Lesley Koenig: Opera Unites Different Cultures

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Opera UnitesPomp and circumstance surrounded a Washington, DC dinner Friday night as usual. But the important thing, says Lesley Koenig, was the exposure to a different culture.

The world of opera—literally, the world of opera—is abuzz. Italian opera “Don Pasquale” opened in India yesterday. China wishes to build an opera house. And India’s ambassador to the U.S. provided a “sneak peak” of French opera LallaRoukh last Friday.

All this international opera news means one thing: Opera, like much of the arts, brings the world together. It is a universally shared experience, perhaps because of the same cathartic response we humans all get from music or painting.

LallaRoukh is an opera that takes place in India, yet is sung in French. Presented in two acts, it is about the meeting between star-crossed lovers Mughal Princess LallaRoukh and the king of Samarkand. Technically an opéracomique due to the use of spoken dialogue and arias, it is loosely known as a comedy opera. LallaRoukh is surprised to find out that poet-singer Nourredin, whom she falls for, is actually the king she formerly refuses to marry. Félicien David composed the play, said to be one of his masterpieces, in 1862.

Lesley Koenig says that the opera’s theme of love is timeless as well. Moreover, the subject of star-crossed lovers is a common subject that is part of the phenomenal experience that’s the opera. The French opera Carmen, Lesley Koenig notes, is among the most popular. It is also an opéracomique, but Carmen is a tragedy and not a comedy.

Unfortunately, any popularity or acclaim LallaRoukhenjoyed was washed away by time. In the 20th Century, the opera sank into obscurity—until now. Opera Lafeyette is set to perform the play at the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center in January 2013. Conductor and Artistic Director Ryan Brown attended a dinner to herald the opera’s coming, which Bloomberg Businessweekreported on. Ambassador NirupamaRao hosted the event, which featured a traditional Indian kathakdancer and lead soprano Marianne Fiset. The upcoming performance marks her debut with the French opera-focused Washington, DC company.

Fiset entertained guests by singing an aria as well as a duet with Nathalie Paulin, who plays LallaRoukh’s confidante, Mirza.

Before dinner, thekathak dancer performed for 80 guests in a room adorned with Hindu figurines and artwork. It is interesting to note that the Indian classical dance became an import of the Mughal Empire from the 16th century and beyond.

In the opera, LallaRoukh, whose name means “Tulip-cheeked” in Persian poetry, is the daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb is an actual historically documented emperor who controlled India in the 17th and 18th centuries.  His daughter, however, isn’t mentioned in the history books and appears to be fictional.

According to the article, Ryan Brown noted the oriental influence in the opera. Opera aficionados call it a major work in the Orientalist movement in music.

Lesley Koenig is an arts professional with over 35 years of experience in opera stage direction and senior executive performing arts management.

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