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The Royal Opera House: Before the curtain rises

After a long restoration process and its inauguration last year, the Royal Opera House is hosting its first opera in eight decades

The back-up cast functions as ‘elves’, moving furniture and setting scenes. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The back-up cast functions as ‘elves’, moving furniture and setting scenes. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The strains of an aria filter through the thick wooden doors of the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on Wednesday. Step into the opulent, immaculately restored heritage building with its rich red, gold and white interiors, and you see an all-Indian cast of singers running through a rehearsal of Domenico Cimarosa’s comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage). The three-day Indian production, a two-act, full opera spanning almost 3 hours that opened a day later, marks the return of a full opera to the opera house after nearly 80 years.

It takes a moment to get attuned to the Italian libretto; fortunately, a quick glance at the top edge of the stage reveals concise English subtitles running on a slim display screen.

A charged scene from ‘Il Matrimonio Segreto’.

Indian-origin Danish conductor Maria Badstue is conducting players from the Symphony Orchestra of India in the pit. Director Rehaan Engineer is periodically shifting seats while scribbling notes on a pad and occasionally conveying instructions to the control room. Music directors Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop are listening attentively. This is the third operatic collaboration between Engineer and the music directors after Little Sweep by Benjamin Britten and Dido And Aeneas by Henry Purcell.

On stage, the five young singers look alternately confident and immersed, nervous and awkward. Their eyes flit to the conductor, across the hall to Engineer, to a fixed mark at the back of the hall as they project, sing, act and emote. Decorative lights are suspended and raised, movable furniture brought on and taken off stage, and the only immovable prop is a large wooden screen at the back of the stage.

Music director Mark Troop instructs the performers.

During a break in rehearsal, Rozario says: “I was keen to ensure that the voices project well. The stage is quite a big open space and I suggested we contain it a bit. So Yamini Namjoshi (costumes and sets) and Rehaan then designed that gigantic wooden screen, which indirectly helps to project the sound."

Although Il Matrimonio Segreto is an 18th century opera, this production is “vaguely contemporary", says Rozario. “We didn’t want to set it in the 18th century because then you have to move, act and gesture in a certain way. Instead, we made it more modern with some over-the-top costumes to reflect the characters." She could be referring to the character of Count Robinson, played by basso Oscar Castellino, who is dressed in a patterned monochrome suit and sporting a man-bun. The three ladies are dressed in plain floor-length bluish-grey gowns.

A view of the restored opulence of the Royal Opera House from the stage.

This is a comic opera about marriage and family—two themes that the directors felt Indian audiences could connect with. It’s the story of a businessman trying to arrange the marriage of his older daughter to a count in order to get a royal title. But the count falls for the younger daughter, Carolina, who is secretly married to her father’s clerk, Paolino. So there’s an arranged marriage, a love marriage, a secret marriage, and unrequited love (the widowed aunt Fidalma is also secretly in love with the clerk).

Since there are only six parts in this opera, Rozario and Troop decided to “double cast", not only to extend the opportunity for performance experience but to have a trained back-up cast. Both casts will be sharing the four shows in Mumbai.

A customer at the ticket window.

“Rehaan had this brilliant idea that the cast not singing on that day—the second cast—will be ‘elves’, as he calls them, so they shift the furniture and set the scenes. That means they are all working as a team," says Rozario.

Music director Patricia Rozario at work.

During this rehearsal, tenor Sandeep Gurrapadi, who otherwise plays Paolino, is an elf. Born and brought up in the US but living in Hyderabad, the Trinity College-trained singer says: “I met Patricia in the UK and I think she secretly auditioned us before telling us we had been selected. We have been training intensively for the last month." The cast members include sopranos Shreya Nayak, Natasha Agarwal, Anoushka Pokhare and Farah Ghadiali, mezzo sopranos Vedika Chandran and Anna Nair (the only non-Indian singer who made it to the cast because she’s married to an Indian) tenors Kersi Gazdar and Gurrapadi, and bassos Castellino, Rahul Bharadwaj, Darwin Prakash and J.W. Johnson.

Mezzo soprano Anna Nair in the dressing room. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Speaking on behalf of the Gondal family, owners of The Royal Opera House, curator Asad Lalljee says, “The family was emphatic that the Opera House must be brought back to its true legacy of the performing arts and the opera in particular, so it’s wonderful to have this first full opera in the House with an internationally trained, fully Indian cast."

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