Monday, June 19, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Power Speaks Lies" (on Kamala Sankaram's Thumbprint)


power speaks lies
by Douglas Messerli

Susan Yannowitz (librettist), Kamala Sankaram (music) Thumbprint / presentdy by by LAOpera Off Grand and presented by Beth Morrison Projects, at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall / the performance I attended was on Sunday, June 18, 2017
 

Kamala Sankaram’s 2014 opera, Thumbprint, produced in LAOpera’s “Off Grand” series at Redcat from June 16-June 18, 2017, is an eclectically composed work that offers a great many theatrical delights.

       First of all, the true-life story upon which it is based is centered upon the moral courage of a young Pakistan woman, Mukhtar Mai, whose young 12-year old brother, after swimming nude in a local river, was accused by the ruling city Mastoi tribesmen of having an encounter with a young girl of their group. Although the boy denies their charge—and we never do know if any actual meeting of the two even occurred—the family members imprison him and demand an “honor” trial. It is strange that they describe this as an issue of “honor,” when it actually involves the greatest dishonor possible, demanding that a woman of the offending family come to the family leader to plead for her relative’s release.

       The young, fairly carefree and yet obedient Mukhtar—who makes her living by embroidering and teaching young students the Koran—offers to plead the family’s case. After all, they are only a poor family, and when the wealthy Mastoi speak, as the libretto makes clear, power can easily tell lies. “If the Mastoi say the sun is shining in the middle of the night or that the moon is shining in noon light of the day, it is so. There can be no question.”

       It is clear that Mukhtar fears the plea she has undertaken, and her father rightfully demands that he must accompany her to the Mastoi home, since his daughter is a virgin and, accordingly, is not permitted to visit areas outside their neighborhood.

      Apparently, the family does not recognize that the entire charge against their son is part of an age-old tradition in which, after such an honor charge, the female—in this case the young  daughter—is brutally raped, in a kind of gang-bang attack by all the younger brothers. After being so dishonored, moreover, the female is expected to commit suicide, or in the tradition of other honor killings, to be killed by her own father or brother. It is all, as we later learn, part of a barbaric tradition based on the notion of an eye-for-an-eye, or, to put it another way, a method in which the powerful keep their poorer neighbors in their place while allowing the sexual release of their youth.

       In this particular 2002 incident, however, the young Mukhtar, although at first contemplating suicide, is, seemingly, supported by her parents, who insist that she remain, in their love, alive. As she gradually gains an righteous anger, moroever, she develops a kind of power which allows her to contemplate reporting the event to the police. But when the perpetuators simply laugh at her intentions, the family members themselves begin to doubt their support of their daughter, and her mother, father, and even her loving sister demand that she remain within the tradition by killing herself.

       One of the haunting themes of this short opera is how Makhtar, under such cultural pressure—as the Mastoi men mock, who will now buy her embroidering, who will send their
 sons to her to learn the Koran?—continues to grow, moving along one of several “roads” she is forced to take as she attempts to bring her case to justice.

     Justice in Pakistan is very much a matter of who has the power, and, obviously, the Mastoi demand that she admit to her dishonor by signing a document which the uneducated girl cannot even read. A local magistrate assures her of fairness, but the document he demands she sign, is completely empty. Besides, the girl does not even know how to sign her name. The traditional method of signing for women, so the authorities tell her, is to imprint her thumbprint upon the page. After a great deal of inner doubt, Makhtar does apply her thumb to the magistrate’s empty  document, and her case eventually comes to court, with the Mastoi insisting, of course, on tradition, suggesting that if they are found guilty half of Pakistani men will go to prison.

     Almost amazingly, the judge, even without the demanded four male witnesses (Makhtar has only her father, the stones, the stars, and her own body as her witnesses) finds the Mastoi family guilty and sentences all the boys to death, one of the very first instances of a rape victim actually succeeding in her claims.

     Since this case and the victim quickly became an international cause célèbre, Makhtar is awarded damages by the Ministry of Justice, also, she is surprised to learn, a woman—money which the girl determines she will use to establish a school to educate not only herself but other wives and daughters (actually some from the same Mastoi family members) of their rights and, through learning the language, how to actually sign their names.

     With such a dramatic, true-life story, it is hard to imagine how Kamala Sankaram, a composer-singer of Indian origin, might have failed to create a riveting work. Indeed her music, representing both Western traditional, John Adams’-like recitatives, and kitar-based rhythms that embrace Qawwali music, along with chanting and percussive hand claps hardly ever fails to please. The music itself seems to sweep the audience up in the story it tells. And the orchestral performers, including Brian Shankar Adler (drums and Indian percussion), Greg Chudzik (bass), Mila Henry (piano and harmonium), Margaret Lancaster (flute), Andie Springer (violin), and Phillippa Thompson (viola) perform quite magically.

      Similarly, all the singers, often playing several characters each, Steve Gokool, Manu Narayan, Phyllis Pancella, Leela Subramaniam, and Kannan Vasudevan, are true professionals who bring to this opera a sense of wonderment. And the composer, Sankaram, as Makhtar, singing in a full-voice soprano who easily moves into high resgisters, certainly brings dramatic energy to the work.

     My only complaints, in agreement with several critics, is that the libretto by Susan Yankowitz, although clarifying what could have been a denser plot, seems to have little ear for true poetry, even though she does, at moments, attempt inner and even end rhymes. But her art is presented mostly in repetition, and one quickly tires of the purposely repeated phrases which stress the major themes of the story.

     Indeed, the story of the chamber-opera seems often more important than the music and singing. And, at many moments, the entire work pushes into the domain of Broadway theater with what Los Angeles Times critic describes as a tendency to belt-out passages as if they were constructs of pop-music. I have never complained about hybrid elements in opera, and have often mentioned my love of theater-opera composers such as Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, and others who have combined jazz with music from numerous other cultures. The problem here is that, in the paring down of the narrative, we sometimes seem to be moving closer to stories of personal celebration as presented in Evita or even Gypsy than the complex pushes and pulls of a poor woman from Pakistani culture who dared to stand up against, not only those who raped her, but the entire traditions in which she had been raised. While we can certainly celebrate Makhtar’s coming-into-full-being, quieter, more introspective passages may have more effectively helped us to comprehend the questions of many of the people around her, “how had she learned to be so very courageous?”

      It might also have helped us to understand Mukhtar Mai more fully if the opera had taken us to her current women’s shelter, set in the same village in which she was raped and where, daily, as she crosses the street in front of her own home—as Dawn, a Pakistani-based paper reports— she is still daily forced to confront the very men who raped her: “When I walk past, they taunt me and make catcalls.” The fact that these same men have now been acquitted in another court makes clear that for such strong women as Mukhtar the road is still a long and arduous one. Mukhtar attended the Los Angeles performances, witnessing the opera based on her life, for the first time, while remaining after the performance, along with the composer, librettist, and director, to answer audience questions and hear their responses.

      Given the phenomenal musical talents of Thumbprint’s composer, we can be certain that we will hear from her again. And I look forward to whatever she creates.

Los Angeles, June 19, 2017

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