Schubert and Shakuntala

Transcending boundaries Gerald Wirth with members of The Shillong Chamber Choir

Transcending boundaries Gerald Wirth with members of The Shillong Chamber Choir   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Bringing together artistes from Austria and India, a new concert version of Franz Schubert’s opera-fragment, “Shakuntala”, will be performed in India

An ancient text. One of the great masters of Western classical music. An Indian choir. A celebrated Kathak dancer. An orchestra from Austria. What do they have in common? This is a unique artistic alliance that will culminate in a staging of Franz Schubert’s opera, Shakuntala, in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata this October. The concert version of this opera is being brought together by Professor Gerald Wirth, Austrian composer and President and Artistic Director of the world renowned Vienna Boys Choir. Along with the Austrian Embassy in India’s Cultural Forum, the aim is to showcase Austrian and Indian cultural ties through this initiative, celebrating Austria’s Presidency of the European Union in 2018.

On a whirlwind visit to Delhi, Wirth described his love for India and why this particular production of Shakuntala is unique. While sampling an Indian high tea of idlis, vadas, samosas and chai, Wirth elaborated on his excitement for this project, which brings together his fascination in the story of Shakuntala, the work of one of his favourite composers, and the creative fulfilment of working with diverse musicians and artistes on this staging.

Wirth is no stranger to India. He describes a close connection, having visited several times, being drawn to its philosophy and yoga, and his long association with Pandit Ravi Shankar. Together they established the Mozart Choir of India – a children’s choral group providing training in Western classical music and promoting the Western musical tradition in India. Wirth was familiar with the story of Shakuntala and his fascination with the tale even led to a discussion with Ravi Shankar, who had thought of writing an opera on Shakuntala. However, the sitar maestro’s passing left this musical dream incomplete. But Wirth was destined to work with the story that originated in the Mahabharat. A few years ago, an Indian acquaintance mentioned to him that she had heard of a version of Shakuntala by Franz Schubert. Wirth did his research and found that several musicologists and scholars were always aware of the manuscript and that it had been rediscovered sometime in the 1950s.

A painting by Raja Ravi Varma

A painting by Raja Ravi Varma   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The history of Schubert’s “Shakuntala” is interesting. Western poets and artists were being introduced to Indian literature and philosophy around the 18th Century. In 1789, Kalidas’s “Shakuntala” was translated by Sir William Jones, reportedly the first Indian play to be translated into a Western language. The famous love story caught the attention of various artists and writers through the years. Over the next century, there were translations in several European languages, including German, which inspired a poem by German poet, Goethe, and is also the version that stirred Austrian composer, Franz Schubert to write an opera on this tale.

He composed it around 1820, but never completed this piece of work, passing away at the young age of 31. Wirth feels that Schubert’s death may not have been the only reason he never completed his opera. It was also probably due to his losing interest after a less than enthusiastic response from the classical music fraternity in Vienna. Wirth describes Schubert’s reputation as an acclaimed song composer at the time, but his opera compositions were not as successful. He only completed two other operas. “There are beautiful melodies and duets. But he (Schubert) was not a theatrical composer,” says Wirth. A few European composers have worked with Schubert’s score in recent years, completing the entire opera and staging it. But Wirth’s ambition is to keep as close to the original composition as possible and not to complete it.

Professor Gerald Wirth

Professor Gerald Wirth   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Interesting collaboration

The Austrian Ambassador to India, Brigitte Öppinger-Walchshofer, met with Wirth in Vienna last year. Their discussion regarding a special project for this year presented a perfect opportunity to stage Schubert’s opera in the country of its origin. “You have this ancient, wonderful story by Kalisada. And an exciting composition by famous composer Schubert. It was an ideal marriage of ideas”, says Wirth. The idea was to use both Austrian and Indian artists in the production. “When I first met Professor Wirth in 2017, he told me about Franz Schubert’s opera-fragment, Shakuntala, and we decided spontaneously to have a concert version of it performed in India, where the story originates. We wished for a joint Austria-Indian performance and we wanted to include the youth. With a young orchestra from Austria and an established choir from India, we now have a perfect mix. The challenge of the text being sung in German will be solved by interpretation through dance. An Indian narrator will lead the story”, says Ambassador Öppinger-Walchshofer.

Wirth described the task ahead of him to coordinate all the moving pieces. One of the challenges was the incomplete opera itself. Schubert wrote roughly 50 percent of the vocal lines, but he did not do any orchestration, barring a few random measures. Wirth describes Schubert’s lyrics as quite romantic and typical of the time, which may cause it to lose some of its Indian essence, but his ambition has always been to stick to Schubert’s original work. Wirth is orchestrating the existing composition, but not adding new sections. “Schubert’s music is clear enough to tell the story. The idea is not to stage a complete opera, but to showcase the Austrian and Indian connection,” he clarifies. Considering Schubert’s composition was not considered theatrical enough, Wirth is also trying to infuse it with more theatricality, but without losing the spirit that Schubert intended.

Bringing together the Indian and Austrian musicians and artistes, who will only get two days of rehearsal together before the performance, was also something he had to consider carefully. He chose to collaborate with various artists who are not just enthused about the project, but who are flexible, and able to rehearse separately and together as efficiently and seamlessly as possible. Renowned Kathak dancer, Shovana Narayan, will articulate Schubert’s composition through dance.

The need for an Indian choral group who could not only sing in German, is comfortable with Western classical music and who could work consistently in a short span of time led him to The Shillong Chamber Choir. The celebrated choral group enjoy singing Schubert and will perform as an ensemble and with soloists vocalising the various roles in the opera. Along with these Indian artistes, a 23 member chamber orchestra from Austria will tie this grand musical production together. Wirth described the orchestra as a group of professional musicians from upper Austria, the Linz area, who he has worked with before. What demarcates them from many other classical musicians that he could have chosen to work with is their flexibility and adaptation to different styles, being equally comfortable with Western classical music or jazz, and having collaborated with him on the past on his arrangements of Indian bhajans and qawwalis.

The Austrian Cultural Forum will bring this concert version to the Indian stage in three cities in October. The première of the event will be on October 2 at the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, followed by performances in Kolkata on October 4 at the Kala Mandir Auditorium, and at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on October 6. Wirth is excited about this production, which is probably the first staging of Schubert’s original composition for Shakuntala, other versions being operas that have completed Schubert’s original score. It promises to be a powerful collaboration which spans generations, genres and geographical boundaries.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 4:44:12 AM |

Next Story