From Bollywood to Baroque – Kamala Sankaram’s composing finds inspiration in the world.

Kamala Sankaram

Kamala Sankaram

NEWS: We’re thrilled and honored that Mukhtar Mai – whose historic bravery inspired “Thumbprint” – is traveling from Pakistan to witness her story told and join us for the talkbacks after each performance. If you don’t have a ticket yet, this is your chance to be part of this powerful moment.

A story set in Pakistan about a woman who rises from tragedy to empower others like her is the basis of Thumbprint – LA Opera’s next Off Grand presentation. We spent some time with Kamala Sankaram, who composed and also stars in Thumbprint, and got to know what led her to the story of Mukhtar Mai.

Kamala Sankaram’s life has always been filled with music. She started studying piano at age six and spent hours listening to classical music, traditional Hindustani music, and Broadway music. As an adult, she fell in love with the complexity of the music in opera, and would ultimately pursue a career first as a singer and later as a composer.

“I never imagined myself becoming an opera composer, but I studied composition and was always interested in musical storytelling,” says Sankaram.

While pursuing a career as a singer, Sankaram – a coloratura soprano – considered composing something in which she could perform. This led Sankaram to compose a narrative song cycle (a set of individual songs created to be performed together in sequence) that she and her band performed to accompanying video. Even after the song cycle, she never planned on a career as a composer, but she says it “grew out of her interests.”

Sankaram’s musical interests are eclectic and her own music is influenced by many different styles. She attributes this partially to her upbringing – her mother is American, while her father is Indian.

“When I was growing up, I listened to Bollywood and Rachmaninov, Hindustani classical and Brahms,” recalls Sankaram. “At a certain point, I went to school and started hearing more pop music. There’s always been a mix of things.”

Sankaram’s music is a fusion of several styles. Her first opera, Miranda reflects her unique musical language.  Composed while Sankaram was a resident artist at HERE Arts Center in 2012, Miranda is a steampunk murder-mystery, where each character is represented by a different musical genre, including baroque, Hindustani, tango, and hip-hop.

Bombay Rickey, Sankaram’s band, also fuses different styles. The band’s debut album Cinefonia (which won the 2015 Independent Music Vox Pop Award) blends Latin, Hindustani, spaghetti western, and jazz, among other genres. Opera fans will especially enjoy the use of Mozart in the aptly titled “Queen of the Rhumba.”

Of blending genres, Sankaram says, “At the core of all these styles is a similar approach to rhythm, to pulse, to certain basic parts of harmony and melodic development.” Sankaram believes that the similarity can give rise to cultural understanding. “It may sound cheesy, but if we put the music together, maybe we can find a way for the cultures to come together.”

Her latest opera, Thumbprint, which fuses classical Hindustani music and with western classical music, has its west coast premiere at LA Opera on June 15.

A scene from the 2014 premiere production of Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Productions

A scene from the 2014 premiere production of Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Productions

Thumbprint recounts the true story of Mukhtar Mai, who after a brutal act of violence seeks justice and founds a school for girls. Sankaram first learned of Mukhtar Mai, when producer Beth Morrison (of Beth Morrison Projects) commissioned her to compose a song cycle based on Mai’s life. Morrison had seen a play called Seven, which featured Mai’s story as one of seven stories that told of women fighting for their rights around the world. After the cycle first premiered, Sankaram couldn’t shake the idea that Mai’s story was meant to be an opera. Morrison introduced her to Susan Yankowitz, who wrote Mai’s story in Seven and over the next four years the original 12-minute song cycle became an opera and premiered at the 2014 Prototype Festival.

By then, Sankaram took on an additional role in Thumbprint: performer. She not only composed the score, but also stars as Mai.

Of shifting between composer and performer, Sankaram says “I didn’t compose it with my voice in mind, because I didn’t plan on singing the part.” She jokes, “I often find that something I compose sounds great in the moment and then when faced with the task of singing it, I ask myself, ‘What was I thinking?’”

Kamala Sankaram as Mukhtar Mai in Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Projects

Kamala Sankaram as Mukhtar Mai in Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Projects

However, Mai is a role that Sankaram feels comfortable in and there are many moments in Thumbprint that move her to tears.

“The first time we see Mukhtar, she is singing a folk song with her mother and sister about the chukar, the national bird of Pakistan. It is in a raga [akin to a mode] called “Malashree,” where Mukhtar describes all the things she has to do because she’s a woman,” says Sankaram. “We come back to that exact music later after Mukhtar has won her court case, except it is used in a different raga called ‘Saraswati’ after the Hindu Goddess of Wisdom. It is the moment when Mukhtar learns that her inability to read has been holding her back and constraining her in this very small, traditional sphere of existing. I like picking up this exact same music and placing it in a new raga, because it transforms the music in the same way that Mukhtar is transforming and making the decision to open a school of girls.”

Sankaram’s wish is for audiences to take away a sense of hope from Mukhtar’s transformation.

“The heart of her story is this dark, violent act, but she doesn’t give into it. She rises above it. She rises up against all the obstacles that are ahead of her and she makes a change. I think that’s something we need right now. A sense of hope. A sense of inspiration. The knowledge that just because we feel powerless, doesn’t mean that we are powerless.”

She continues, “There’s a line from Mukhtar’s autobiography that we have included in the opera. Mukhtar says, ‘One voice sings. One thousand hear the song.’ It’s a powerful way of thinking about it. It’s not just the effect of what you do; it’s about becoming a model for future generations to emulate.”

To learn more about and purchase tickets to Thumbprint, click here.

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