Out of the blue, Southern California finds itself hosting an ad hoc festival of recent, provocative chamber opera, each offering a radical and radically different musical, dramatic and theatrical approach to issues of art, society and identity.
Last Saturday night at the Ojai Music Festival, George Lewis' "Afterword" concerned the creation of the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians by some of the most important and original African American musicians and musical thinkers of our time. Tuesday brought the triumphant Los Angeles Philharmonic revival of Lou Harrison's homoerotic "Young Caesar," with its life lessons offered a young leader.
Now two major local opera companies take their turns. Thursday night was the last of this season's Los Angeles Opera Off Grand series at REDCAT with the West Coast premiere of Kamala Sankaram's "Thumbprint," a vibrant call for women's rights in Pakistan. Come Saturday, Long Beach Opera turns to Robert Xavier Rodríguez's "Frida," examining the artistic, Marxist-feminist life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
"Thumbprint" is an operatic call, in no uncertain terms, for justice in the celebration of the Pakistani activist Mukhtar Mai. She endures gang-rape by Mastoi tribesmen seeking to avenge her brother's supposed forbidden touching of one their women, a set-up charge, thus leaving Mai expected to commit ritual suicide so that she not dishonor her family.
Instead, she courageously stood up to her attackers and brought them to court. She now runs in her village a shelter and school for women. She made the arduous 24-hour journey to L.A., arriving Thursday to attend the evening performance. The opera, a production of Beth Morrison Projects, had its premiere in New York three years ago, but this was Mai's first opportunity to see it.
The effect of "Thumbprint" is to show heroism in inspiring action, pure and simple, with a surfeit of justified sympathy. Sankaram is a rousing composer who engagingly merges the jazzier aspects of Indian music with the punchier ones of Puccini-esque and Adams-esque opera and Broadway. She is also a rousing double threat, a compelling singer who took the lead role of a wonder woman, Mukhtar. You don't leave the theater unimpressed or unmoved. Neither do you leave un-manipulated.
"Thumbprint" has one thing on its mind, and it is very clear about that. "Where did you find your courage?" five others sing in chorus to Mai at the start. We cannot, of course, know the answer, other than that her father says she was always stubborn, but we get a clear account of the process in a finely conceived and realized theater piece that takes not only some of its musical style from Broadway belting but also its narrative style.
Unlike nearly all opera these days, which requires program notes, a detailed plot synopsis and projected titles of the text to follow the action, there was in Rachel Dickstein's precisely attuned production and Susan Yankowitz's transparently explanatory libretto none of that, and none needed. And if you miss a line the first time, no problem, it will probably be repeated.
Sankaram is hardly the first composer to merge Indian raga with Western music, but few have done it so effortlessly, and it is her saving grace. Some of this is through calculation. Her six-member instrumental ensemble, ardently conducted by Samuel McCoy, uses violin, viola and flute because they are suitable for both Western and Indian uses. Tabla and a harmonium meet a drum set and piano on equal terms. Let's see, it was just four days ago when pianist Vijay Iyer, at Ojai, put together a quartet of tabla, saxophone and Carnatic Indian vocalist.
Along with Sankaram, the other "Thumbprint" singers (who take on multiple roles) are all are adept at conveying the melismatic Carnatic vocal style, occasional Western operatic flourishes and intricacies and pop-style belting. They must also convey character in a flash — Mai's father one second and, say, a judge the next.
They pull that off as well. Compelling cast members Steve Gokool, Manu Narayan, Phyllis Pancella, Leela Subramaniam and Kannan Vasudevan handle everything with fluency and care, as we watch a playful girl become caught up in a brutal culture. The sets are elemental, with few stage properties. Beds can be made into the structure of prison cell, rape unnervingly evoked by slashing rice sacks with a knife. Nothing gets in they way of the central drama.
Important issues are raised. The rapists are summarily condemned to death. The plea that they are only following their ancestors' hallowed tradition of an eye for eye, and if they are guilty, so is half of Pakistan, is rejected by the simple fact that the powerful take advantage of the weak without justification.
But this opera's stirring celebration of wrongs unexpectedly righted with more killing is also to some extent its undoing. The automatic death sentence could just as easily be seen not as justice but revenge. The cycle continues.
In fact, Mai's real courage may not have been defying a barbaric tradition and confronting her attackers.
At a post-performance talk on stage, Mai said the rapists were acquitted on appeal and further prosecution is going nowhere. Meanwhile, she has moved on with her foundation, which promotes education and understanding.
Among the women in her shelters are the women of the attackers. Among the children in her schools are their daughters. She is now instituting change, real change, from within.
Sankaram is a new voice from whom we will surely be hearing more. She is born to the theater, and she gave voice to Mai, standing up to authority. Needed, perhaps, is an epilogue to "Thumbprint," for a chorus of the voices of the women Mai is empowering to take matters into their own hands. The courts won't change a society. The women will.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $69 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-8001, LAOpera.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes