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Shobita Dhar, October 2, 2020: The Times of India
An opera is not very different from a Bollywood production or a musical where song and dance sequences pepper dialogues and action sequences. In opera, every word is sung like a song, traditionally in Western classical style. Despite such striking similarities there are only two Indians — author Amit Chaudhari and poet Jeet Thayil — who have written librettos (texts for opera) till now. And now joining them is Shreya Sen-Handley, who becomes the first Indian woman to write libretto for an opera — Migrations by the Welsh National Opera (WNO).
Migrations is a multi-cultural and international stage production in English, set to contemporary music. The work on it was supposed to start early this year but then due to the pandemic everything was stalled. It will now come to theatres next year.
Talking to TOI, Sen-Handley said, “Very conveniently for me, writing in verse came to me as easily as prose. I think it’s because even in prose I have the habit of paying attention to the sound of the line, and creating a rhythm.” She had never published poetry and watched just about two operas before she got the offer to work for WNO. “It didn’t feel like any alien art form to me because being from India I was familiar with the Bombay film industry and also exposed to musical theatre traditions.” She now has got contract to write librettos for two more operas for the WNO.
Sen-Handly, who grew up both in India and abroad, has worked in India as a news producer and is now settled in the UK with her husband and two children. In Migrations, she tells the tale of two Indian doctors in the late 1960s who leave India for the UK with dreams of a better life. They join the National Health Service in UK in the midst of anti-immigration protests and often end up treating the protestors who ironically don’t want any Indian doctors in the UK.
“They realise that despite their abilities and experience they are never able to rise to the highest positions and end up being frontline healthcare workers. My libretto is set in 1968 but the bias towards ethnic minorities rings true even today. During the initial days of the pandemic most of the frontline health workers who died because of Covid or got infected were mostly brown and black in colour,” said Sen-Handley. Sir David Pountney, director of the opera, started thinking of Migrations in 2020 because it marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, taking a group of English refugees to the US.