Year after year, San Francisco World Music Festival brings musicians from many parts of the world together. One refrain dominates this musical feast every November: what unites us as people is larger and far more significant than what separates us. This year, as part of its thirteenth annual production, the music festival focuses on the opera.
Featuring traditional opera masters and musicians from around the world including the Festival’s International Music Youth Orchestra, The Opera Project is produced by Door Dog Music Productions, with artistic direction by Michael Santoro, music direction by Jim Santi Owen, global music direction by Azeri kamancha master Imamyar Hasanov and Chinese erhu master Zhang Xiaofeng, and scenic and lighting design by Matthew Antaky.

With this project, San Francisco World Music Festival completes its Trilogy Series (rituals, epics, operas). Stories from diverse living cultures will be presented by masters of Chinese Beijing Opera, Azerbaijani Mugham Opera, Italian Baroque Opera, Korean P’ansori Opera, Tibetan Opera and the South Indian classical Opera.

This artistic collaboration between many varied operatic traditions was sparked by two masters of the art form in 1960. While working in Beijing and Baku to gather historical opera footage, the team at Door Dog learned of a meeting in 1960 between China’s greatest Beijing opera icon Mei Lanfang (Mei Lan) and Azerbaijan’s greatest Mugham opera icon Bulbul (Murtuza Mammadov). According to Bulbul’s 90-year-old wife, the Azerbaijani opera star Adelaida Mammadova, Mei Lanfang was fascinated by recordings of Bulbul’s singing. He went to Azerbaijan, attended one of Bulbul’s national concerts, and talked to him backstage. They became friends and decided to do a project the following year in Beijing. However, Mei Lanfang and Bulbul passed away in 1961 within a month of each other, cutting short their plans for an artistic exchange. Fifty-two years later, The Opera Project strives to bring Chinese and Azerbaijani opera artists on a common stage.

The festival has worked with musicians from the Indian classical tradition for many years. The vocalists trained in the Carnatic system will sing in Italian, Chinese and several other languages.  On Sunday, November 11th, the Carnatic ensemble of Anuradha Sridhar’s Trinity Center for Music and mridangam artiste Shriram Brahmanandam and his students will present excerpts from Saint Thyagaraja’s musical play, Nauka Charitram. “This is of great significance to me and my students as they too come under the lineage of Thyagaraja sishya parampara,” Sridhar says, referring to the composer saint who was the guru of her great-great-grandfather. Viewed just as a lyrical mythological tale, Nauka Charitram, is just that; it’s the charming story (charithramu) of the boat (nauka). But the waters run deep. The import of this tale is titanic.

The story is about maidens (gopis) who course the Yamuna river with the beautiful Krishna; they are sodden with love and pride because they are surrounded by the powerful, blue-bodied Krishna. Soon they begin to show their pettiness. They are preoccupied with the fripperies of life. Their lust overcomes them.  To subdue the egos of the gopis, Krishna conjures up a severe storm, thundering clouds and rain. The boat forms a hole and water seeps into the boat. Suddenly, it is in danger of capsizing. The only way out into safety is if the maidens take every last shred of clothing on their body and plug the leak in the boat. The dialogue between Krishna and the gopis when they are overcome by shame and insecurity, and the unerring faith that the maidens subsequently place in him so they may be led toward the safety of the bank, is the simple and powerful message of Nauka Charitram. In the telling of this meaningful tale, Thyagaraja has composed yet another masterpiece. The story offers the path to spiritual fulfillment: while crossing the stormy river of life, trust in the power of the supreme and surrender, unconditionally, to attain salvation.

Trinity’s artistic director has condensed Thyagaraja’s two-and-a-half hour play into twenty-five minutes. The challenges were many, she says. She had to pick the most salient lines from the elements of poetry (padhya), narration (vachana) and songs (dharu) to narrate the tale and also do justice to the story and the poet’s vision. Her students will narrate and sing in the Telugu language employed by Nauka Charitram. “The integration is also much more in this year’s performance,” Anuradha Sridhar says. It’s not easy for other systems of music to attempt the modulations and frills inherent in Indian ragas but this year’s program will attempt a confluence in one segment of the performance. “I took one padhya that I felt that everyone across all the music systems could perform with us and my mother has composed the tune for it in raga Kedaram.”

A musical collaboration of this magnitude forces us to ask the big questions. If musicians of alien cultures can jam, why can’t people? If artistes can set aside their ego and chip away, note by note, at cultural differences, why can’t people? Why must we contend with ego and traffic jam in personal interaction? And why this endless cacophony between nations?

Nov. 8-11. Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. 3200 California Street, San Francisco. Festival Pass: $64 standard, $89 premium. Individual Concerts: $20, standard, $30, premium. Free to seniors and children Under 12. Box Office: (415) 292-1233. http://www.sfworldmusicfestival.org.

Kalpana Mohan writes from California's Silicon valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com