Professional soprano singer Ashwati Parameshwar speaks to Sneha Gohri about her recent Delhi show, the evolution of the opera form, and how it is being received in contemporary India.
Ashwati Parameshwar is a soprano and voice coach who has been an opera singer since the age of 18 and is the founding member of Lyric Ensemble of Delhi. She has performed at several venues around the world, and last week, she sang a medley of vocal pieces, accompanied by the pianist Dinaibo Rennta, from some of the greatest operas of all time at Delhi’s India International Centre.
Q. What made you transition from Carnatic music to opera singing?
A. Carnatic music was somewhat on and off—we moved, my teachers moved. It was fine and it was fun. I hadn’t achieved any particular level at it. When I was in 11th standard, there was no Carnatic music in school; they had only Western music lessons. The style of teaching was more helpful, and I was given specific instructions about the muscles and the body and about how to improve my voice. Whereas in Carnatic music one was getting by with rote learning: you learn this raagand this song and this taaland you’re finished. So during my 11th grade, my teacher took me along with some more students to this master class, which was being held by a visiting American Soprano, and it was very interesting to observe what they were doing. Then she performed an aria for us as an example and I cannot remember her name, but I remember how I felt and I remember that I realised at that time that this was what I wanted to do.
Q. You were recently part of an opera performance in Delhi. What are your views on performing in a country like India, where few people are acquainted with the opera form?
A. It’s a new art form for India. There aren’t many people performing it. Yet it is also kind of finding its space and its time right now. An increasing number of children are studying Western classical music as an extracurricular subject. Then there are these Trinity and Royal College of Music awards that many people are winning. Now, with YouTube and online steaming, opera has suddenly become more acceptable to everyone, which was not the case earlier. Anyone can now listen to an ariaor tune into any of the great performances by the Royal Opera House in London or the Met in New York.
I did realise during my performance at the India International Centre in Delhi that the audience was an eclectic mix. There were those of the older generations, the IIC regulars, as well as young people who are studying Western music. Many of the latter were not students of vocals but of the piano and the violin. There were also children under the age of ten, and they were paying attention and were not at all restless.
Q. In our time, opera is considered an elitist form. Has there been any significant change in this respect? What is being done to make opera more accessible to the general public?
A. Opera houses have started to get down from their high horses and have stopped being so snooty about it. They are making more of an effort now, trying to make themselves more accessible to younger generations because they realise there aren’t many members of the older generations left to fill the seats. In the UK, there has been a major push towards performing opera in English so that the public understands it better. People are making translations. You have people in Italy who can be heard singing on the streets, to help generate interest among tourists and shoppers. There are productions where only the songs are in Italian while the acting and narration is in English. Even in Delhi, the Neemrana Music Foundation has done that a couple of times.
Q. How difficult is it for a vocalist like you to translate an opera, and to perform a translated piece? How much of the original’s essence is lost in translation?
A. Sometimes, some things get lost. The meaning of the words should fit the music. One of the most important things a vocal student learns is how to achieve those notes and make them sound beautiful no matter what the language is. And it is difficult, I will not deny that. Singing in a different language from what you are used to speaking is quite difficult.
Q. Has opera evolved with time, absorbing influences of contemporary music? Or is it still following a traditionalist approach?
A.To some degree, it does keep evolving. In addition, styles keep changing slightly depending on how you interpret them. My performance in Delhi incorporated very different styles.
The tradition has itself evolved. The way you’re supposed to sing a Mozart aria is very different from how you’ll sing a Puccini aria, and if you try to sing a Mozart song in a Puccini style, an opera purist would call it all wrong. At the end of the day, opera is all about telling a story. Styles keep coming and going.
Q. Are there any stylistic resemblances between opera and Indian music?
A. Musically, I would say no. But dramatically, yes, absolutely! Let’s face it, opera is basically like a Bollywood movie. You have a story where the person is in love with a girl and they have to sneak around because of his father; or he is trying to ruin the family which is why he wants to seduce the daughter of the family etc. We love our soap operas and revenge stories. These are all very operatic.