Beethoven goes Bollywood

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Take Ludwig van Beethoven’s classic opera about love, freedom and a political prisoner wrongly convicted. Dress it up in colorful, spangled costumes from the Indian cinema’s golden age. Then present the composer’s magnificent melodies with a primarily dancing cast that fills a highly stylized stage with robust athleticism. Finally, add a dash of the latest in interactive technology for good measure.

What have you got? The Skylight Music Theatre’s production of “Fidelio.”

The Skylight’s season opener might be more appropriately titled “Beethoven Goes Bollywood” or “Fidelio 2.0.” It’s the first production directed by Viswa Subbaraman, the Skylight’s new artistic director, and it pays more than a passing nod to his Indian heritage and the future of the performing arts.

The unusual combination, possibly the first of its kind in the history of Beethoven’s only opera, seemed like a natural to Subbaraman, who took over the company’s helm July 25 from longtime artistic director Bill Theisen, who left to head the University of Iowa’s opera program. There are more commonalities between the opera and the Indian cinematic genre than most people realize, Subbaraman says.

“When you think about ‘Fidelio,’ there’s great dialogue, great singing and a lot of great music, but nothing happens,” he says. “Classic Bollywood films are much the same. The genre allows us to fill the space Beethoven left with good dancers who create the subtext of the arias and show us what’s going on.”

Bollywood does not refer to all Indian cinema, but rather those films produced in Mumbai. The golden age includes films made in the 1950s and ’60s, a period that focused on classic Indian themes in a manner that was heavily influenced by Hollywood musicals of the 1920s through the 1950s.

Other Bollywood influences were the ancient Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sanskrit drama, traditional Indian folk theater and Parsi theater, which blends realism and fantasy, music and dance with sensational stagecraft.

Subbaraman has called on Raghava KK, one of India’s top artists, to create sets for the opera that use new interactive technology. Named one of National Geographic’s 2013 Class of Emerging Explorers, Raghava KK has employed technology for the sets similar to what he uses in his own artwork. Xbox users familiar with Kinect technology will understand how the silhouettes of dancers appear on the opera’s video screens as the performers move across the stage.

Subbaraman, who will conduct the orchestra for each performance, will wear a brainwave scanner during the opera’s finale. The technology will translate his subconscious thoughts into light patterns that will be projected on stage to create a “star map” at the end of each performance. Thus, the graphic that represents the opera’s eternal quality will change from performance to performance based on the conductor’s thoughts and emotions.

Subbaraman says the technology underscores the fact that “the beauty of live theater is that each performance is unique.”

“I don’t know anyone who’s done this before, which makes us very excited that we’re blazing some new ground here,” he adds.

The choreography was sourced closer to home. Deepa Devasena, who operates Milwaukee’s Aarahbi Dance School, designed the production’s dances. A teacher of Bollywood-style dancing, Devasena had to adapt classical Indian moves to Beethoven’s music.

“There has been some trial and error for all of us, but she has loved every second of it,” Subbaraman says.

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, the site of last year’s shooting, have come on board to provide Subbaraman, who’s originally from West Texas, with what he calls some much needed expertise and cultural perspective. This relationship, too, was a Skylight first.

In addition to all the original elements of the production, “Fidelio” will feature some world-class operatic performers, including tenor Chase Taylor as Florestan, soprano Cassandra Black as Leonore, soprano and Milwaukee resident Erica Shuller as Marzelline and bass-baritone and Lawrence University graduate Christopher Besch as Rocco.

“Fidelio” will be sung in English rather than its native German, which is often a turnoff for opera purists. But with all the Bollywood trappings and technology going on, the change of language will be the smallest leap of faith that Subbaraman will ask his audiences to take.

“We’re telling the story in a way that is honest and true to the composer’s storyline,” he says. “The singing is wonderful and it is fundamentally the music of Beethoven. Audiences should love the production.”

Skylight’s 2013–14 Season

Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” launches a season of “revolutionary” musical entertainment, including:

“Les Misérables,” the musical retelling of Victor Hugo’s immortal tale, Nov. 22 – Dec. 29.

“El Cimarrón,” Hans Werner Henze’s theatrical story about a runaway slave, Jan. 3 – 12.

“In the Heights,” the Tony- and Grammy-winning musical that chronicles life in a close-knit urban community, Jan. 31 – Feb. 23.

“Hydrogen Jukebox,” combining the words of poet Allen Ginsberg and the music of composer Philip Glass, March 14-30.

“I Hear America Singing,” a musical revue written and directed by opera composer and Milwaukee native Daron Hagen, May 9 – 25.

“Hair,” the 1967 “hippie musical” that turned Broadway on its head, May 16 – June 8.