New dimensions Dance

Meet Opera’s Nayika

Meera Varghese

Meera Varghese   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan

Meera Varghese had up her sleeve, a surprise blend of Indian Classical arts and German repertoire

If you thought ‘never the twain shall meet’ — Opera and Bharatanatyam — you would have been in for a surprise at Meera Varghese’s lecture-demonstration on ‘The Nayika in Opera and German Art Song’ for Sahrdaya Creative Spaces’ Mandala series. Being an opera singer and a Bharatanatyam dancer, Meera has a helicopter vision of the classical art forms. That evening (March 11), she was able to break down the components of Western classical music, such as the poetry and music, of Lieder (German Art Songs composed for one voice and piano) and Arias (solos in Italian that are a part of larger works such as operas) especially, and compare it with the components of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, so we could connect with her hypothesis, that ‘Since both singing and dancing are forms of storytelling, the songs could be interpreted and performed like padams.’

Meera’s presentation was unique. Having chosen love themes in 19th and 20th century compositions, she explained each classifying the nayikas or heroines in each according to the Nayika Bheda theory propounded by the second century text on dramaturgy, Natya Sastra. True to Western classical vocal tradition, she sang the Lieder and opera arias without a microphone. She sang in an agile, soprano voice, while she emoted the lyrics with her eyes, adding a slight tilt of a shoulder or torso for greater effect. The facial expressions were not of the spontaneous kind, but studied netra abhinaya.

“I explored the ways in which abhinaya theory could be applied to the performance of these compositions. Each song that I chose represented a different Nayika or Rasa. For example, to demonstrate the Khandita Nayika, I chose Hugo Wolf’s Lied ‘Wer rief dich denn? Wer hat dich herbestellt?’ (Who called you? Who asked you to come here?), which for me is like the German equivalent of the padam ‘Indendu Vachitivira.’ So this was really a way for me to bring together my two artistic worlds, and to introduce the audience here to a different form of abhinaya… My Bharatanatyam training has enhanced my facial expression when performing Lied and opera repertoire. It requires some coordination to get the vocal chords and the eyes and the body to work together. There is the ‘giving it all you have’ concept in Western classical music, on the need to communicate as an actor while singing, but the acting here was not just spontaneous expression but backed by technique.

Soulful melody

The songs were short, one to three minutes, but the impact was tremendous. The music was powerful and her expressions so piercing that neither time, geography nor language seemed to matter. The opening Lied, ‘Verschwiegene Liebe’ (Silent Love), music by Hugo Wolf, was breathtakingly evocative, as the poet Joseph von Eichendorff speaks of thoughts of love flying, ‘Over treetops and cornfields… If only she could guess who has been thinking of her... when no one was awake… my love keeps its secret and is beautiful as the night.’ The soulful melody carried the delicacy of the poetry so lightly and so artistically. It was so with every composition that evening. Whether it was the Lied ‘Die Lotosblume’ (The Lotusflower) by Robert Schumann, text by Heinrich Heine, in which the nayika — like as the lotus flower — lifts her head up only for the nayaka, the moon, or the tear-jerking Aria, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’, (O My Dear Papa) music by Puccini, from the opera ‘Gianni Schicchi’ in which a little girl, Mugdha Nayika, is pleading with her father to let her marry the boy she loves, or the protagonist yearning for one who has passed away and may return on All Souls’ Day in ‘Allerseelen,’ (music by Richard Strauss, text by Hermann von Gilm), each brought a different nuance to human emotions.

Meet Opera’s Nayika
Meet Opera’s Nayika
Meet Opera’s Nayika
Meera Varghese performing at Sahrdaya Creative Spaces

Meera Varghese performing at Sahrdaya Creative Spaces   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

There was drama and artistry in every note sung that evening. A high pitch sustained in a quiet way in the opening notes lent a sense of flying thoughts, ‘Over treetops...’ in Silent Love; in the Aria (‘Quando me’n vo’) with music by Puccini, from the opera “La Bohème” where a confident woman, Pragalba Nayika, sees her former lover and wants to tease him, the sustained highest note of the evening, falls on the words “I know well that you feel like dying” to make him feel squirm.

The piano is said to be an equal partner in Lied. The last piece, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), had such a haunting background score. With music by Franz Schubert and text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (from his play “Faust”), it is about a girl who has fallen in love for the first time and is at the spinning wheel with her thoughts. Through feelings of discomfiture and helplessness, she describes him with a sense of pride when the wheel is at its most intense; and when she thinks of a kiss, the wheel suddenly stops, and there is silence, to restart slowly as she goes back to her sombre thoughts. Besides the music, Meera highlighted the many moods the nayika goes through in this piece, drawing a parallel to the Vyabhichari bhavas in Abhinaya/ Rasa Theory.

Meera had a caveat: “Traditionally Lied recitals are sung with live piano and operas are performed with live orchestra. To accommodate the black box at Sahrdaya Creative Spaces, which does not have a piano, pre-recorded piano and orchestral accompaniment tracks were used for the lecture demonstration.”

Straddling two worlds

Meera’s journey, in her own words:

I was born and brought up in Canada and started training in piano at the age of six. Most of my early music experience as a student was working as a pianist and musical director and conductor for musical theatre productions. I completed a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance and a Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta (Canada) with a research focus on Bharatanatyam in the Indian diaspora. I then moved to Germany and completed my Master of Music in Opera Performance at the Hochschule für Musik Köln.

Parallel to my music studies, I trained in Bharatanatyam under S. Ramalingam in Karaikkal, and have since attended additional master classes with Bragha Bessell and Priyadarsini Govind apart from training with Jai Govinda in Vancouver, Canada. I’m currently staying in Chennai to attend private classes in abhinaya with Bragha Bessell, in preparation for my next Bharatanatyam solo recital in Germany.

I’m a second-generation Indo-Canadian, so the idea of straddling two worlds was a fairly normal aspect of my experience growing up in the Indian diaspora. From a very young age, I was drawn to the arts in many forms, not only music and dance, but also theatre and visual arts. So I was always eager to explore different forms of artistic expression. When I started to seriously pursue both Western classical music and Indian classical dance, I found common ground in the storytelling aspect. Even though these two disciplines are technically and culturally worlds apart from each other, my training in each art form has given me a unique perspective that complements both sides.

(In Germany) I work as an opera singer, Bharatanatyam dancer and theatre actor. So depending on the project, I either sing as a soloist in opera productions or Lied concerts, or perform solo Bharatanatyam recitals, or act in plays at German theatres. As a multidisciplinary artist, I sometimes have the chance to work in projects that combine these different art forms. For example, last year when performing the role of Aouda in a German theatre production of “Around the World in 80 Days,” I also choreographed and performed Bharatanatyam in the play.

Over the years, I’ve managed to find a balance between my work as a Western classical singer and as an Indian classical dancer, to the point where I feel completely at home in both worlds. Depending on my performance schedule, I may have to devote more time to one or the other at various points throughout the year... I’ve tried to find creative ways of maintaining contact with both art forms. For example, if I’m commuting to another city for opera or theatre rehearsals, I’ll listen to my dance repertoire while riding the train.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:30:32 PM |

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