American composer John Adams chose the theme of his latest opera, A Flowering Tree, well. It premiered in Vienna in 2006 and has been revived a few times already—most recently in Paris in May 2014, newly staged by Hindi film director Vishal Bhardwaj, with marvellous costumes by Gunjan Arora and Rahul Jain.
Adams’ first epochal opera from 1987, Nixon in China, is now a classic, and his piece about the Passion, The Other Mary, may stand out as one of the most significant musical events of the 21st century. A Flowering Tree followed upon his Doctor Atomic, an opera about the development of the atomic bomb by Robert J Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, yet the newer piece could not be more different in content. It is based on a 2,000-year-old tale from the folklore of Kannada literature, retold and translated into English as “A Flowering Tree” by the scholar AK Ramanujan. Its themes are devotion, transformation, enchantment, magic, loss and redemption, in which love vanquishes jealousy and pride. As is the case with so many operas since the genre was invented in Europe in the 17th century, virtues and vices parade on scene, basic emotions are embodied by characters and translated into notes, timbre, rhythm, pitch, melody and counterpoint, joining with gesture and the coloratura of song to translate, express, and ultimately transcend their situations.
That Adams, along with his co-librettist and long-time collaborator Peter Sellars, should have chosen a story from the trove of Indian folklore is neither surprising nor insignificant. He has always looked across the globe for inspiration. Even Doctor Atomic contained references to the Bhagavad Gita, and the original production featured Javanese dancers. In A Flowering Tree, the passages for choir, originally sung by the Schola Cantorum de Caracas, remain in Spanish. A libretto’s match for music’s intrinsic universality may lie in cultural eclecticism: folk tales, however bound to time and place, tend to cover themes that transcend local culture; just as music, however culture-bound its structure and form, has the power to turn earthbound, individual emotions into universal ones.
The story told here, with 32 percussion instruments—from glockenspiel to bongos and maracas—and much wind and brass, is that of a young village girl named Kumudha who prays for the power to turn herself into a flowering tree in order to help her aging mother provide for the family. A ritual performed with two pitchers of water enables this transformative power—back and forth—and the girl, along with her sister, starts selling flower garlands at the market. A prince, upon witnessing this wonder, is enchanted by this gorgeous, fertile and erotically suggestive sight, and decides to marry her. Here the narrative twists: the prince refuses to embrace his new wife until she performs the ritual for him. She complies. But this time, his sister witnesses the event and is struck with envy.
One of the most dramatically and musically powerful scenes in the opera occurs when this sister, effectively represented as a grotesque, giant puppet—the perfect evil stepsister from fairy tales—has Kumudha dragged to the forest where her secret is violated. She is forced to perform the ritual before a crowd of scary, niggling girls who strip her blossoms and abandon her without turning her back into human form. Kumudha becomes a wandering stump, neither fully vegetal nor fully human. On stage, she is erected on stilts, a bathetic figure prey to the elements, flapping in the wind like a cloth doll, to a saccade of brass, percussion and strings—a moment of transfixing acrobatic dance. She is saved only by her singing voice, and is eventually picked up by minstrels who bring her to a village where the nasty sister has become queen. The prince, who has desperately been searching for her and living as a pauper, also ends up in that village. He only emerges from his melancholic state when he sets eyes on the monstrously unresolved form of his wife, whom he saves with the loving ritual that ensures their happiness thereafter.
It is a very different view of transformation from that of Ovid’s “Apollo and Daphne”, for instance, where the nymph’s metamorphosis into the tree spells her disappearance, the ultimate defence that puts her forever out of reach of the god’s desire. In our tale, what is painful is a half-transformation that never could occur in Ovid: successful metamorphosis is not only a ritual of initiation, it is also the gateway to bliss, freedom and the maturation of identity. It is the acceptance of nature and the transcendence of individual pettiness.
Kumudha’s is a simple, powerful story, sung by just three voices apart from the choir. Each main character has its dancer double, gorgeously performed on the Parisian stage. Clearly a telling of a rite of passage, its thematic similarity with Die Zauberflöte was not lost on Adams, who wrote this on the occasion of Mozart’s 250th birthday. In both cases, the tale of redemption shapes the arc, though there is little in common musically between the two operas; or, for that matter, between the two composers, however much Adams—as he himself states—owes to Mozart. A lot has happened to and within Western music between the 18thcentury and the 20th-century post-minimalism with which Adams is associated.
Yet much more separates this opera—even other Western operas with Indian themes—from Indian musical traditions, and generally from an art form where time is an infinite medium within which sound evolves, rather than a measurable entity one can divide into narrative blocks and musical movements. Similarly, regardless of content, the Western vision of “oriental”, infinitely-spun Scheherazade-like storytelling differs markedly from the episodic structure of Western time. By bringing Bhardwaj on board, a filmmaker as unknown in Paris as he is celebrated in Mumbai, the Théâtre du Châtelet was perhaps betting on the possibility for such a work to be reclaimed by the culture in which its story was born.
Only two major Western operas have used Indian stories as frontally as Adams has done here. It is not unusual for composers and their librettists to look to the East for dramatic romances, so one finds a mythical Orientalist’s India in Jules Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore (first performed in 1877) as well as in Léo Délibes’s Lakmé (first performed in 1883). But it is less common for Western music to be embedded in actual Indian terrain. One such instance is Padmavati by Albert Roussel, a rare work also performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet, which, in 2008, invited Sanjay Leela Bhansali to direct, and Rajesh Pratap Singh to design the costumes. It is based on a French recounting of Jayasi’s Padmavati, the culturally syncretic epic poem written in Avadhi in 1540, consisting of 6,000 verses that tell of the attempts by the king of Chittor to gain the love of the princess Padmavati. Roussel travelled to India in 1909 and saw the ruins of Chittor, though the opera was first produced only in 1923. It is a combination of discordance, Romanticism and classical structure into which some Indian elements are thrown in. The music is at once airy and thickly knotted, but it is no raga. This is a very French piece of music, close to Débussy, imbued with the feel of cold northern weather and the mere memory of heat.
Much more famous—and recent—than Roussel’s work is Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, written in 1979. The text, in Sanskrit and from the Bhagavad Gita, sustains a musical exploration of Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. Glass uses the minimalist recipe and techniques he is associated with to great effect—time is at once continuous, eternally rewound and marked by an unrelenting beat—but ultimately this is a piece of music of its time and place, and although it is about enlightenment, it is less transcendent of its moorings than DieZauberflöte, Mozart’s sublime last meditation on and truth-finding.
What may be interesting here is not so much the small number of “crossover” works that bring together two very different musical traditions, as the lack of attempts so far to marry Western contrapuntal time with its Indian counterpart within a narrative setting. The Châtelet stage was beautifully designed for Kumudha’s story, but perpetually crowded, as if the solo singers were always on the verge of being interrupted by the encroaching world; the result was at once powerful and dissonant, culturally dislocated, a jumble of intentions that did not always meet.
Opera remains a remarkable, and remarkably, artificial mode of telling edifying stories about trials and victory, of triggering empathy for character via narrative affect and musical effect. The confluence of artist, performance and audience on this journey to another side of time is powerful. If enlightenment be its goal, then the mutual enrichment of two very different, in some ways antithetical classical traditions at their highest levels can only be encouraged. Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar did collaborate in their 1990 Passages, and popular musicians are increasingly working together, but it is time to start dreaming of further musicologically profound meetings. One day we might hear music of the sort neither Mozart nor Roussel could conjure, and which not even Glass or Adams might yet have imagined.
Republished with permission from The Indian Quarterly.