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Opera based on Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shalimar the Clown’ to have world premiere in St. Louis

(Mark Kitaoka, Courtesy: Opera Theatre of St. Louis)

Famed writer Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 in India. In 2005, he published a sweeping work about the beleaguered but beautiful territory of Kashmir, a place with ancestral ties. As of 2016, that novel is becoming an opera of the same name—to be premiered by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June.  

The opera’s composer, Jack Perla, and librettist, Rajiv Joseph, joined “St. Louis on the Air” contributor Steve Potter to discuss the opera and how it came to be.

At its heart, the opera is the heartbreaking love story of Shalimar, a Muslim, and Boonyi, a Hindu, set against the backdrop of sociopolitical turmoil in 1960s Kashmir, a territory that has been long-disputed by India and Pakistan.

“It is one of the more beautiful places on earth,” said Joseph. “The name ‘Kashmir’ itself means paradise. That doubles as the tragedy of the region. There has been war and bloodshed for so long there because of the political and religious divide of the territory.”

The opera does not focus on the grand themes of religion and war alone.

“There’s an idea that’s mentioned in the book called Kashmiriat,” said Joseph. “It is the idea of being from Kashmir. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu or Muslim, you share this cultural, artistic and gastronomic background. You are of this one place. The village embraces this idea that Kashmiriat comes before ones spiritual identity.”

On a personal level, we gain insight into the life of Boonyi – who is reluctantly forced to marry Shalimar when the two are caught having sex. Even though the village elders approve of the marriage, “the world around them starts to crumble,” said Joseph.

Boonyi yearns to see the world and to escape her small town, yet she still must settle down with the traveling actor/clown, Shalimar. Because Boonyi settles, a series of unfortunate events unfold that lead to vengeance and bloodshed.

“This is a bloody good time in terms of love, vengeance and betrayal,” said Perla.

“I was a huge fan of Rushdie’s work,” said Joseph. “When this idea was floated by me, I was thrilled to adapt it even if I hadn’t done opera before.”

While this is Joseph’s first experience writing an opera libretto, he has plenty of an experience as a playwright, screenwriter, and television writer. Recently, he wrote the feature film called “Draft Day,” starring Kevin Costner. His true calling, however, has been writing plays and musicals.

Credit (Laura Kudritzki, Courtesy: Opera Theatre of St. Louis)
Jack Perla, composer of "Shalimar the Clown"

  Perla, who says opera has taken over his life for the last six years, says “Shalimar the Clown” is the largest opera he’s ever composed. Most recently, he premiered the original opera “An American Dream,” in Seattle.

  The presentation of the opera is opulent—featuring a huge wedding scene replete with drummers and chorus—but the music takes a hint from the more localized music from the Kashmir Valley. That means you’ll hear a lot of sitar and tabla drums in the background.

Joseph said the hardest part of the opera was adapting a Rushdie novel (the author is notorious for wide-sweeping detail).

“The characters are so deeply drawn,” said Joseph. “The challenge was more distilling an epic-scale novel into a smaller dramatic work of an opera. That’s where writing a musical piece comes in handy because, in a single phrase of singing, you can encapsulate the longing of a young man who is in love with a young girl regardless of religious affiliations.”

While the opera will not premiere in St. Louis until June, both Perla and Joseph are in the area to promote it. Below, several events are listed to help you become more acquainted with the work, including a visit from author Salman Rushdie himself.

Related Events

What: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Young Professionals Reception
When: Friday, Feb. 26 from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rasoi Restaurant, 25 N. Euclid Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63108

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What: Creators in Conversation
When: Sunday, Feb. 28 from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m.
Where: St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103
More information

What: Salman Rushdie at the Sheldon
When: Saturday, March 5 from 1:00 - 2:30 p.m.
Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63108
More information

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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