Ravi Shankar had the longest performing career of any artist of the Twentieth Century, and his opera Sukanya represents the culmination of an unprecedented creative journey.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Ravi Shankar’s artistry was his ground-breaking determination to bring the musical traditions of East and West into an organic fusion. The LP which he released with Yehudi Menuhin in 1967, West Meets East, marked the first time leading classical musicians from different cultures had collaborated on an equal footing. Following that record came three concertos for sitar and orchestra and a symphony, but Sukanya reflects Ravi Shankar’s boldest stroke of all.
The inspiration for this work dates back to when Ravi’s mother-in-law came to stay in 1995, and it hinged on the fact that her daughter Sukanya – Ravi’s wife – was three decades younger than him. At one point, her mother commented that she had named her daughter right, and when Ravi asked why, she replied that their situation was like that of a story in the Mahabharata. Since he didn’t know the story, he was told it: as the result of a terrible mistake a young princess named Sukanya marries an older man, who is a sage; this infuriates a pair of twin demi-gods who try to take her away from her new husband by making him identical to them; the gods ask Sukanya to choose the one who is her real husband, will she choose correctly? Thus was the idea of the opera born in Ravi Shankar’s mind.
The curtain rises on a solo sitar playing the raga Bairagi which contains many of the main melodic phrases which run, leitmotif-like through the work. After a prelude, introducing the twin demi-gods an overture ensues introducing the sage, and the action begins, with Sukanya and her father plus their entourage singing a tarana in celebration of springtime, revelling in the sheer beauty of their vocal sound.
The journey to the creation and completion of Sukanya has been one of forever pushing boundaries – Ravi Shankar’s Symphony, a key milestone on the journey explored Indian music through the prism of the Western Classical Symphony, this work explores Indian music through the prism of Western Opera. In Sukanya Ravi Shankar brings together all of the elements of his life as a performing artist, right back to his childhood years as a dancer, his superlative musicianship of course, his sense of stagecraft and also his love of film and the moving image. The Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - total art work integrating music, dance, drama, all aspects of stagecraft - was a part of Indian culture thousands of years before Wagner wrote his influential essays. Ravi Shankar saw what is now possible in a 21st Century Opera – a cross cultural Gesamtkunstwerk for the globalised world of the Twenty First Century.
To read more about how the work was developed visit ravishankaroperaproject.org