Chautauqua Opera Company Blog

Online Opera Chat: Thumbprint

On April 14, Chautauqua Opera held their second of four online preview events for the 2020 Season, which they are calling Opera Chats. This conversation featured Steven Osgood (General and Artistic Director), Omer Ben Seadia (stage director), Kamala Sankaram (composer) and Susan Yankowitz (librettist) talking about the opera Thumbprint. Two more Opera Chats are scheduled during April and May, and more information can be found at chq.org/opera-chats

Watch the conversation:

 

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Read the transcript of the conversation:

Steven:

Well, hi, everybody. My name is Steve Osgood and as General and Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Opera Company, it is my pleasure to welcome you here to the second of four webinars we have planned leading up to our 2020 season. Now, as we all know, we are living in challenging and unsettling times now as the world is battling COVID-19, and our hearts continue to go out to everyone around the globe who is affected by this crisis. The Chautauqua Institution and all of its constituent organizations, including the Chautauqua Opera Company, continue to monitor every development, and the health and wellbeing of our employees and our audience is our absolutely first priority. As Michael Hill stated last Friday, there are no state or federal restrictions that impact the summer assembly timeframe now. We are, nevertheless, working on contingency plans in the event that the season schedule needs to be adjusted in minor, moderate, or major ways.

For the 2020 season, though, Chautauqua Opera has three mainstage productions planned: Puccini's Tosca, The Mother of Us All by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, and Thumbprint, which is a riveting contemporary chamber opera by Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz.

Today’s conversation is about Thumbprint, the story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman, who has become a powerful champion of women’s rights. Mukhtar Mai was born in 1972, in the town of Meerwalla in rural Pakistan. And in June of 2002, she survived a brutal attack. And the heroic activism that she has pursued since her attack is the inspiration for the opera Thumbprint.

I would like to take a moment right now to say that our conversation today will touch on some sensitive topics, and will likely not be appropriate for young viewers. In our publicity for the season, we have indicated that, due to mature content this production may not be suitable for children under 13.

So I’m pleased to have with us three guests today. Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz are the creators of Thumbprint. Susan was one of seven playwrights who contributed a monologue to SEVEN: a documentary play, which was first performed in 2008. SEVEN is based on interviews with seven women who have fought for the rights of women and girls around the world, and Susan’s contribution was called “The Thumbprint of Mukhtar Mai”. The opera Thumbprint, with music by composer and performer Kamala Sankaram and Susan’s libretto, premiered in 2014 at the PROTOTYPE Festival in New York. I was the conductor of the premiere production, which featured Kamala singing the role of Mukhtar Mai.

The stage director of this summer’s production at Chautauqua is Omer Ben Seadia. I have been following Omer’s work for a number of years, and I’m very grateful that we have this opportunity to work together at Chautauqua, and that she’s able to be with us today. Kamala and Susan are both at their homes in New York City. Omer joins us from her home in Hawaii. So, welcome everybody, and good MORNING Omer!

I will spend the next 20 minutes or so talking with Susan, Kamala and Omer about Thumbprint, along with some of our specific plans for this summer at Chautauqua.

Before I start the conversation, let me give a short synopsis of Thumbprint, because it will be unfamiliar to many of our audience. At the start of the opera we see Mukhtar Mai, a young illiterate peasant, and her family. Mukhtar’s young brother has been accused of an honor crime, and in retribution Muhktar is gang-raped by members of the more powerful Mastoi tribe. Mukhtar is expected to commit suicide from the shame of her rape, and to resotre the honor of her family. But, instead, she chooses to take her rapists to court. And overcoming a litany of hurdles and through several court battles, Mukhtar becomes the first woman in Pakistan to win justice over her attackers. Being unable to read or write, Mukhtar must sign her court documents with her thumbprint, which gives the opera its title. And with the settlement Mukhtar wins, she creates a school where girls in her village can become educated, and not have to sign their names with their thumbprints.

Susan, let me start by asking you when you first heard about Mukhtar Mai, her story, and how you came to write your monologue ‘The Thumbprint of Mukhtar Mai’ as part of SEVEN.

Susan:

I guess it was 2003 or 4. Carol Mack, a playwright and a friend, went to a lecture that was sponsored by an organization called Vital Voices, which is an NGO based in Washington which aids women in both their educational, in their economic pursuits, etc. And she heard a speech by a woman from Afghanistan, whose story was very interesting, but in the telling, lost some of the drama. And as a dramatist, naturally, her impulse was ‘oh, if only I could dramatize this story!’ And she went to Vital Voices and she asked if she could do this, and in process, discovered how many other women there were who also had fantastic stories. And so Vital Voices provided a group of seven women. Carol chose six other playwrights to look at these various biographies or short synopses of the women, and to choose a woman. And I chose Mukhtar, because she was, first of all, a very touching figure. Secondly, I had spent some time in India as a young woman and I was very attracted to the culture, and knew something about it. And secondly, her story was in itself so dramatic and so moving that it seemed to me that any playwright would want to write her story.

Steven:

And these plays that comprise SEVEN, they’re kind of woven together, the seven monologues are woven together in a way that can be presented as a full theatrical event, or they can be broken up and performed as individual monologues. And they have been performed around the world in a whole variety of settings and by different kinds of performers. Tell us a little bit about what that experience has been like.

Susan:

Well, I’ve seen several of the productions. I mean, it’s been done, I think, in 37 different countries and translated into almost as many languages. It’s been done in Pakistan, for instance. It’s been done in Afghanistan. Everywhere it’s done, it’s tremendously moving. It’s a piece of social activism. And it’s actually received that way. Audiences are on their feet and their question is almost inevitably “What could I do? If one woman could do what these women individually have done in their own countries, what can I do for my own country?” It’s been very moving. We never expected it to take off like this. In fact, we’ve just had a national tour interrupted/cancelled. I saw the performance of it in Palm Beach in the beginning of March and that was the end of the rest of the tour. But, it was really pretty wonderful.

Steven:

I’m sure it’ll come back. So the play…I found my copy back several months ago as we were starting to dive into the real research of this but it’s really an incredibly powerful story, and I look forward to involving these plays somehow in the conversation up at Chautauqua this summer. In all of this, when did you meet Mukhtar Mai in person?

Susan:

Pretty early. Once we decided that we were going to do this, Vital Voices helped us each get in touch with the individual women that we were interested in. Mukhtar, at that time, was becoming rather well known, and so she had come to the United States a couple of times, and I was able to interview her. I guess it was, you know, 2007. And then later on, she came for a book party, because she had written a book about this. And she really had spoken no English at the beginning, and she gradually has assembled a little bit of vocabulary and a sophistication, so that she was actually on the fashion runway for human rights international in various beautiful saris.

Steven:

That’s fantastic. That’s great. Kamala, how did you and Susan first meet? And where did the idea come to take Mukhtar Mai’s story and let it live in opera?

Kamala:

So, I had sort of a parallel way of getting to this story. In…oh boy gosh, I think it was 2010 now or 2011, there was a concert series called the 21C Liederabend, that was produced by Beth Morrison Projects, Vision into Art, which was Paola Prestini’s company that preceded National Sawdust, and Opera on Tap. This was their inaugural concert, and they wanted to feature a song cycle by a female composer. So they approached me to see if I would want to write something, and at that point in time, Beth had just seen the dateline piece on Mukhtar, and she knew I came from a South Asian background and she thought maybe I would find it interesting. So, I watched it. I went and I got Mukhtar’s autobiography. And I started to make this. I made this 15-minute song-cycle inspired by the autobiography, which fused Hindustani classical music with Western instrumentation and singing. But it wasn’t long enough. The story is so in-depth, and it has this fantastic arc to it, which we just couldn’t get into in fifteen minutes, so I went back to Beth and I said, “You know, I think this wants to be a full-length opera”. And she said, “Well there is a woman who’s already written a play about Mukhtar. We should go find her”. And so Beth really facilitated us meeting each other. And that’s how it all came to be.

Susan:

I was found!

Kamala:

Yep! (laughs)

Steven:

So whose text was it that was in the song-cycle?

Kamala:

It was Mukhtar’s. From the autobiography. I just tool from the book.

Steven:

So then, how did that process work, Susan and Kamala, when you then finally sat down and decided – obviously, Susan, you said yes – And then what was the process of developing what would become the libretto of the opera?

Kamala:

Well, we first decided to try out working together, by writing one scene for the next 21C Liederabend, which was the following year, and that was the aria for the Mother, which still is sorta the heart of the whole piece for me, so it’s interesting that that’s the first thing that we wrote. But making that together, for me, that was proof that we could make something together that would be meaningful.

Steven:

And, Susan, for you, in terms of taking your play…And how much does the libretto that exists now resemble the play, or how much of it is a real whole, kind of, creation anew for the opera?

Susan:

I have to say that it’s pretty much an economical treatment of what was in the original monologue. It’s not a completely original creation at all. Except in what you have to do in order to make it sing. So, there are lines from the original monologue, there are whole sections from it, and the skeleton of it is identical.

Steven:

There’s six singers and six instrumentalists in the performing ensemble for it. And the soprano who sings the role of Mukhtar, that Kamala sang in the premiere, sings only that one role. But all of the other five singers share a variety of different roles. That sounds, yes, economical, but it’s intriguing to see how it kind of plays out in the confusion of some of the cross-characters, when the same character you just saw as The Father shows up as this potentially mysterious Judge. Whose side is he really on? What were some of the decisions that you had to make in terms of making that decision about six singers, and then how it played out through the creation?

Kamala:

Well, part of it was the economy of it, that this was intended to be a chamber opera, so we couldn’t have a full cast of twenty, with a giant chorus and all of that. But, part of it, I think, ends up in an interesting way mirroring the actual experience of trauma. In that the one person who’s at the center of all of it is Mukhtar, and then everyone else has this sort of transforming in and out of these archetypes of characters. And that, when we were deciding who should play which part, it was important to try and keep the tracks straight. So, for example, Faiz couldn’t be The Judge, right. Because, well one they’re going to be in a scene together, but also…

Steven:

Faiz, the chief “bad guy”.

Kamala:

Yes, yes. And so, for me it was thinking about voice types. And, Susan, I don’t know if you want to talk about the characterization and how you thought about the doublings there.

Susan:

I mean, I thought they were practical, for the most part, because we had to have one person in one scene and then maybe not right next in the other scene. So we couldn’t have that same performer double in that role, or be in the same scene doubling. You know, I think most of the choices were practical, although, there was an attempt to have them, I would say, be in the same hue. So that the Father and the Judge are both sympathetic characters, and they have a quality that you can relate to in the same way with both of them. And they sort of made sense. Although, it doesn’t make sense in the same way with Shakur and Abdul, so I take that back.

Kamala:

Although, Shakur is also the Imam, which I think is a more present character than Abdul.

Steven:

Abdul, the little brother.

Kamala:

Yeah.

Steven:

Right, it’s a fascinating collage and it allows the piece to move very fluidly from one scene into the next. And stay, in a way, ahead of the audience, who is experiencing this for the first time.

Kamala:

I was just going to say, that being said, we do also leave it open in the score, that if future productions want to change how the characters are assigned, that’s also a possibility. When Opera Ithaca did the piece, they had a totally different singer come in to sing Shakur and then they actually, they switched a few of the things around that we hadn’t thought of. But, it’ll be interesting [to see].

Steven:

Yeah, interesting. It’s a living, breathing piece of art that evolves through every production. So Omer, this is your first time directing Thumbprint. But you have spent a lot of time in your career working on contemporary operas. So, what is it like for you coming to this particular story for the first time? And what do you find so unique as you tackle Thumbprint?

Omer:

Well, first, this is a really interesting process for me. I DO do a lot of new opera, and, as probably the Chautauqua audience knows, this is a real Golden Age for new opera. It feels like we’re having this amazing resurgence of writing and voices and stories that are coming alive, alongside all the classic repertoire that we’re still doing. And in every new opera that I do, I sort of come in at a different time. Sometimes it’s in the very creation of it, sometimes it’s halfway through the writing process, and sometimes, like this, I sort of come in after the piece has already had it’s infancy. And every one of those phases is really really interesting.

And I think for me here, the challenge was to see this beautiful piece, that has such a history to it, and see how it can evolve and expand. And I think one of the things we’ve been researching in the process is how do we take this really specific story, that has such a deep cultural significance and is so rooted in a specific place and time, and sort of see the echoing effects of it. Two of my favorite parts of the opera are where Mukhtar’s voice gets amplified by the other women in the opera. And they’re not necessarily, they’re not JUST other specific women in her life. They sort of have this echoing effect to the greater community, whether it is women worldwide, or whether it’s just people worldwide. And so what we’re trying to do in this specific production is see how we can sort of take on the very specific elements of Mukhtar’s life and see how we can make them into a little bit more of an abstraction, that we can see that this story doesn’t just happen in a country far, far away from us, in a culture that we may not be familiar with, but actually see that this story is, unfortunately, familiar to a lot of us in a lot of different countries and a lot of different cultures. And that’s been a really fascinating challenge to take on.

Steven:

You talk about how stylized parts of it are, and I find it very nimble, the way the piece moves back and forth between utter naturalism. When we first meet Mukhtar and her mother and her sister and they’re making chapatis in the first scene and they’re singing, they’re singing as they bake. It is such a glimpse into a real family, of a people. And as the rest of the act evolves, and she starts on this journey that will end up being her attack, there are these broader theatrical musical gestures that show great journey, great struggle for her. And I think those are intriguing aspects of the piece that, Susan and Kamala, you built into the score, into the libretto, to help weave together what is, really, a multi-part story over the course of 90 minutes of playing time. What were some of those decisions made? Especially kind of anchoring around what we know what we know going into it is going to be a brutal event that happens to her at the center point.

Susan:

We knew that the turning point would always be the rape. What came after it, in a way though, is the climax. Because, although in some people’s lives that rape would be the defining moment for them, she refused to let that happen. And so when you get a little bit later on and you get to the “Thumbprint” aria, she has made a whole leap forward in being able to not just represent herself, but to represent, you know, a whole community of people. I think we were sort of in accord about all this, were we not?

Kamala:

We were. Because I think the important thing that we realized, and that Susan has in the play also, is that this is not a story about rape at its heart. This is a story about a woman finding her voice, which is part of why it makes sense in an opera. If you see the journey of Mukhtar from the beginning to the end, when we first meet her, the vocal writing is very mid-range, and kind of low, and it’s not until the end when she sort of has this explosive moment. In the middle of the piece she decides that she’s going to pursue justice instead of committing suicide, which is what is expected of her at that point, and that’s the first time she has any high-notes in the whole piece. And from there on the tessitura changes, which is part of why it’s very difficult to sing.

Steven:

And you would know something about that.

Kamala:

Oh, I do! (laughs) But, I think the whole trajectory of it is, she finds her voice, but then she uses this newfound voice in the service of her community. At the end of the opera she builds a school. And so that’s really what the piece is about, Is how one person can claim this inner power that they might not know that they have, and use that to affect change.

Steven:

I love that you put it that way, about a woman finding her voice, because, and we can talk about this a little bit later on in the conversation, but that is why Thumbprint is in our 2020 season. The impetus, the core repertoire selection for us. Knowing that Susan B. Anthony spoke from the stage of the Chautauqua Amphitheater, that Western New York was in many ways a hotbed of the suffrage movement, I knew that we needed to present The Mother of Us All, the story of Susan B. Anthony, in 2020 in the Amphitheater. And so around that, building then a season in which all three of our MainStage productions were about those strong female figures and these women finding their voice. Susan B. Anthony’s voice for the suffrage movement…And so Thumbprint was such an easy decision for us going into this as our chamber opera. It was such the perfect parallel to The Mother of Us All. And we will also be able to look at how these women have been portrayed over 120 years of operatic history. Finding the standard repertoire piece in which that strong central woman didn’t need to die or get married in order to have the happy ending of the opera, was tricky. And we came really really close with Tosca, but that’s the conversation for another day.

Yes, Mukhtar finding her voice is really a key critical element of our season this summer. Kamala, in terms of the musical language, and how your background influences the variety of things that go into it, tell us a little bit about some of the things that we would hear in the score.

Kamala:

Sure, so, much of the music is rooted in South Asian traditional music. And my background in particular is studying Hindustani music, which, if you look at the history of classical music in India it goes all the way back to the 17th century. 16th century starting with vedic chanting, which leads to the development of this very complicated system that finds its highest form in the Mughal courts in North India. So in that way, it’s very parallel to European classical music in a lot of ways, in that it comes out of this court tradition, and is very very old and developed.

So, I studied sitar for…oh, I don’t even know, it eight or ten years or something like that. And I studied this while I was still continuing to perform in Western music and study Western music. And so of course I realized eventually, I was not going to be Ravi Shankar, but as a biracial Indian American, it was very interesting to me to try to find ways to bring those two traditions together. So, that’s part of what’s going on in Thumbprint, is how do you create something that is true to the raga system in hindustani music? Which, it gets a little complicated, because India and Pakistan were one country until the 20th century. So the roots of the music is the same, even if now they’ve sort of split off into different folk genres, in particular.

So what you find in Thumbprint is this classical influence, but also the folk influence. Qawwali music is used quite a bit, which is a Sufi mystical tradition that has a lot of call and response and clapping and harmonium, which is one of the instruments in the ensemble. The other instruments in the ensemble are flute and strings. Again, you see a lot of cross over in that both of those instruments are used in Indian classical music, as well as in Western music. The percussionist doubles on drum set, but then also tabla and dhol. Dhol is used in bangra, which is the Bollywood music. A lot of Bollywood has bangra in it.

Steven:

That’s where the score really kicks in, in the middle when the dhol starts.

Yeah, yeah. (laughs) So a lot of it was trying to find the places where the two traditions meet. And then also finding, how can you sort of push each one a little bit further. So Indian classical music does not have harmonic development in it. Instead, the complexity comes from melodic and rhythmic development. But then some of the vocal writing in the piece is borrowing from that melodic…and a lot of the rhythms are also complex. So, the melodic and rhythmic complexity coming from the Indian side and then harmonic development coming from the Western side. Part of the way that that worked was trying to think of the ragas almost as tone rows. So that if you’re writing for each instrument, then you write them a line that’s true to the raga and stack them on top of each other, and see what that does.

Hope that’s not too much “nerdery”.

Susan:

No! No, it’s great “nerdery”!

But, there’re several parts in the opera where the singers are actually singing the raga tones. Like that’s the text of it. Kind of like “do re mi”, but in the ragas., and so you get that influence. There’s a part also where the singers are kind of vocalizing a percussion sequence, right? How does that work?

Kamala:

So another element of both Northern and Southern Indian music is you have the solfegge, which is called Sargam, and then you also have vocal percussion. In Northern India it’s called Bol or Theka and in Southern India it’s called Konnakol or Solkattu. And both of these are elements of vocal performance. So when you go and you hear an Indian classical singer, often they will improvise a bit on the syllables of the raga, which are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa, instead of Do Re Mi, and so on.

Steven:

That’s why I asked you to say it!

Kamala:

Yeah! (laughs) And then a percussionist in either tradition, before they are able to touch a drum, they have to be able to actually verbalize the drum patterns through this Theka and Konnakol. So our singers are doing this in the opera.

Steven:

It’s great. It’s a complete wide open sound world. and there is a recording that’s available of this. It’s on Spotify and it’s available for purchase. This is the premiere production, when it was remounted in Los Angeles. So this doesn’t have me conducting it, but it’s a beautiful recording of it, and it has most of the original cast. So I would encourage everybody to really immerse yourselves in this piece.

Before we turn to our attendees, Omer, (I mean, for all of you, but Omer particularly because you’re tackling this anew), is there a particular challenge to portraying a person who still is alive on this planet, through an opera, whose story you’re telling?

Omer:

Yes, absolutely. I think whenever a story transitions into different mediums. And, as we mentioned before, the story has been part of a book and it’s been documented, and there’s the play, and now the opera. And in every medium you sort of have to ask this: What is the medium adding to this?

And I think, for me, in the operatic version of it, what we sort of get is the community aspect of it. You had mentioned that the characters go in and out and they change into different characters. And the fact that the orchestra is constructed in a way that doesn’t feel as alienated from the stage; It doesn’t feel as separate, as it is perhaps in a lot of more Western operas. It feels like we’re all sort of sitting around almost in a circle, and at every moment one person gets up or several people get up and they share part of the story, but they could also switch back. So it sort of goes back into a traditional theatrical storytelling, where anyone could just stand up and tell the story. And it’s the same story, but the way that it’s told every time has a little bit of a difference to it.

So I think what we want to do in the opera is honor as much of the details of Mukhtar’s life. But also, there is something about the retelling of it. You know we’re toward the end of Passover right now. And one of the major components of the holiday is the retelling of the story. That there’s something about a traumatic event that if you continue to say it out loud and continue to pass it along, that there’s something that adds to it. Every time there’s another layer that gets added to it. So I do hope that we can have so much of the kernel of the truth of what happened in there, but every time we tell it we’re sort of adding to that.

Steven:

Susan, how does that resonate with your experience of all these iterations of telling Mukhtar’s story now?

Susan:

For myself, you mean, as a writer of this?

Steven:

Yeah, I suppose so. Yes (laughs)

Susan:

I mean, I feel as though I’m her scribe, you know. I’m her biographer, in a way, in a playwriting form. Not the only one. But, I feel I’ve gotten to know a human being. And I think one of the challenges in the piece was to portray her as a human being and not as some sort of idealized figure, a heroic figure. And I think we tried mostly to do that by blending - I think as you rightly said, Steve, (I think you’re the one who said it) - blending a realistic and a stylized form for this material. So that it moves back and forth between the very specific, to broaden out into what, Omer, you may be calling the retelling, because it resonates beyond the specific.

Steven:

It was a fascinating process in the premiere production to be discovering and unpacking this story with the performers. I did at least one workshop, maybe a couple workshops of the piece before the first production at the Prototype Festival in 2014. And so, most of us had lived with the story, the characters, and had learned the process you were following to tell it over an extended period of time.

This year, for our production at Chautauqua, we have a whole new performing company coming together for it. Kristin Roach is our conductor for the production, and then all of the singers are from our Young Artist Program. And throughout the application and audition process and casting, it really elicited a very kind of overwhelming emotional response from so many of the people we were talking to.

So, Samina Aslam is singing the role of Mukhtar Mai. The rest of the company is Shafali Jalota, Wan Zhao (who was with us last summer), Jared Esguerra, Michael Miller, and Michael Colman (also who was with us last summer). So some people who know the Chautauqua community, who know already how this is going to resonate with our community, the conversations that we’ll have around it. And some people who are new to Chautauqua and are really looking forward to coming and telling this story.

Kamala, one of the first conversations that we had, before I had even made a firm decision that we would do this at Chautauqua, was about the casting. This is a South Asian story. This is a Pakistani story. But, at least in the premiere production, it was not only South Asian performers, and it hasn’t been in many of the iterations since then. And as you see from our list as well, it is a much broader base of singers. What has your experience been in terms of casting and the decisions that are required around that kind of question?

Kamala:

I think, for both of us, it’s important to try and have as diverse a cast as possible. Which means, ideally you would have a South Asian cast, but this is not just a South Asian story. I think it was Omer saying, you know, part of the goal is to let the resonances between the story and its wider implications reverberate out. Right, so, the danger in placing it so specifically in Pakistan has always been that it’s very tempting for people to say, “oh, well that’s terrible that that happens there.” And there were even people in the audience in the premiere at PROTOTYPE, and then when we did it in LA, who wanted that to be true. Because then you can turn away from what that is saying about the place of women in the world. Which, you know, it’s better than it was, but it’s not equal yet. And so, for us, it’s important that Mukhtar be a South Asian singer. But then, as long as there is diversity in the cast, I think that that might actually be a positive. So that you can see more of how the story connects to the outer world, if that makes sense.

Susan:

At one time, we thought that we would have productions in which we would gather members of the audience or of the community to form the chorus. Right, remember that? We thought we would get whatever community this particular opera played in, we would gather members of that community to play some of the choral roles, which Kamala thought would not be too hard to do.

Kamala:

Well, to teach them the vocal percussion (laughs). Actually, early on we did a workshop in Florida at the Ocelot theater, where we taught the audience that Bol that’s used in the middle of the opera. And they did it with us, so it’s possible.

Steven:

Oh, great! We’ll see. Maybe, maybe not for this summer. (laughs)

But, I mean, there’s a resonance there. Also, again, how we have chosen to talk about The Mother of Us All. How are we celebrating marking the centenary of the 19th Amendment? When, yes, that is a huge significant accomplishment, to have achieved suffrage. And, however, the disenfranchisement of so many voters today, that is in some ways getting worse in the last ten years, is so marked. And so I know that the Institution, in their week about the centenary of suffrage, is going to look at voting rights in a much broader way. It’s not something that’s achieved; it’s something that is a work still in progress. And I love that this conversation about Mukhtar Mai and her experience is part of that bigger collage.

Omer:

The other thing with that I think is that we’re realizing that opera is such a relevant artform in that way; its ability to communicate the issues that we’re contemplating right now. Whether it’s with classic repertoire or whether it’s with new opera. That, even though we don’t have the capacity to react as fast paced as other mediums have, our ability to look at a greater theme of what we’re looking at as a society and the questions that we’re asking, and comment on it on a bigger scale, on a more, sort of…with a little bit more perspective, because opera takes time to write and process and all that. But I think it’s just a great reminder that opera’s very relevant to what we’re trying to work out as a society. And we’re trying to work out a lot of things right now, and that could be a place for that.

So I think, you were talking about the Young Artists that are going to be in this production. For them, as well as it is for us, it’s sort of a reminder that when we go back to classic repertoire we ask the same questions of ourselves. That it’s not something that’s just relegated to new opera. But it’s something that we can take with us no matter what piece of music we’re writing or working on.

Steven:

And I think opera has a unique ability to tell some of these stories. Kamala, when you talk about your musical background and the different influences that you weave into this; If this were anything other than an opera all of those different kind of angles of looking at the story, the people, the culture, would have to be translated into another visual or auditory medium. And your music can tell that so viscerally and so immediately. I mean, you know it within five seconds of hearing some of the music where you are and what the background is, where another medium would have to waste so much time in exposition like that.

We have a terrific question from Judith who’s attending. She’s asking if Mukhtar has seen or heard the opera. And, if so, what were her comments. I know that at the time of the premiere that there was an attempt to have Mukhtar online like on the phone for one of the post-performance conversations, which was technologically very challenged at that point. But, has she seen the opera? Has she heard it?

Susan:

Yes. She came to the LA Opera.

Steven:

Aw, man! The one that I didn’t do?

Susan:

Yeah! You missed out, because she there for all of the performances. What did we have, four?

Kamala:

Four. Five.

Steven:

So what was that like?

Susan:

Um, it was terrifying.

Kamala:

Terrifying!

Susan:

Not least because it was Ramadan. And also, when she saw the first show…She’d agreed to be on a panel. She was on a panel every night. But she did not see every performance. She found the first one so wrenching that she decided she wouldn’t see it again. But she joined us to talk about it. And she, you know, she talks about it still. I mean, it was a very powerful experience for her.

Kamala:

You said something afterwords, Susan, that I still think about. About how when the lights came up and we had a standing ovation that first night and she realized all of these people had been in the audience with her the whole time. Still, it’s very moving to me just to know that her story is resonating with people.

Steven:

Yeah, and in that production, Kamala, you were singing the role of Mukhtar, so…

Kamala:

Oh, god! (laughs)

Steven:

Wow. Wow.

Susan:

So she has seen it and she may even be looking in on this.

Terrific. Well that’s terrific. And I know that, Susan, you stay in touch with her on a very regular basis. And that her movement, her schools, her work continues today in Pakistan. And we definitely want to find out ways that we can connect as an audience, as a Chautauqua community, to what she’s doing there.

Steven:

Whether or not she’ll come to Chautauqua to see our production that has so many question marks attached to it right now. Not the least of which is can anybody travel at all? But what we’re finding over the past month or so of connecting not in people, but from further than six feet away through technology, that we are really able to connect quite personally and that actually opens up all sorts of new possibilities that I think three months ago I wouldn’t have necessarily considered, in terms of how to involve her and others who have a stake in this story.

Susan:

One of the things that I find particularly moving about Mukhtar’s work, is that when she opened her school she opened it first for girls. But then she opened it for boys. And she has boys from the same tribe of the men who attacked her, attending that school with girls from her own family. She’s adopted a girl. And she now has two children of her own. She married her guard, her policeman, and has two children. But it’s quite amazing what she’s managed to do, and how generous her spirit is that she’s able to include even the sons of these men.

Steven:

Yeah. Something for us to learn from.

Wow! Well, this 35 minute webinar has gone by in a flash. And so I think that’s a perfect place for us to wrap up. On behalf of all of us at Chautauqua Opera, I want to thank everybody who has joined us for this second season preview event. This is going to be archived on our website and so I encourage you to share with any of your friends or colleagues who you think will find it of interest. I want to thank you, Susan, Kamala and Omer, for being part of this discussion. Omer, I look forward to our work together this summer on Thumbprint. And, Susan and Kamala, I’m just thrilled that we are going to share your opera, and this story with the Chautauqua community. And I’m just eternally grateful to the two of you for having created this just wonderful piece of theater. Thank you all for joining us this afternoon.

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