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In the mood for opera

In a short period, Asad Lalljee has put Mumbai's Royal Opera House on the cultural calendar

Asad Lalljee at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Asad Lalljee at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Since it’s re-opening in October 2016, Mumbai’s Royal Opera House has become a marquee cultural institution, having played host to 180 events, including fashion shows, music recitals, and, of course, opera. The tour de force behind its eclectic programming is Asad Lalljee. The 49-year-old curator, as CEO of Avid Learning, the cultural non-profit run by Essar group, was appointed to helm the space by its owners, Jyotendrasinhji Jadeja and Kumud Kumari Jadeja, the erstwhile royals of Gondal.

Built at the turn of the 20th century by Maurice Bandmann, an American entertainer, and Jehangir Framji Karaka, a Parsi coal tycoon, the Royal Opera House was inaugurated by King George V in 1911. After years of operating as a movie theatre, the building shut in 1991, once videocassettes flooded the market. It was restored to its former glory by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah.

In mid-July, the second opera season kicked off at the Royal Opera House. Performances commemorating the 150th death anniversary of the famed composer Gioacchino Rossini and Austrian composer Joseph Haydn’s La Fedeltà Premiata (Fidelity Rewarded) are lined up in August. Lounge speaks to Lalljee, who is hosting “The Opera WalkThrough", a tour of the property that highlights its heritage, at the Royal Opera House on 28 July at 10.30am. Edited excerpts:

How did you manage to establish the opera house as a major cultural institution in such a short time frame?

When I was hired to curate the programme, it was a big task bringing a building that was closed for 26 years back to life. One thing I was very clear about was wanting the programming to have the true spirit of Mumbai and be a multi-use performing arts space. We have film, opera, music, literature, visual arts and children’s events. Before I came on board, it was already agreed that the 18th MAMI film festival would launch here, which I thought was a fitting tribute to the Royal Opera House’s film legacy. Of course, we could not launch without having an opera. So we held a small performance of operatic arias and songs with India’s international soprano, Patricia Rozario, and her husband Mark Troop.

What percentage of the programming is opera?

Opera is a niche market anywhere in the world. Through wonderful collaborators like Furtados and other organizations who support us, we try and educate people, but it is not easy to put bums on the seats. It’s how you conceptualize it for audiences. This year we are doing a fashion pop-up as part of the opera season. Last year, our two-act comedic opera, Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage), had four shows and sold out.

The building, in its very appearance appears elitist yet its cultural programming seems democratic.

You can’t help but gasp when you walk into it this building. But by inviting the right groups of people to use the space, we have managed to get a diverse audience over the past two years. We support certain governmental platforms and have done events with cancer survivors. We have a number of schools come in and our third balcony is often offered to groups who may otherwise find it hard to afford tickets. We even did an event called Fantasy Orchestra where we crowd-sourced about 50 aspiring musicians who wanted to be in an orchestra. We’d like to think that our stage is adaptable for everyone.

Given your experience as a curator, what gets audiences excited?

I use a lot of my advertising and marketing background (Lalljee is a former advertising man, who spent a number of years on New York’s Madison Avenue) in my role as curator. You have to understand what people want—the one-size-fits-all concept doesn’t work. People are excited by good programming. Also, the cultural consumption of this city is growing. We recently had a multimedia performance by a talented pianist, Sahil Vasudeva, which examined his journey as a musician struggling in an urban city. About 350 people attended it, and it was primarily a younger crowd. So, younger audiences are coming, too.

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