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Review: 2 Murderous Men in 2 Operas About Killing for Politics

Sean Panikkar in the title role of “Shalimar the Clown,” at Opera Theater of St. Louis. (Photo: Ken Howard)

St. LOUIS — Macbeth’s weapon of choice is a dagger: long, thin and apt for plunging into a sleeping man’s chest. Shalimar’s is a hunting knife that can gut a cafe guest in broad daylight and looks shockingly like those used in the Islamic State’s execution videos.

These chilling props appeared in two strong, unsettling productions I watched on successive evenings here at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis: Verdi’s “Macbeth” on Thursday, a day after “Shalimar the Clown,” a new opera based on Salman Rushdie’s novel about love and innocence lost against the brutal backdrop of sectarian violence in Kashmir. That work, commissioned by the company from the composer Jack Perla and the librettist Rajiv Joseph (best known as a playwright), was elegantly directed by James Robinson.

The current season here also includes lighter fare like “La Bohème” and “Ariadne auf Naxos.” But with the shock of the recent massacre in Orlando still in my bones, I experienced “Shalimar” and “Macbeth” as a dark double bill that demonstrated opera’s ability to force a listener to contemplate uncomfortable questions. Continued…


‘Shalimar the Clown,’ ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ and ‘Macbeth’ at Opera Theatre Saint Louis

The world premiere of an opera based on a Salman Rushdie novel is topical, literary and theatrical.

Andriana Chuchman as Boonyi and Sean Panikkar as Shalimar. (Photo: Ken Howard)



A Paradise Lost, a Powerful ‘Shalimar the Clown,’ at Opera Theatre of St. Louis


Andriana Chuchman as Boonyi and Sean Panikkar as Shalimar perform in the world premiere of “Shalimar the Clown” for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. (Photo: Ken Howard)

By John von Rhein | June 21, 2016 | St. Louis

Giuseppe Verdi knew a thing or two about creating powerful operas around credibly human characters thrown into violent conflict. So, as it turns out, does the creative team responsible for adapting Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown” for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

It is something of a happy accident, then, that the adaptation by composer Jack Perla and librettist Rajiv Joseph of the British-Indian author’s 2005 novel — commissioned for this, the company’s 41st season — should be playing in repertory with Verdi’s “Macbeth,” another operatic tragedy with flawed figures confronting their darker natures.

Each work gets a gripping production that exemplifies what this envelope-pushing, opera-in-English company does best: high-gloss music theater that speaks to the cultural and political issues of today.

“Shalimar the Clown,” the opera theatre’s 25th world premiere, is the latest in a series of company commissions of new works that weave together diverse cultural strands to tell contemporary stories that are topical, risky, complicated, sometimes controversial. General director Timothy O’Leary has made these pieces an essential part of the company’s mission of relevance.

The OTSL’s 2011 restaging of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” revived a great American opera based on the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish man by Palestinian terrorists aboard a cruise ship. Terrence Blanchard’s “Champion,” mounted here in 2013, was about a gay African-American boxer. Neither work has been staged in Chicago, but they really should be. So should “Shalimar.”



Shalimar the Clown

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis


Aubrey Allicock’s Bulbul Fakh with Sean Panikkar © Ken Howard 2016

By Henry Stewart | June 21, 2016 | St. Louis

FURIOUS TABLA PLAYING and a modern-dress chorus immediately set Shalimar the Clown apart from the rest of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s standard-rep season. The opera, which received its world premiere on June 11 at the Loretto–Hilton Center, is part of the company’s “New Works, Bold Voices” initiative, which commissions American works based on contemporary source material—in this case, Salman Rushdie’s sprawling 2005 novel, which hops between ’80s L.A., ’60s Kashmir, Vichy France and points in between to explore how a lovestruck Indian–Muslim tightrope walker became an American chauffeur turned assassin.

Composer Jack Perla and librettist Rajiv Joseph open the show where most such tragic operas end: with a death, in this case, à la Carmen, a murder by knife. Perla borrows musically not from Spain, like Bizet, but from South Asia, blending the timbres of its instruments, including a sitar, into the orchestration while maintaining a contemporary-classical idiom, tonal or not as the drama demands. Continued…

A Powerful World Premiere of ‘Shalimar the Clown’ at Opera Theater St. Louis, through June 25th


Sean Panikkar (Shalimar), Andriana Chuchman (Boonyi), in the world premiere of “Shalimar the Clown” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. (Photo: Ken Howard)
By Steve Callahan | June 14, 2016 | St. Louis

A very major event occurred last night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis–the world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, an opera based on the novel by Salman Rushdie. This is a commissioned work, with music by Jack Perla and libretto by Rajiv Joseph.

The setting is primarily in Pachigam, a small village in the Vale of Kashmir (with a prologue and epilogue in California). The Vale of Kashmir is a place of legendary beauty–a lush valley replete with gardens, orchards, lakes and saffron fields, surrounded by the grandest, most beautiful mountains in the world. It nestles between India, Pakistan and China. Your grandparents would recall the sweet old parlor ballad penned in 1902, “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,” a song that conveyed the idyllic romance with which the world regarded Kashmir. (“Shalimar” is the name of a famed Mughal garden in Srinigar.) For centuries Kashmir was a peaceful land, where Hindus, Muslims and others lived in harmony–or what the natives call kashmiriyat. But since the partition of India in 1947 Kashmir has become a war-torn province filled with religious strife.

Our story deals with Shalimar, a young tight-rope walker in a folk theater troupe. He falls in love with Boonyi, a beautiful dancer. After they are discovered making love their fathers command that they be married to restore their honor. Others protest, because Shalimar is a Muslim and Boonyi a Hindu, but Shalimar’s father, a respected elder, says that such a wedding is acceptable in the spirit of kashmiriyat.

After the wedding, the American ambassador, Max Ophuls, visits and sees the troupe perform. He’s enchanted by Boonyi and invites her to dance in New Delhi. She is eager to escape her backward village. An affair blossoms between Ophuls and Boonyi; a baby is born. The rest of the story follows Shalimar and his thirst for vengeance against Boonyi, against Ophuls, and even against the daughter born of that illicit liaison. Shalimar is drawn into a radical Islamist band of rebels, where he becomes a skilled assassin. This man, who’s name means, in Sanskrit, “abode of love,” has become the abode of bitter, bloody vengeance. He pursues it for twenty-five years.

Composer Jack Perla is a jazz musician as well as a composer of opera, chamber and symphonic music. His beautifully orchestrated score for Shalimar reflects all of these genres as well, of course, as a strong thread of northern Indian music. The raga, that complex, cyclic idiom, is present throughout Shalimar. The orchestra is augmented by Arjun Verma on sitar and Javad Butah on tabla; they do beautiful work. A synthesizer adds to the Indian flavor with electronic versions of the santoor (a kind of hammer dulcimer), the tanpura (a larger drone cousin of the sitar), and the harmonium. All of this adds lovely flavor and richness to the score. In the final moment as Shalimar and the illegitimate daughter, India, stand armed and poised to kill each other these instruments engage in a supremely intense raga that supports the conflict beautifully.


Shalimar the Clown: Audience Reactions


Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

By James Sohre

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

This riveting new work by composer Jack Perla and librettist Rajiv Joseph (based on Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name) is not so much a towering achievement, as another astonishing over-achievement from this committed and (apparently) tireless company. Like OTSL’s Champion and 27 before it, Shalimar the Clown seems destined for further greatness.

That is owing to not only a restless, unnerving score replete with profound dramatic declamations but also colored with serenely beautiful melismatic phrases. Mr. Joseph as crafted a lean skeleton of a libretto that connects all of the major occurrences with uncanny precision. And composer Perla has masterfully crafted a score that truly sings, and which sounds like nothing else in the operatic canon.

The piece is beautifully, virtuosically scored, showcasing a rich palette of the “usual” operatic band ably augmented by the addition of a sitar (Arjun Verma) and tabla (Javad Butah). Continued…

Shalimar the Clown: NPR Weekend Edition

Shalimar the Clown: World Premiere at OTSL

My new opera, Shalimar the Clown, opens tonight at Opera Theater St. Louis. The opera is based on the 2005 novel by Salman Rushdie, with a libretto by 2016 Obie Award winner and Pulitzer prize finalist Rajiv Joseph. This world-premiere production stars tenor Sean Pannikar and soprano Andriana Chuchman as lovers Shalimar Noman and Boonyi Kaul. The cast includes Greg Dahl, Aubrey Allicock, Jenni Bank, Thomas Hammons, Katharine Goeldner, Geoffrey Apgalo, Elliott Paige and Justin Austin.

Maestro Jayce Ogren conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the OSTL Chorus. Arjun Verma is our sitarist & Javad Butah our tabla maestro. The production and design team, led by director James Robinson, includes Allen Moyer (sets), James Schuette (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lighting), Tom Watson (wigs and makeup), choreography (Sean Curran) and Greg Emetaz (projections). Maestro Robert Ainsley prepared the magnificent OTSL chorus and our coach and pianist is Andrea Grant.

Ticket & production information

Salman Rushdie on “Shalimar the Clown”



Drama with a Purpose

Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s new work for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Shalimar the Clown, based on Salman Rushdie’s novel, aims for the power of grand opera and the impact of contemporary relevance.


By Philip Kennicott • Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

WITHIN THE FIRST FEW PAGES of Salman Rushdie’s 2005 novel, Shalimar the Clown, an elegant, elderly and cosmopolitan Jewish man is brutally murdered in the streets of Los Angeles. He is killed by his Muslim chauffeur, a man from Kashmir who has nursed a toxic combination of fanaticism, hate and revenge. The victim’s daughter discovers her father’s body moments after the execution: “His throat had been slashed so violently that the weapon, one of his Sabatier kitchen knives, which had been dropped beside his corpse, had all but severed his head.” Continued…


A Subtly Cross-Pollinated Marvel

By Joshua Kosman | November 16, 2015

For a company still operating on a dangerously thin margin, the East Bay’s indispensable Festival Opera has been doing pretty much everything right. The company’s most recent offering — an Indian-themed double bill of operatic one-acts — was canny, affecting and beautifully economical. You really couldn’t have asked for more.

Kherani-headerFor this short program, the company put together “Savitri,” Gustav Holst’s gorgeous 1916 chamber
opera, with “River of Light,” a year-old creation by San Francisco composer Jack Perla. The two pieces called out to each in interesting ways, joining India’s mythic past with its contemporary international standing. And even if Sunday’s final performance at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center showed signs of cost-cutting in the staging and presentation, there was no scrimping on musical excellence. Both works, conducted by John Kendall Bailey and featuring casts headed by soprano Maya Kherani, were executed with sensitivity and panache.

For the 40-minute “River of Light,” Kherani returned to give another superb performance as Meera, an anxious Indian immigrant in Oakland trying to figure out how to impart some of her cultural heritage to her newborn daughter. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s libretto too often resorts to brusque shorthand to make its points as it skips from one holiday scene to the next (the piece feels more like a storyboard for a full-length opera than a well-shaped dramatic work in its own right).

But Perla’s score, for a quintet of Indian and Western instruments, is a subtly cross-pollinated marvel, blending long, arching melodies with bursts of coloratura in ways that never seem forced. Meera’s anguished central aria about feeling marooned in a land far from her family and traditions took wing on the strength of Perla’s tender writing and Kherani’s stirring performance. Baritone Daniel Cilli was a bluff, sympathetic figure as Meera’s American-born husband, and Molly Mahoney and Michael Boley added spice as the Fred-and-Ethel next-door neighbors.
The program began with an winning invocation provided by sitarist Arjun Verma, tabla player Nilan Chaudhuri, and dancers Richa Shukla and Gopi — all of whom returned to participate in “River of Light.” This was crossover programming at its most persuasive.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic.


River of Light Shines at Festival Opera

By Rebecca Wishnia | November 16, 2015

“Opera has not always told everyone’s story,” Festival Opera’s General Director Sara Nealy remarked in preface to the company’s Nov. 14 performance. But the company’s double-bill at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center last weekend represented a refreshing shift toward inclusivity. With John Kendall Bailey conducting Gustav Holst’s Savitri and the West Coast premiere of Jack Perla’s River of Light, Festival Opera explored Indian cultural narratives, both mundane and divine
Festival Opera is a small company with a small budget, and director Tanya Kane-Parry’s staging was powerfully minimalistic. She manipulated levels to suspenseful effect: As Satyavan sings, Death looms behind him, perched on a tree stump. But the lack of scenery and amateurish props made the production seem more like a school play than a professional opera. Holst envisioned an intimate setting for Savitri, but this is a story of literally epic proportions, and Festival Opera’s production needed more pomp.

In contrast, Jack Perla’s “River of Light” made the space come alive. Perla, a San Francisco-based composer and pianist, wrote the work in 2013 for the Houston Grand Opera’s community initiative HGOco. Kherani debuted the role of Meera, a successful businesswoman and newlywed who has little time or energy to reconnect with her Indian roots. But after the birth of her daughter, Meera longs to recreate the traditions of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Houston-based author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni wrote the libretto, whose references (Children’s Fairyland, The Chapel of the Chimes) were tailored to Oakland for this performance.

The opera is dynamic from its opening Kathak dance (an expressive, classical style from northern India), which was choreographed by Antonia Minnecola and performed by Richa Shukla and Gopi. Kherani was vibrant as Meera, and baritone Daniel Cilli brought his usual charisma to the role of Meera’s husband, Burton. His voice sounded much stronger on Saturday than it did in Festival Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos last summer. Tenor Michael Boley and mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney, playing the neighbors, rounded out the ensemble.

Perla, who has written operas for the Los Angeles Opera, Opera Theater of Saint Louis, and Seattle Opera, is also active in jazz and world music. His versatility as a composer shines in River of Light, which seamlessly integrates jazzy chords in the keyboard (Ben Malkevitch) with tabla (Nilan Chaudhuri) and sitar (Arjun Verma), violin (Lee), and cello (Amy Brodo). Particularly rewarding is Perla’s use of tabla; rarely is rhythm so present in opera.

Seattle Times

Women in Wartime in Seattle Opera’s Gripping ‘American Dream’

 Nina Yoshida Nelson, who sings the role of Mama, Hiroko Kobayashi, and Hae Ji Chang, in the role of her daughter, Setsuko Kobayashi, in Seattle Opera’s world premiere of “an American Dream.”  The world premiere explores the lives of two Puget Sound women during World War II.
By  Melinda Bargreen  

An opera house became a war zone this weekend, in Seattle Opera’s premiere performance of its commissioned one-act opera, “an American Dream.” Set in the Northwest in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the new opera was introduced through myriad pre- and post-performance presentations of historical information and experiences.

The McCaw Hall lobby was packed with displays, video, newspaper headlines and wartime propaganda. Much of it was hard to absorb, as audience members faced the extent of the anti-Japanese tide that led to the forced evacuation and internment of families like the one featured in the new opera.

Entering the theater, audience members lined up to be “processed” and issued identity cards by unsmiling security guards; other guards manned the exhibits inside. Operagoers could try out the uncomfortable cots in a mock-up detention cell.

The experience continued on the stage, where three community members — Kay Sakai Nakao, Felix Narte Jr., and Lilly Kitamoto Kodama — introduced the opera’s themes by speaking eloquently about their wartime pasts.

Then the opera took over, with Judith Yan capably conducting a 15-piece chamber orchestra in Jack Perla’s score. Full of impressionist and minimalist impulses, with washes of color and repeated motoric elements, it sounded like a meeting of Debussy and Philip Glass. Jessica Murphy Moo’s heart-wrenching, poetic libretto got right to the point in an opening scene with a Japanese-American family hastily burning belongings in the hope of avoiding arrest.

Forced to leave their farm, the Kobayashis accept a fraction of its value from the new owner, an American veteran married to a German Jewish refugee who fears for her parents back home. We follow the course of the war through bits of historic radio broadcasts, setting the stage for the return to the farm of the Kobayashis’ daughter Setsuko.

The spare Robert Schaub set was illuminated early in the opera by swooping, swirling video by Robert Bonniol and Travis Mouffe, lighted by Connie Yun. (It would have been great to have considerably more video in subsequent scenes.)

The unquestioned star of the evening was Hae Ji Chang as the young Setsuko — impassioned, lyrical and lovely of voice — though the other principals were also strong. Morgan Smith was a powerful Jim, opposite D’Ana Lombard’s impassioned Eva; Nina Yoshida Nelsen and Adam Lau were remarkably good as Setsuko’s parents. Peter Kazaras’ staging was direct and unfussy, clarifying the story line.

“An American Dream” is a gripping piece of musical theater, and in the program Seattle Opera announces the availability of this uniquely Northwest piece to tour in small venues throughout the community. It’s hard to think of a better way to teach local history.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at


“A Triumph for Seattle Opera”

By  PHILIPPA KIRALY | Saturday, August 22, 2015

It’s a triumph. It’s riveting. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. It’s strong. For many it will be emotional. It’s an Experience with a capital E. Go, go, go now and get your tickets for An American Dream, the new opera commissioned by Seattle Opera about our history, our experiences here during WWII, understood through lives displaced and disrupted through no fault of their own. Take the (teenage) kids. There is only one more performance—there were only two planned—this Sunday afternoon, but let’s hope it is presented again soon. (It’s intended to travel, around the state, out of state, wherever it is invited.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 2.10.50 PM

The idea of the opera was conceived by Sue Elliott, then director of education at Seattle Opera, who asked for stories from the community answering the question “If you had to leave home today and couldn’t return, what would you take with you?” (The question is all the more poignant today with current stories of families fleeing homes burned by wildfire.)

From the dozens of stories, Jessica Murphy Moo wove a libretto of a Japanese legal immigrant family in 1942 forcibly relocated to a detention center from their prosperous Bainbridge strawberry farm, and the farm sold with little choice at breakdown value to an American veteran and his German Jewish wife. Forced to burn all their Japanese belongings, the American-born daughter hides her precious doll instead, and keeps a letter addressed from Germany to the wife. She in turn is agonized about the fate of her parents in Germany, and she finds the doll, her husband ordering her to burn it, which she doesn’t. Fast forward to postwar 1945, and Setsuko returns, hoping to find her father. Eva, the wife, returns the doll, the girl proffers the letter, which details the death by shooting of Eva’s parents. At the end the Japanese father returns. Here the opera ends, but there can be no happy ending for the two families.  Who now owns the farm? Who will be uprooted again, German Jew, or Japanese family? Who loses?

The music is by opera composer Jack Perla, an atmospheric score which surrounds but never overwhelms the voices, which are fully up to Seattle Opera’s usual high standards with all but one singer new to the company’s stage. Bass Adam Lau as Papa Kobayashi, mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen as his wife and soprano Hae Ji Chang as their teenage daughter Setsuko, with D’Ana Lombard as the German Jewish wife, Eva, and former Young Artist baritone Morgan Smith as the American veteran Jim, all are compelling in their acting, excellent in their singing. Peter Kazaras directs, with a spare set by Robert Schaub, video design setting moods and place by Robert Bonniol, and costumes by Deborah Trout. Judith Yan conducts a chamber orchestra in an admirably well-paced performance supporting but never overwhelming the singers.

The whole is taut, the entire opera is only 67 minutes, but what surrounds it is equally compelling. Two hours before curtain, fascinating videos of elderly camp survivors talking of their experiences and their very normal lives here before the war as well as during it, take place in the McCaw Hall lecture room. Simultaneously, all through the McCaw lobbies on the first two floors are photographs and posters, some discomfiting, showing the fear and hatred of “Japs” bolstered by the government decisions. There are posters of the camp rules and government proclamations regarding them, and a mock-up of an internment camp room expected to hold an entire family. Almost entirely, this is about the Japanese experience here, not about the systematic Nazi extermination of Jews from which Eva, the wife, had escaped, brought to be safe here by her American husband.

Before the opera, three survivors spoke briefly on stage, including 96-year-old Kay Sakai Nakao, Lilly Kitamoto Kodama and Felix Narte, Jr., then a small child whose Philippino family took care of the Kitamoto farm.  And after the opera, Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang held a talk session with audience and the creative team.

The whole was a tour de force, which must return, soon.

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