What are you working on now? Oh? A new opera? What’s it about? Where did you find the story? India! It takes place in India! Wow. Are you going to write Bollywood?
The name of the new opera is The Marriage Bureau for Rich People. It’s based on a book with the same title written by Farahad Zama. I happened to read his book when I saw it on Amazon. I read lots of books that take place in India. I used to live there, and I loved it. Any book that takes me there for awhile is bound to find itself on my reading list. This book, though, is special. It has memorable and delightful characters, a compelling story, an exotic setting, funny scenes, and sad ones too. It is the perfect opera book. As I read, I kept hearing the characters come alive in my head, and they were singing. Finding such a book is difficult. Tom and I had been looking for a story like this for several years. I wrote to Farahad and asked his permission to use his stories as the basis for the new opera. He agreed, and here we are!
Here’s the synopsis.
Several years into his retirement, Mr. Ali grows bored, so he opens a marriage bureau, where the city’s well-to-do can come to find the perfect match for their offspring based on their unique requirements as to caste, religion, dowry amount, age, and height. Ali’s assistant, Aruna, comes from a family on the verge of financial ruin. Her family had arranged a match for her, but it collapsed when their finances deteriorated. She is now in her mid-twenties and almost considered ‘on the shelf’. Her uncle, Shastry, tries desperately to find another match for her, while her father insists he doesn’t have the money for a wedding or dowry.
One of the clients with especially picky parents, is a handsome young doctor, Ramanujam. His family is set on marrying him to a wealthy socialite, but Ram has eyes only for the impoverished and well-educated Aruna. Aruna and Ram fall in love and want to marry, but both their families are opposed to a “love match”. Mr. Ali proposes an elegant solution where everyone wins.
How do you write an opera? First step, find the story. Next, read the book over and over—say 15 or 20 times. Analyze it, figure out good songs, re-organize the scenes so they can be presented on a stage, worry about sets and costumes changes (but only a bit, not my job). Finally, FINALLY, pick a song and start writing lyrics and composing music.
Staging a new opera is expensive. Very and obscenely expensive. We can’t do it on our own; we need grant money. To get the grants, we have to have a recording to present. Last week, we recorded two pieces: Gayatri Mantra; Giver of Life, Remover of Sorrow and I Will Always Love You.
YAY! At last, I have some music to show off! Here are the amazing artists and links to the audio and video. Here’s me singing through a passage with Summer Carlene Latimer, soprano. She’s singing the heroine, Aruna, in this session. The piece she sings, The Gayatri Mantra, is a powerful Vedic prayer, written in Sanskrit.
Summer has performed in our opera The Three Fat Women of Antibes, where she played Lena, a magnificently bitchy and humorous eater of bread, butter, potatoes, and cream. She’s also sung in Choose Life, Uvacharta Bachayim, an oratorio I wrote with Delores Dufner.
Actually, she’s sung so much new and old music, you need to look at her website and read about her.
Here’s my luckiest musician find, Ashish Tare. He’s a talented young tabla player from San Jose. When my friend Ashwin, who helped me write the tabla part on the Gayatri Mantra, was unable to play on this recording, I was stumped. I thought, golly, somebody around here must have a tabla and a website. I googled away and found Tabla Niketan, a school for tabla right next door in Cupertino. I sent an email and received a prompt reply from the head of the school with Ashish’s contact information. Ashish started playing at age 3 has won almost every prize there is. He’s a great accompanist too. Summer, Ashish, and I got together one sultry afternoon to give the Gayatri Mantra a try. I was nervous. I worried that I’d misinterpreted the advice I’d received on writing for tabla, that my musicians wouldn’t be able to play together, that I had written a crappy piece. Nope. None of that happened. It sounded good! I got even better when we met with Michael Touchi, the keyboard player.
Michael is a superb accompanist and organist. He’s been organist at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, where we did the recording, for 25 years. He writes and publishes wonderful music of all kinds. He’s performed on a number of my works as well as many other composers, alive and not. I have known him for a long time, but he is much in demand, and I was lucky to get him.
My goal in the Gayatri Mantra, was to write Western classical music, but give it an Indian flavor. One important aspect of Indian music, is the drone. It’s usually played on a tampura, a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a lute. If I had a whole orchestra, I’d imitate that sound with the string section. Hmm. I can’t afford to hire an orchestra, or even a tampura player, that’s for sure. Now what! Oh, duh. Michael is an organist, we’re recording at his church, an organ can play a drone sound pretty much forever, so that’s what I’m going to do. I am positive I’m one of the few composers on the planet who wrote a piece for organ and tabla!
Guess what. The next musician, Christopher Bennett, who sings the Ramanujam, hero, and Summer are actually engaged to be married this coming January. What could be a better fit for them, than for Chris and Summer to sing I Will Always Love You, where Ram proposes to Aruna! Sweet. Tom and I asked them if they were singing at their own wedding. Not. I wouldn’t either.
In addition to his many opera and solo gigs, Chris was a guest National Anthem soloist for the San Jose Sharks. He was also a singer in the Rolling Stones 50th tour and Star Wars in Concert. Whoa. He’s a valued member of The Choral Project, and also sang on my piece, Choose Life.
Now that I’ve written all the background, let’s listen to the music and watch the video!