Shekhina Shawn is one of the country’s most qualified opera singers. Divya Kumar tries to keep pace with the rapid runs of her music
Shekhina Shawn never thought she’d become an opera singer. She grew up learning Carnatic music, gave several semi-classical and light music concerts with her sister through her teens, strummed the guitar to pop and R&B numbers in college, and even crooned a few numbers for films in between.
“I’d make fun of the way opera singers sang when I was a child,” she recalls with a laugh, doing a mock impersonation of the stereotypical soprano hitting a high-note – that vibrato ‘aaaahhhhhh’ familiar to us from cartoons and such.
But Shekhina is today, at the age of 29, one of the country’s most qualified opera singers. The Chennai-ite is the only person in India to have obtained the Fellow of Trinity College, London (FTCL) diploma – the highest examination offered in Western classical – for vocal. No mean feat considering she did it all in the space of five years, completing the Grade Eight examination, and the Associate (ATCL) and Licentiate (LTCL) levels, in successive years.
“I got the highest marks of all the people who took the LTCL examination that year,” she says with understandable pride when we meet for coffee on a quiet Sunday afternoon. “That encouraged me to go for the FTCL; I never expected I’d do it when I started out!”
You could say it all happened by chance. She first approached Augustine Paul, music director of the Madras Music Association (MMA), for Western classical vocal lessons with the vague idea that it would help her become a better pop and R&B singer.
“But I realised soon that Western classical was very different,” she says. “Initially, it seemed almost strange to me. Then I started listening more and more, and became completely mesmerised.”
She – and her teacher – discovered in her an innate ability for opera, in particular the technically demanding style of coloratura soprano, distinguished by rapid runs and leaps in the music. “When it came to the examinations, I’d go out of syllabus and pick the toughest songs I’d heard to perform,” she says. “I was just so excited that I could actually sing those pieces!”
Come April 22, Shekhina will unveil her new-found talent before Chennai’s music lovers with ‘Night of the Opera’, a first-of-its-kind concert in the city. It’ll be her maiden performance as an opera singer – barring those she did before the Trinity College examiners – and it’ll be the first time audiences in Chennai will get to hear a purely operatic concert by a solo singer.
“It’ll consist of the tougher songs I did for my exams, and I will be accompanied by a string and woodwind orchestra put together especially for the evening,” she says, adding candidly, “I’m quite nervous about the performance, and the reaction of the audience… are they going to like it?”
Not that performing in public is anything new to Shekhina. She comes from a family of performers – her father T. S. Raghavender is a film actor and a classically-trained singer, and her sister Kalpana is an accomplished singer as well. “There was someone singing in my house everyday when I was growing up, so I’d listen and sing along,” she says with a smile.
She even has some film parts to her credit as a child actor (“remember that scene in Udaya Geetham where Mohan is singing to a child in the hospital? That’s me”), has dubbed for others such as Baby Shamili, and sung in films such as April Maadhathil and Kadhaludan (you might have known her then as Prasanna – she changed her name a few years ago).
Her husband, Shawn Jazeel, is a musician as well – a keyboardist and composer. In fact, Shekhina says with a laugh, she sometimes found it hard to deal with the sheer variety of musical styles in her life at the start: “I’d have a Western classical class with Augustine sir, then would be called to do a semi-classical show with my sister, and when I went home, my husband would be recording R&B!”
Now, though, she has it all sorted out. “I could do 15 minutes of opera, then 15 minutes of ghazals, followed by 15 minutes of R&B,” she grins. “Maybe I should do a concert like that…”
It’s far more likely, however, that she’ll be doing opera. She’s planned a series of concerts in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi (“based on the success of this one”), and is busy studying Italian (to be followed by French and German!) so that she can understand the language she sings in.
“One of the issues I had is that there are very few opera pieces in English,” she says. “It’s awful to sing without understanding the words, so I’d run behind people who knew Italian or German, and write down the meanings in English.”
Her larger goal is to bring prominence to opera in the country. “I want to start by just performing. When people hear opera live, they’ll understand what it takes,” she says. “It’s not like any other style. It’s hugely demanding.”
Date and Time: Sunday, April 22, at 7.15 p.m.
Venue: Museum Theatre
A recital of famous opera arias covering various time periods, from the baroque to the modern, including those by Mozart, Rossini, Purcell, Schubert, and Bizet.
Donor passes available from April 9 onward at Musee Musicals, Mount road, and Pro Musicals, Egmore.
For further details, contact 9884294648 / 98410 17667.