Writer Shreya Sen-Handley becomes first Indian woman to pen an international opera

Shreya Sen-Handley  

Shreya Sen-Handley speaks on phone from the relative calm of her home in Nottingham, UK. It is a Saturday morning and her children aged 12 and 10 are just stirring to a quiet day in a place filled with birdsong and memories of Robin Hood and his merry men; a far cry from Shreya’s crowded life of 46 years, crowned with achievements in the fields of print and broadcast journalism, illustration, books and lately, opera.

Born in Kolkata and raised across Southeast Asia, Shreya was invited by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) that has Prince Charles as its patron, to pen a libretto for Migrations: an opera to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Pilgrims from England to the New World aboard the ship, Mayflower. “The invitation from WNO’s artistic director, Sir David Pountney, was in the inbox of an email I hardly accessed. It took me completely by surprise,” says Shreya, adding, “also because I had written a lot of prose but never any poetry.”

Sir David Pountney

Sir David Pountney   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The invitation rode on the back of Shreya’s work in India and the UK — she has been a former television journalist and producer for MTV, CNBC and Channel V, and written for The Guardian, National Geographic and a host of British and Indian newspapers.

Her CNN-IBN column on gender and sexuality has been the subject of her award-winning book Memoirs Of My Body that won a UNESCO accolade in 2017. Her book of short stories, Strange, has been described “masterful” by Ruskin Bond; she is also a director of the Nottingham Festival of Literature.

“I prefer writing in short bursts as it gives me time to raise my family,” says Shreya, who took a sabbatical to find herself and a new family after surviving a bad first marriage. “I pursued English literature at Loreto College. My great-great grandfather Ramananda Chatterjee is considered the father of Indian journalism. I’ve always been surrounded by books, and writing found me time and again.”

Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff

Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff   | Photo Credit: Jean Cuomo

For Migrations which took two years to produce, Shreya wrote the libretto (text of an opera) ‘This Is The Life’, that follows the story of doctors Jai and Neera who arrive in Britain from India as part of a great wave of South Asian medics who came to work with the National Health Service (NHS) from the mid-1940s to the 1970s. The National Hospital Plan of 1962 had emissaries being sent to Commonwealth countries to bring in the best under Enoch Powell, then Conservative health minister. While it offered the doctors great opportunities, and saw many of them becoming respected General Practitioners, leading lights of their communities and the backbone of a health service they relentlessly worked for, they were also stymied by racism and discrimination.

“By 1968, Britain had descended into race riots,” says Shreya, adding that her story will span 30 minutes in an amalgam of five other stories on the first settlers in America, British Africans and settlers from the Caribbean. “I chose to focus on the NHS, a tremendous institution unlike any other in the world. An overwhelming number of its frontline pandemic workers are from the subcontinent. Earlier, Amit Chaudhuri and Jeet Thayil had written for British opera, but this is the first modern Asian opera. It was wonderful that Sir David had faith in me.”

Sir David, a multiple Olivier award-winner, and also knighted by France and Poland, will helm Migrations. “The movement of people, whether voluntary or under coercion, as in refugees, slavery, people trafficking, continues to have enormous political and social consequences. However, migration can also be a success story, and we’re using the exuberant Bollywood dance style to help tell the story of Indian doctors,” he says.

The opera will have around 200 cast members and three choirs with Indian musical theatre actors performing in Shreya’s segment. The story will have elements of Kathakali, stagecraft, puppets, sitar and tabla music, Bollywood, Freddie Mercury-esque operatic overtones and poetry from Sunil Ganguly’s Neera group of poems. Music is composed by Will Todd.

Music composer Will Todd

Music composer Will Todd   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The opera was to open in October this year at the Wales Millennium Centre to mark WNO’s 75th anniversary but has now been deferred due to COVID-19.

“We will be ready next year. What remains important is that opera that was mostly white before, both in terms of the stories and the writers, is now becoming inclusive,” says Shreya.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 4:25:45 AM |

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