December 25th 2006
Lore of the East
Librettist William Radice and composer Bernard Hughes have successfully adapted a Bengali children’s story to English opera
“Opera is an 18th- and 19th-century art that must find a 20th-century audience,” the famous Swedish director and opera manager Goeran Gentele once said. In the same vein, the W11 Opera in London saw just how beautifully an old Indian tale has been woven into an elegant English opera for a modern British audience.
During the British Raj, in India, Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri, grandfather of Satyajit Ray, had written the celebrated children’s book Tuntunir Boi in 1910. He would never have imagined that a century later, one of the collection’s tales, Boka Jolar Golpo (The Story of the Foolish Weaver and the Jackal), would find expression in Britain as Chincha-Chancha Cooroo (The Weaver’s Wedding), an English children’s opera.
At the Royal College of Music’s Britten hall, youngsters between eight and 18, depicting myriad animals and birds, recently enthralled the audience in repeat performances-a rarity in the W11 Opera’s 36-year history. ‘ It was a dream-come-true for librettist William Radice, who had read the original story and translated it into English in 1981. “It was the first Bengali book I had read on my own. I felt the story, with its thousands of birds and animals forming a wedding procession, could be a wonderful children’s opera,” says Radice, a poet, translator, and scholar of Bengali language teaching at School of Oriental and African Studies. “And it has turned out just as I wanted. It’s magical. I hope there will be future productions.”
The young composer Bernard Hughes was thrilled by the challenge the opera offered. “I was keen to write a piece that had subtle Indian nuances. I have used the rhythm of 5/7, which is very Indian,” he said.
Hughes, also a music teacher, teaches “a bit of Indian music at schools-which is part of the curriculum-but I did not have much knowledge of it. William lent me a recording of Tagore’s music.” Western instruments like the piano and harphave been used, along with the tabla. As Radice said, “We were not aiming at fusion music. It is an English opera.”
In one scene where the weaver strums the sitar, the strings of the cello were used to produce the sound. “It is a parody on how the sitar sounds to western ears,” explains Radice.
Representatives of the North Cambridge Family Opera, Boston, US, who attended the show, “were so impressed, that they have decided to do it in April 2008,” informs Radice, and adds, “I want to do it in Germany,” where “the musical text will have a simpler version for orchestral score.”
The opera will also return to the land of its writer, West Bengal. Debashish Raychaudhuri, a singer and theatre person, was sponsored by the British Council to attend the rehearsals in London. Unlike the performance in London, “We will use professional adults for the principal roles. I will take it back to Bengal, but retain the European operatic nuances,” he said.
It remains to be seen if Indian audiences will take to the idea as readily as the British.
W11 Opera was founded in 1971 with the ambition to provide an unique opportunity for young people from all backgrounds to become involved in opera. It has since commissioned and produced 26 new operas which are performed by a multicultural cast of 9 to 18 year olds. Camille Poire reviews their latest production Chincha-Chancha Cooroo or The Weaver’s Wedding based on a short story by Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri.
W11 Opera’s first venture into the Indian subcontinent, Chincha-Chancha Cooroo was the 27th new piece of music theatre for young people commissioned by the company, which for 36 years now has been initiating children and teenagers to operatic practice. The cast of The Weaver’s Wedding was indeed made of no less than ninety 9-18 year old youngsters.
It is the librettist William Radice, poet and scholar of Bengali language and literature, who first thought of adapting the Bengali folktale he had translated for the stage and transforming it into an opera in two Acts. Chincha-Chancha Cooroo is based on The Story of the Foolish Weaver and the Jackal in Upendrakishore Raychauduri’s celebrated children’s book, Tun-Tunir Boi (The StupidTiger and Other Tales). Together with composer Bernard Hughes, William Radice worked at recreating the sights, sounds and rhythms of Indian village life in the lyrics and the music.
The opera begins with a storyteller spinning for his incarnate audience of five demanding children – and, of course, us, the real audience – his folkloric tale: Rajah is a weaver, who has to cut his crops and milk his cow besides weaving his cloth, has troubles getting all this work done properly. Seizing on his friend the clever Jackal’s advice to dip his scythe in the water to make it cooler, Rajah applies the same remedy to cure his cow from her fever, but he drowns her by accident. The Jackal, to make amends and save Rajah who is about to be lynched by the villagers, decides to find him a wife – no less than a princess! Playing on Rajah’s name, the Jackal wittily manages to convince the King and Queen that his friend is a desirable husband for their daughter and a suitable heir to the throne. The wedding over, however, the princess discovers she has been deceived – but Rajah’s honesty wins her over, and she sets to organising his education in reading, singing and fencing…until he turns into a real rajah.
This simple, fairytale-like intrigue with a moral lesson, albeit told in an ingeniously complicated manner, may seem a bit slight to accompanying parents, but is bound to appeal to children. The simplicity of the tale, however, is a wonderful pretext for creating a colourful and lively show.
Splendid work has been done by Mike Lees on the costumes, ranging from the typical clothes of the villagers to the Scheherazadian outfits of the royal family and their attendants. The desire to render the production visually exciting is reflected in what has been made of the stage curtain, which was transformed into a map of Central India and its surrounding countries.
There is much humour and fantasy in the libretto (for instance, how could Rajah marry a princess, he who is so ‘stupid and dim’?, wonder the villagers!) as well as in the staging of the play. With energy and enthusiasm, the cast of ninety talented children aged between 9 and 18 bring to life an exotic world where frogs, birds, mosquitoes and other animals sing and dance, offering the hero an uproarious wedding procession. Anne-Marie Smalldon’s choreographies are well coordinated, the music is uplifting, the singing is pretty and almost faultlessly well-tuned, with perhaps a special mention to the vocal performance of Chenowyth Pinter as the Jackal.
All in all, W11 Opera’s Chincha-Chancha Cooroo or The Weaver’s Wedding offers 70 minutes of complete, exotic entertainment for young people. Perhaps your next chance to see it will be in India, as the company hopes to take the opera to Kolkata, and is currently working towards the concretization of this project with the British Coucil of India.