In 2002, Mukhtar Mai walked to the home of a Mastoi clan family in her rural town in Pakistan’s Punjab region. An illiterate lower-caste woman, Mai was there in response to their demand to formally apologize on her family’s behalf for her brother’s alleged (and never proven) insult to one of the higher-caste family’s female members.
What she didn’t know was that the demand was a set-up — not for an apology, but a revenge gang rape by four of the Mastoi men, a tragically customary “honor” practice in some quarters. The innocent victim, thus “shamed” by the violent, shameful acts, would in turn by shunned by family and village, and expected to commit ritual suicide to avoid further family dishonor that she, and they, in no way deserved. In most cases, that would have been the end of Mai’s story — and Mai.
But Mukhtar Mai wrote a new ending. Instead, she fought back. Bravely marching to the Meerwala police station to report her assault, she’s asked to sign a complaint. But she can’t sign her name, because she’s never learned to read or write. She files the complaint — the first Pakistani woman ever to bring her rapists to court — with her thumbprint as signature.
What happened after that is as hopeful and inspirational as its inciting incident is harrowing. And that’s why composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Susan Yankowitz in 2014 created a chamber opera to tell Mai’s story of rape and resilience, terror and triumph. Portland Opera brings Thumbprint to downtown Portland’s Newmark Theater for four performances March 18-26. Thumbprint theatrically reminds us that sexual violence still happens now, all over the world, and that change demands speaking out — and singing out.
Song Cycle to Stage Drama
Inspired by Mai’s story, Sankaram originally set the tale as a song cycle in 2009. The producer, legendary New York new music impresaria Beth Morrison, saw that performance and Sankaram told her the story really needed a full dramatic staging. Morrison agreed — and knew just who could help create it. She’d seen a collaboratively written play called Seven about a septet of women who were working to reform their countries, and New York playwright Yankowitz had written a monologue about Mai for it, after reading her autobiography and interviewing her when she came to New York to receive an award for her work. Morrison commissioned them to turn her story into an opera. (A few bits of the original cycle found their way into Sankaram’s otherwise all-new score.)
Even classic opera is no stranger to sexual assault and violence, but the women often wind up as tragic heroines. That wasn’t Mai. Yankowitz’s on-the-nose libretto avoids deeper examination or implication of the obviously horrific crime in favor of consciously inspirational storytelling. The not entirely linear story sometimes shifts intriguingly in time and space, and despite its characters’ lack of dimensionality, Mukhtar’s admirable courage and heroism shine through.
“I admit to great pleasure in placing on the operatic stage a heroine who does not commit suicide, go crazy or cough herself to death but instead discovers she has a voice and uses it to fight for others,” Yankowitz wrote in the opera’s program notes. “In Mukhtar’s words, ‘One voice sings, / thousands hear the song. Let it begin with me!’”
Sankaram’s joyously polyglot score, for six singers and as many musicians, who in this production will perform onstage rather than in a pit, matches its subject’s power and exuberance. She viewed the opera as “the journey of a woman finding her voice,” Sankaram wrote in the program notes. “Thus, the vocal writing for Mukhtar is a musicalization of this trajectory. At the beginning of the opera, the singer is mostly in her middle register, and often singing in ensemble with the other characters. It is not until she makes the pivotal decision to pursue justice against her attackers that we hear the full potential of her voice, including the higher extremes of her range and virtuosic coloratura.”
Classic opera fans will certainly take comfort in some of the genre’s familiar touchstones, especially in the melodic arias. But the score also draws on post-minimalist beats in the tradition of operas by John Adams and Philip Glass, and a wide range of South Asian sounds and instruments (tabla drums, flutes) — not just the Carnatic traditions from Sankaram’s own heritage but also Hindustani classical influences from Northern India, as well as pop-music devices.
“I was thinking mostly about the Hindustani music of the Punjab, where the action takes place,” she told ArtsWatch. “My family is from South India. I tried to bring together the European classical music training I’d had with the study I’d done of Hindustani music.”
As in classical Indian performances, the ragas Sankaram chose and composed for each scene establish appropriate moods for the dramatic emotions and action.
“It was important for me to base the piece around raga and tala, which are the building blocks of South Asian classical music,” she wrote in the program notes. “I chose ragas whose characteristic mood (rasa) would enhance the dramatic potential of each scene. While the music is notated, I chose to use meters that more closely match the typical rhythmic cycles found in South Asian music. I was also interested in exploring textural elements typical of South Asian music, including the use of hand claps and vocal percussion. These are paired with European classical vocal technique and methods of harmonic development.”
Of course, mixing styles has ever been a hallmark of opera, from Mozart’s evocation of Turkish music to Madame Butterfly and many more, as it is in all music, classical or otherwise. But rather than a mashup or mere exotic flavoring, Sankaram’s colorful score somehow organically blends those diverse classical strains with contemporary sounds, including the classic Bollywood era with its zingy funk eruptions, and, where the action dictated a sparser sound, even “stripped down Qawwali elements,” she says.
“Sankaram is a rousing composer who engagingly merges the jazzier aspects of Indian music with the punchier ones of Puccini-esque and Adams-esque opera and Broadway,” wrote L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed of what he called “a finely conceived and realized theater piece that takes not only some of its musical style from Broadway belting but also its narrative style.” Of the many composers — from each end of the spectrum — who’ve tried mingling South Asian and Western classical music, Sankaram here proves to be one of the most successful.
Cross-cultural interactions also inform Portland Opera’s original choreography by Portland’s own Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, who added a pair of dancers and taught the singers’ movement. She’s spent decades studying, performing and creating new works informed by South India’s famed Bharatnatyam dance. As an esteemed modern choreographer herself (and an essential Oregon arts advocate), she’s an ideal choice to mingle contemporary Western and traditional South Indian influences, paralleling Sankaram’s hybrid approach.
Musical hybrids have enriched Sankaram’s experience from childhood. She grew up outside San Diego with a white mother who played classical music in the car when taking young Kamala to school, and an Indian immigrant father who switched the program to Indian classical music when he drove. When her grandfather gave her a sitar on a visit to India, she began to study the music. She still plays sitar, as well as accordion, in her award-winning Bombay Rickey, an operatic Bollywood surf (!) band, and sings — she created the role of Mai in the original and later L.A. Opera productions. This time, the lead role is played by Alaska-born Pakistani-American Samoan Aslam, who played Mai (directed then and now by Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia) in Chautauqua Opera’s staging last year.
Sankaram, who holds a doctorate in psychology as well as her music credentials, has composed for various incarnations of musical theater, including a 10-hour opera that channels the trees of the park near her Brooklyn home, a “techno-noir” opera with a chorus of two dozen laptops, a Zoom opera and “the world’s first VR opera.” For an upcoming augmented reality sound piece, she recorded natural sounds from Mt. Hood on a visit to her sister, who lives in Portland, last summer. A Brooklyn resident, she also teaches at Mannes College of Music and and SUNY Purchase.
Her operas reflect the social concerns apparent in her nonmusical studies and interests. “I’m always looking for things that want to have music,” she explains. “The important thing is that it will make sense and resonate with a contemporary audience. Part of it is dealing with subject matter and issues that are relevant now,” including the empowerment of women portrayed in Thumbprint.
Opera vs. Oppression
Thumbprint itself may help redress some of the issues of sexism and racism plaguing opera itself, by opening opportunities to South Asian performers. Portland Opera’s production features an all-South Asian cast, and the creative leadership team — composer, librettist, director, choreographer, Indian-born Danish conductor Maria Badstue — is entirely composed of women, as is Portland Opera’s, headed by an erstwhile opera singer of South Asian heritage, Priti Gandhi, who pushed for all-South Asian casting. “I belong to a few groups on social media and one of them is South Asian musicians,” she told ArtsWatch’s James Bash. “When I started casting Thumbprint, I told Kamala that I’d love to see if we can tell the story as authentically as possible by casting all South Asians. She said that’s a fantastic idea. So I started talking to my contacts through these social media channels.”
And it’s hardly a stretch to see the light the opera throws on the continuing oppression of women worldwide, which even here in the U.S. differs more in degree than cause — the notion that women are mere instruments of patriarchal privilege.
Back in Pakistan, Mai’s resistance and resilience persist. The opera — but not the story — ends with the rapists’ conviction and death sentence, and Mai using funds from the 2003 settlement she won plus donations her story inspired to create an organization that supports a women’s shelter and free legal clinic, a girls’ high school (Mai was its first student), a pair of co-ed elementary schools and shelter. She realized that to change the patriarchal system, women would need the power and tools to push for reform, starting with the ability to read, write — and sign their own names. The schools provide free education, books, supplies, and uniforms to more than 550 girls and boys from nursery school to grade 10.
Later the rapists’ convictions were overturned, but Mai has persevered. Despite receiving many international awards and worldwide acclaim, her battles continue, both financial (her organization receives far more requests for help than it can handle, and must maintain the institutions she created), political (various conservative groups and agencies have tried to suppress or even shutter her organization) and personal: She and her staff receive death threats, and she’s forced to endure taunts from her rapists, who sent their own children to her school and whose home she passes on her way there. Though, thanks to her tenacious work and that of many other activists, some laws and practices are changing to protect women, many in Pakistan, and everywhere, still suffer from dangerous sexism. But with Mai’s continuing efforts, someday maybe all Pakistani women will be literate and able to sign their names to liberation causes, rather than merely offer a thumbprint.
Ultimately, that’s why this show is ideal for opera. Not just because of the lurid violation that sparked it and the extreme emotions it ignited, but because it literally gives voice to the voiceless: women repressed by sexism, enforced illiteracy and myriad other patriarchal transgressions.
“What this opera does so well is allow for Mukhtar to speak out, to sing, to scream the things that many of us are feeling,” wrote director Omer Ben Seadia. “Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz wrote a piece that is honest and true to the events that were forced not only on Mukhtar, but on her entire family and her community for years. We honor the toll that was taken, and the lasting effects of trauma on everyone touched by these events. Arriving at the end of the piece we have found healing and some sense of justice, but not restoration, reminding us that the fight is ongoing.”
Portland Opera’s Thumbprint runs March 18-26 at downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, 503-241-1802, portlandopera.org. 7:30 p.m. March 18, 22 and 24; 2 p.m. March 26. $35 and up.
Also see Stage & Studio: Priti Gandhi & ‘Thumbprint,’ Dmae Lo Roberts’ podcast interview with Portland Opera’s artistic director about Thumbprint and her own opera career.