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Jun 20, 2016 |
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Review: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presents world premiere of Shalimar the Clown

Sean Panikkar as Shalimar in Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, adapted from the novel by Salman Rushdie, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2016. © Ken Howard, 2016
The 41st season of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis featured four productions produced this past May and June: La bohème, Ariadne on Naxos, Macbeth and Shalimar the Clown. I was fortunate enough to see three of four productions, not having time to see La bohème.

OTSL has been delivering high quality performances for a long time and this year was no exception. The programming this year was stellar and OTSL’s Timothy O’Leary, General Director, Stephen Lord, Music Director and James Robinson, Artistic Director have an excellent ear for singing talent and hire the best professional and young artists in the world. What is unique about the way opera is presented here is not only the high quality of singing but that it is presented in such an intimate setting. The stage thrusts out into an audience of 800 seats. One feels like they are almost on stage with the actors. A powerful experience indeed.

"if you read only this then here it is: it was really good, but it could have been better."

Shalimar the Clown is a new opera receiving its world premiere at this festival. The story was adapted from Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name by librettist Rajiv Joseph and composer Jack Perla. It is difficult to sum up such a sweeping artistic achievement in a bite sized, consumable piece so if you read only this then here it is: it was really good, but it could have been better.

There are shades of Carmen in the plot. An independent woman who wants more, the insecure man who wants to keep her. But rather than take us to one exotic location and time as in Carmen, the backdrop for Shalimar is vast both in time and space. The opera starts  and ends in Los Angeles of 1989 but mostly takes place between the early 60’s and 70’s in Kashmir.

The singers were excellent. Probably the best group of singers I have heard live in a long while. Shalimar was played by tenor Sean Panikkar. His singing was free and easy and he was able to portray a wide range of colors and emotions flawlessly. His English diction was stellar and true, and stayed away from some of the bad habits of his fellow singers who changed the pure [u] vowel into a more open/broad [ɔ] sound. His boyish looks were perfect for the good boy turned bad plot arc of Shalimar. Boonyi was played by Canadian Soprano Andriana Chuchman. She has a voice fused with emotion. It is flawless without being too clean. Her vibrato changes based on her emotion, sometimes there is a quick tremolo in the voice, especially in the quieter sections, and sometimes she puts more weight on the voice and is able to obtain tremendous power. All the while she is able to maintain her composure, never straying from her capabilities for the sake of art. She is a true professional. Baritone Gregory Dahl was just as strong vocally and probably the strongest actor on the stage. His stentorian baritone was the proper mix of slimy and authoritarian. Also notable was Geoffrey Agpalo in the character tenor role of Gopinath Razdan, the small town school teacher who tries to blackmail the family into marrying Boonyi.

The production was imaginative using projection and full use of the thrust stage with turntable. A raised catwalk and sliding screens provided depth and levels. I didn’t feel that the singers always found their light or were provided with light. There was a great deal of meandering to the staging, especially during the arias and duets and it wasn’t clear if they were staged this way or if this singers were left to their own devices.

"It would have been nice to feel a part of something and instead I think most of us felt “talked to”."

Jack Perla’s composition was fascinating and at the same time, frustrating and bewildering. He didn’t quite capture the vast backdrop and context of the tale, quite the opposite, his music lacked space, was dense and seemed “close”. There were exotic elements that took us to other worlds like use of sitar and tabla in the pit which provided color and seamlessly fit into the western orchestra. Perla also writes wonderfully for the voice with Shalimar’s vocal line possessing elements of eastern ornamentation. This was reminiscent of Chinese vocal gestures (performed with varying success) in the production of Dr. Sun Yat-sen I saw at Santa Fe in 2014. But it was hard to know whether Perla wanted his audience to enjoy the opera. It seemed as though he wanted to establish the opening scene in America as a place oppression and confusion and then move to the simple and pastoral environs of Kashmir (Stop the World is Shalimar’s aria here and was a strophic and largely tonal moment in a sea of musical chaos), but he was too impatient to complete any musical idea. The music changed from tonal, to semi-atonal, from minor to major, from lyrical to more disjunct at random times which didn’t allow for any of the more pleasurable aspects of listening to opera, like climactic phrases, melody, repeating themes, or even a cadence. But this through- composed opera also didn’t allow the audience to coalesce and applaud. It would have been nice to feel a part of something and instead I think most of us felt “talked to”. There was some discussion in the press literature I was given about whether audiences are ready for mature, topical themes, sex or even the word “fuck” in an opera. We are, but I felt that just as the composer invited us in, he turned us away and while it is perhaps not as “artistic” to be inviting, you need to let us enjoy it and participate from time to time.

Anthony P. Radford
Review Editor, Opera Journal
Associate Professor of Voice,
California State University, Fresno

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Opera Association, its Board, Officers or Membership.

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