal music-I could relate to the texts…I love the intellectual challenge of learning music and the emotional challenge of bringing a character to life.

IC: When did you first hear opera?
MK: I first heard opera in 7th grade choir, when my science teacher’s sister, who was a professional opera singer, came and sang an aria from La Boheme for my choir. I admit, I wasn’t hooked right away, but I always loved hearing the un-amplified voice.

IC: How did you decide what you wanted to do career-wise?
MK: I majored in Mechanical Engineering at Princeton University, but I was very involved in the University’s Music Department. I sang in my first opera in 2008, as Barbarina in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, I was completely hooked. That summer, during my summer research internship at MIT, I checked out every CD of opera at the music library and would practice arias in my dorm room (much to the chagrin of those with whom I shared walls). I got in to the SF Conservatory of Music, I knew it was something I could do with my life.

IC: How much is acting a part of opera?
MK: Acting is a huge part of opera. The whole point of opera is to tell stories through music, and a big part of that is embodying the character. Though to some it may seem unnatural to sing instead of speak, I believe it’s the intensity of emotion that leads us to sing instead of speak. Finding truth in that intensity is the challenge all opera singers face. A generation or two ago, opera was much more static. Nowadays, we are trained in physicality, stage combat, and dance.

IC: What has been your experience with this production?
MK: Savitri is a beautifully written, haunting piece. I have loved exploring the character’s power and true sincerity. Though Meera was born in India, she takes to her environment in the United States with aplomb and enthusiasm. However, she looks back at her roots and tries to reconnect. I think this is the true immigrant story, which many of us (of all ethnicities) face in today’s America. How do we keep that connection alive while still being an American? How do we honor our past while still living in the present? These are questions that River of Light illuminates, quite literally!

Sat, Nov 14, 2 p.m., 8 p.m.; Sun, Nov 15: 4 p.m., Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 9th St., Oakland. http://indianopera.bpt.me.

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 35-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...