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Opera San Jose begins its 39th season Sept. 10 evening with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, adding a novel twist by staging the classic in 18th century colonial India.

The cast and crew feature several renowned Indian American artists, including conductor Viswa Subbaraman, and choreographer Antara Bhardwaj. Soprano Maya Kherani stars as Susanna who is to be married to Figaro — sung by tenor Efrain Solis — but is the object of Count Almaviva’s lust. Mezzo soprano Deepa Johnny sings Cherubino, a young page who is in love with Countess Almaviva. Soprano Melissa Sondhi sings Barbarina, who is charged with setting up a dalliance between the Count and Susanna. Tenor Krishna Raman sings Judge Don Curzio.

Sri Lanka-born mezzo soprano Tahanee Aluwihare will sing Marcellina, who plots to marry Figaro, who had once proposed to her. The opera is based on a play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, which was originally banned after it was written. Beaumarchais’ work is often said to have inspired the French Revolution, because of its denunciation of aristocracy, and noblemen outsmarted by their servants.

Sex, Disguise, And Class Struggle

Conductor Viswa Subbaraman.

“There is a beautiful universality to Mozart,” Subbaraman told India Currents in an interview. “The Marriage of Figaro is about class struggle, the wealthy class and their servants. These are universal themes we are still confronting today.”

“The Marriage of Figaro is some of the most beautiful music ever written. There are so many bubbles in that overture: it’s like opening a bottle of fine champagne,” he said. “We are keeping Mozart. There is no tabla in this production,” the conductor quipped.

In 2013, Subbaraman conducted Beethoven’s Fidelio in Milwaukee. Similar to this production, the opera was staged in an Indian setting. Local publications dubbed the production “Beethoven Meets Bollywood.”

Bedding Susanna

Director Brad Dalton said The Marriage of Figaro was the perfect opera to open a post-Covid season. “It is such a bright, joyful celebration. I leaped at the opportunity.”

The idea to stage the production in colonial India came out of a conversation Dalton had with Opera San Jose’s former general director Khori Dastoor, who had recently travelled to India and was inspired.

“This opera is so much more than simply the Count attempting to bed Susanna on her wedding night. I hope that people will see the many contemporary issues within it, such as the #MeToo movement,” he said.

Maya Kherani (seated) plays the starring role of Susanna. (Photo by David Allen for Opera San Jose)

Redemption Song

“But we’re not doing a documentary. We are making a dream,” said Dalton. One of the issues the cast and crew struggled with was the concept of redemption at the end, which is at the heart of Mozart’s opera.

“We must embrace forgiveness. If we only continue to hold on to resentment, there is no hope. There is deep power in Mozart’s music to heal,” he said.

The Big Fat Indian Wedding

Choreographing the production was “an incredible adventure and a steep learning curve” for Bhardwaj. “This is the dream job I never knew I wanted,” said the choreographer, who is also a film director.

“Opera is a completely different world than the one I come from. There is no percussion,” quipped Bhardwaj. “It is like a 1960s Bollywood film, with old world cultures and a very accessible story line.”

Cherubino (Deepa Johnny) is disguised as a woman by Susanna (Maya Kherani) in Opera San José’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Photo by David Allen for Opera San Jose)

Bhardwaj said she was most excited about choreographing the wedding, to which Mozart’s opera devotes a scant six minutes. “It is the shortest Indian wedding ever,” she joked, adding: “I tried to portray Indian culture in an authentic manner. Brad gave me so much creative freedom.”

Blending Passions

The choreographer brought in several of her students to perform in the wedding scene. Members of the choir were also incorporated into the baraat.

“It is so exciting for me to see so many South Asian faces on stage, and to see our attire, our culture being portrayed,” said Bhardwaj. “It is going to be such an enjoyable experience for people who have never experienced opera.”

Kherani, who grew up in Texas and sang and performed in street theater throughout much of her childhood, said opera seamlessly blends her two passions. As she studied engineering at Princeton, an RA encouraged her to join the university’s glee club.

A soprano was thus born! In her sophomore year, Kherani performed The Marriage of Figaro in the role of Barbarina. She learned the aria on the fly. In 2016, Kherani sang the role of Susanna for the first time at the West Bay Opera in Palo Alto, California.

Susanna is the largest role in soprano repertory. The character is onstage for three and a half hours. Kherani said it is her favorite role. “Here is an incredibly smart woman who creates the whole machination for the story. This should be called ‘The Marriage of Susanna.’”

From Medicine To Music

Subbaraman encouraged opera first-timers to read the synopsis and familiarize themselves with the plot. The opera will be sung in Italian with English and Spanish supertitles.

“Opera is one of the easiest ways to get into Western classical music. There are stories that are pretty self-explanatory. It is the synthesis of so much of what we call art,” said the former Duke pre-med student, who abruptly switched career paths after a semester in Vienna.

“The Marriage of Figaro” will run through Sept. 25 at Opera San Jose.

Sunita Sohrabji

Sunita Sohrabji is the Managing Editor of India Currents. She is also the Health Editor at Ethnic Media Services.