It was the blend of music and drama that drew soprano Ashwati Parameshwar to the stage. A “drama queen”, who loved to read and make up plays, the combination of dramatic narrative and music of the opera appealed to her. “The way the voice crosses octaves, how vowels are stretched to emphasise a word, the emotions that run through sentences, the stories unfolding…all of them capture my imagination,” says Ashwati, who enjoys listening to the romantic composers of the 1800s, “especially Puccini and Rossini.”
Although she was always passionate about music, Ashwati never considered it to be a career option as a child. The 35-year-old, who attended Carnatic and Western music classes as a child, says it was a Master class by a visiting mezzo-soprano from the United States (U.S.) that had her sit up and take note. The full sound of the operatic technique caught her attention and she knew she had found her call in life .
Her fascination for the form led her to New York where she completed her graduation in English and Music. She also received personal vocal coaching and completed a senior honours thesis in music while in the U.S. As most of the operas are in French, Italian and German, Ashwati who knows only a smattering of Italian and German, learns the meanings and translation of every word in the Italian and German songs so that she can do justice to the pieces.
“Every word and note is integral to conveying the meaning and emotion of a song. If you have even a slightly incorrect translation or understanding, what you convey may also be incorrect.”
According to Ashwati, the operatic singing technique is physically taxing and requires rigorous training. “I am exhausted after a performance; it’s as if I had run a marathon. We don’t use mikes, so it is important to train our voice to project the sound to the back of the auditorium.” A yoga enthusiast, the lessons help in developing core strength and in modulating her voice. She avoids nuts, dairy products and hot and cold food before a concert, as they “block” her throat.
Ashwati who is building her repertoire with voice trainer Situ Singh Beuhler in Delhi, still considers herself a student of music. “It is a constant challenge to achieve the next level, to learn another song that requires a different technique,” says Ashwati, who hails from Ottappalam but is currently residing in Delhi.
The world of opera and its audiences is much smaller when compared to other genres of music, she observes. To sustain the audience’s attention, Ashwati tries to alternate between fast and slow songs or by choosing songs that may be familiar or interesting to listeners. Finding a platform to perform is often a challenge. “At times we end up spending from our own pockets. Besides, most halls are not built for unamplified music so acoustics can be an issue.”
However, Ashwati observes that there is growing interest in the art these days. “In fact, while the crowd may not understand an opera wholly, their presence shows that they are interested. A lot of it is because more and more Indians are travelling and getting exposed to the art of opera,” says Ashwati, who runs a studio from home and has many youngsters hooked to the opera.
Opera is also already bridging cultures thanks to groups like Delhi Opera Ensemble and The Neemrana Music Foundation in Delhi. In fact, Ashwati is a founder member of Lyrical Ensemble of Delhi, a group that promotes not only opera but other musical theatres too. Asked if she has plans to release a music album and Ashwati replies, “I have a two-year-old daughter who keeps me on my toes. Hopefully sometime in the future.”
The artiste was in Thiruvananthapuram in connection with a concert by Trivandrum Centre for Performing Arts.