Bringing Opera Back Home: Anando Mukerjee
Operatic singer Anando Mukerjee has had a whirlwind of a career so far. Starting off as a molecular biologist, his shift to the opera was well timed as he his truly India’s only contemporary opera performer. As Indian operatic performers are far and few between, Mukerjee was able to use this fact to quickly gain a name and platform for himself. After that, pure talent drove the way. Having recently performed at the Shikwa – Mehrabon Wali Haveli, soundplunge_test caught up with the lirico-spinto tenor singer and quizzed him on his operatic taste.
soundplunge_test: Do you feel that language is a barrier in a true operatic performance?
Anando: I don’t feel language is a barrier at all in a true operatic performance as the beauty and power of the music conveyed by the orchestra and the vehicle of the human voice, added to the story played out on stage which is pure theatre all culminate in a deeply moving personal experience which is uplifting and speaks directly about the human condition of which we are all part, irrespective of what language, race, creed or class we come from. That is the nature of any great art form which cuts across all barriers regardless of its origins. Opera has this particular quality in abundance.
soundplunge_test: How long did it take you to cover Beethoven’s Ninth successfully?
Anando: I had about 3 month’s private preparation in the piece before finally coming to Bombay for the rehearsals at the NCPA Bhabha Opera House with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). The rehearsals at the opera house were indeed very intense. We had three sessions with full orchestra and then of course two performances of the piece itself immediately following these rehearsals. There was hardly any time to waste let alone breathe! I was particularly lucky to have been coached by Zane Dalal, the resident conductor of the SOI in Bombay personally privately between orchestral rehearsals, from whom I learned a great deal about the finer nuances of interpretation and execution of my solo lines in the piece. It was a trial by fire in many ways, and I acquitted myself with a competent performance. The experience has stood me in good stead when I do it again in the future.
soundplunge_test: Take us through the shift from a Molecular Biology background to operatic singing.
Anando: I always had a passion for music but coming from a typical Indian family it was always expected that I get proper qualifications. Hence I embarked upon a scientific education and career. I also had a great passion for science, particularly the biological sciences. But I reached a turning point in my life when I had to choose between the two. I opted for music because of the overwhelming need to express myself on stage, because of the sheer joy of singing but also because if one is to pursue music, one has to do it early rather than later. One can always return to science, in which I still have a great interest and am for grateful for a scientific training which has enabled me to have a very analytical approach to life and has particularly enhanced my music.
soundplunge_test: Having sung internationally for close to a decade, how do you feel opera music is now being received in this contemporary day and age?
Anando: Opera is a western art form and a cultural pillar of that society. It will always remain so, firstly in its traditional incarnation as high art in the opera house but also as mass popular entertainment because of great singers such as the 3 tenors, Lanza, Callas and Kaufmann. There is a tension however. One is economic, the other artistic. Modern directors and producers want to broaden opera’s appeal in contemporary society by setting classic operas which are at least 100-300 years old in modern settings. Sometimes it works, more often it does not. Also opera has become increasingly expensive to put on and also for the general public to get access to. All of this has resulted in the perception of opera being elitist, exclusive, remote and not relevant and also the operatic profession/establishment living in its own bubble. A natural backlash has been the commercial phenomenon of “cross-over” which has significantly diluted the art-form and drawn sneers from so-called purists but never the less created great mass entertainment and a great deal of revenue for the record labels.
It’s time to pull back and go back to basics, which is ultimately opera is not some high academic exercise, though it is, nor is it mindless commercialism, which it certainly is not. It is ultimately about the beauty of the human voice singing great music and lyrics about a story that has resonance in every soul. Stick to this basic formula, opera will always remain contemporary and cutting edge.
soundplunge_test: Describe your experiences under Nicolai Gedda’s tutelage.
Anando: Musically it was and remains the greatest privilege and experience of my life. I had first heard Gedda’s voice on tape at the age of 15 singing the famous “Flower Song” from Carmen on the celebrated recording by Beecham. I never thought that some 10 years later I would actually meet this greatest of living tenors and actually learn from him! I was and am still in awe of Gedda. When I first met him it was near religious experience – he had the aura of greatness about him but also great humility, gentleness and in infectious and mischievous sense of humour.
He pretty much adopted me as his “chela” in true guru-shishya parampara style – Gedda is a Buddhist by the way and greatly influenced by Gandhiji, so it was only natural or was it destiny/kismet that it should be this way. He taught me everything I know about style, languages and interpretation and also set the foundations of my vocal technique. As a result I became an all-rounder as a singer singing pretty much everything from the Baroque to the Modern era and everything else in between, in at least 7 languages and covering opera, oratorio and art song. Most singers are not lucky enough firstly to have a single teacher who can teach them all this and second who can make them d it as well! It was unbelievable. Above all I am grateful that we became friends and that he always referred to me as “my boy” and that he thought my voice was “beautiful” in its timbre. What greater honour could any student ask for?
soundplunge_test: What is the thought behind your setlist for your show at Shikwa – Mehrabon Wali Haveli?
Anando: The choice of repertoire reflects the themes of hope, nature and above all love as it’s a Valentine’s Day concert. It also draws heavily on repertoire either associated with India or influenced but it or having parallels with India’s heritage and natural beauty. Hence the concert begin with a song dedicated to the Ganga and ends with Nessun Dorma, probably the most famous tenor aria of all, but sung in the opera by a Mughal prince. The programme deliberately highlights that opera has relevance and resonance in India and more importantly that it has an Indian narrative. No more this more clearly highlighted in the fact that the concert is set in a 700 year old Haveli. Opera began as a courtly art in Europe just as Hindustani or Carnatic music did in the courts of Rajas in India and so it is only natural that this concert of operatic music be sung in an Indian princely setting, again showing what a natural fit it is.