All Classical Radio James Depreist

Stage & Studio: Priti Gandhi & ‘Thumbprint’

Portland Opera's artistic leader talks with Dmae Lo Roberts in this podcast about assembling a 21st century Pakistani tale of justice and courage with an all-South Asian cast.

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Priti Gandhi, artistic director, Portland Opera.

Priti Gandhi came to take the helm as artistic director of Portland Opera during the fall of 2021. The company’s current dynamic season began with one of her favorite operas, Carmen, and is followed by newer operas Thumbprint (opening Saturday, March 18) and ABSENCE: Terrance Blanchard plus not as well-known work Dvořák’s Rusalka — or the Mermaid Opera.  A year and a half after moving into the company’s top artistic spot, Gandhi has made a mark in both the opera world and Portland’s Asian American community by reaching out to artists like Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, who she enlisted to choreograph for Thumbprint. She also gathered an all-South Asian cast of singers of this opera with music composed by Kamala Sankaram with libretto by Susan Yankowitz.

Principal dancer Priya Judge, Indira Mahajan as Mother, Samina Aslam as Mukhtar Mai, principal dancer Sitara Razaqi Lones, and Leela Subramaniam as Annu in Portland Opera’s 2023 production of Kamala Sankaram’s “Thumbprint.” Photo: Christine Dong/Portland Opera.

 

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Hear past shows on Stage & Studio website. Featured music from Thumbprint composed by Kamala Sankaram with libretto by Susan Yankowitz.

In this podcast you’ll hear Gandhi talk about her early career as a singer …

“I was auditioning for the role of Cinderella, Rossini’s opera, one of my favorite roles to sing … the general director said to me, ‘Well, we were really hoping for a blonde for this role, but go ahead and sing for us anyway since you flew this whole way.’ And I remember not being all that shocked … Because it was just … the Kool-Aid, you had to drink in order to survive. And I’m so glad that, that the generation coming up now doesn’t have to be subject to having to be okay with such statements like that. But, but when I was in the field, as so many other singers of color and artists of color will say, it was normal, taken for granted.”

… the power of opera …

“Singing opera is like the Olympics of vocalism. It is an incredible physical feat. Years of training; every singer goes through thousands of dollars of voice lessons and coaching, diction and language study, and acting, and movement and breath control and support. People have no idea what an opera singer goes through in order to make their vocal cords create without amplification in a 3,000-seat house … the power of a human voice. That’s the power of opera.”

…and her hand in casting a South Asian cast for Thumbprint, including a contemporary Indian-American veteran singer she’d never met before.

“Indira Mahajan is singing the role of the mother in this opera, and I was so excited to cast her. And I told her agent … I’m dying to meet her. Because since the beginning of my singing career, she’s the only other Indian American I knew. And her agent wrote back and said, she said the exact same thing about you, and she cannot wait to meet you. And so the first day of rehearsals, we hugged each other. It was really an emotional moment to, to meet this other woman who’d been in the industry and we’d never been able to be in the same room together.”

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Samina Aslam as Mukhtar Mai in Portland Opera’s 2023 production of Kamala Sankaram’s “Thumbprint.” Photo: Christine Dong/Portland Opera.

More about Thumbprint: 

The story of Thumbprint is based on the remarkable Pakistani activist Mukhtar Mai, who survived sexual violence perpetrated by a local tribal council in retribution for her brother’s alleged crimes. In a decision to not only just live but to change her world, she started a village school for girls to teach literacy. Thumbprint evokes the humiliation Mai endured because she couldn’t read or write and had to sign name with only a thumbprint.

The libretto, written by Susan Yankowitz, originates from a series of interviews with Mai, and is paired with a score by Kamala Sankaram that is a dynamic collision of Hindustani and European opera influences.

Leela Subramaniam as Annu, Indira Mahajan as Mother, and Samina Aslam as Mukhtar Mai in Portland Opera’s 2023 production of Kamala Sankaram’s THUMBPRINT. Photo: Christine Dong/Portland Opera.

Portland Opera presents performances of Thumbprint, March 18, 22, 24, and 26, 2023 at the Newmark Theatre. Digital access will also be available for a limited time on Portland Opera Onscreen, beginning in April 2023.

Mukhtar Mai is still striving for change, justice, and safety. Learn more about The Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization and her activism at https://mukhtarmai.org/mukhtar-mai/.

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Priti Gandhi grew up in the San Diego area, when her Indian father took an engineering job and moved the family from Mumbai (Bombay) to the East Coast and then to Southern California when she was 3 years old. Most recently, she comes from a three-year similar artistic director stint at the Minnesota Opera and before that, the San Diego Opera. A 20-year opera singer who often performed at Seattle Opera, as well as in Europe and on the East Coast, she is an enthusiastic flamenco dancer. She learned while performing Mercedes in San Diego Opera’s 2011 Carmen after the director cut the ballet dancers and told the singers to learn flamenco.

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Also see ‘Thumbprint’: Crossing cultures, dramatizing oppression, Brett Campbell’s ArtsWatch story about the background to and making of the opera.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody winning radio producer, writer and theatre artist. Her work is often autobiographical and cross-cultural and informed by her biracial identity. Her Peabody award-winning documentary Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song is a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during WWII. She adapted this radio documentary into a film. She won a second Peabody-award for her eight-hour Crossing East documentary, the first Asian American history series on public radio. She received the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Civil Rights and Social Justice award from the Asian American Journalists Association and was selected as a United States Artists (USA) Fellow. Her stage plays and essays have been published in numerous publications. She published her memoir The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family in 2016. As a theatre artist, she has won two Drammys, one for her acting and one for her play Picasso In The Back Seat which also won the Oregon Book Award. Her plays have been produced in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, NYC and Florida. Roberts is the executive producer of MediaRites, a nonprofit multicultural production organization and co-founder of Theatre Diaspora, an Asian American/Pacific Islander non-profit theatre that started as a project of MediaRites. She created the Crossing East Archive of more than 200 hours of broadcast-quality, pan-AAPI interviews and oral histories. For 23 years, Roberts volunteered to host and produce Stage & Studio live on KBOO radio. In 2009, she started the podcast on StagenStudio.com, which continues at ArtsWatch.

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