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.