At Shastra, we love to talk to musicians who have unique perspectives on Indian-Western crossover music. This week we caught up with Maya Kherani, Indian-American coloratura soprano, who just sang the leading roles in a historic double bill of Gustav Holst’s Savitri and Jack Perla’s River of Light. In this exclusive interview, Kherani shares a glimpse into her cultural and musical heritage, an inside look into the unique roles she sung in this production, and her thoughts on developing a multi-faceted identity through music.
Growing up, did you have experience with both Indian and Western music? What drew you to singing western classical opera?
Opera is something I fell into in college, but I always had a passion for western classical music growing up. I started singing in choir in elementary school, and started western voice lessons at the age of 11. I also studied Carnatic music at the same time, but since the techniques were pretty different, I found myself having to choose. My Carnatic teacher moved out of the country, so Voice Lessons became my main outlet. My mom used to drive me to my teacher 30 mins away, and both my parents were very supportive of what I was interested in. I also loved the acting/theatrical aspect of western classical vocal music; I could relate to the texts, and I really loved exploring different characters. I was heavily involved in my middle school and high school theatre departments, so opera, as the combination of music and theatre, immediately felt like home. I love the intellectual challenge of learning music and the emotional challenge of bringing a character to life.
I first heard opera in 7th grade choir, when my science teacher’s sister, who was a professional opera singer, came and sang an aria from La Boheme for my choir. At this point, I was already obsessed with musical theatre, and I thought to myself “Hey! That’s like the musical RENT, but with more orchestra!”. I admit, I wasn’t hooked right away, but I always loved hearing the un-amplified voice. It’s not something we hear every day!
In addition to traditional operatic roles, you have sung a number of roles of characters with Indian heritage. Did you seek these roles out, or did they find you?
I really have been lucky to be offered roles that I relate so fully to. In the standard canon, I can only think of a few soprano roles of Indian heritage off the top of my head: Lakmé, Leila in The Pearl Fishers, and Savitri. More recently, Philip Glass’ Satyagraha and John Adams’ A Flowering Tree include Indian characters as well. Meera in River of Light was created by Jack Perla and Chitra Divakaruni as part of Houston Grand Opera’s Song of Houston project to connect to the Indian community of Houston, and Jack is currently writing an opera based on Shalimar the Clown, which will also feature Indian characters. So perhaps the trend is increasing upward.
What is special to you about the experience of playing characters with Indian heritage?
I am very honored to play characters of an Indian heritage, and definitely feel an instant connection, given my background and roots. In Savitri, I was able to relate to the mythology instantly. As a child, I grew up visiting India over the summers, visiting temples, watching the mythology serials on TV, and reading the comic books. I knew the story of Savitri before I knew of the Holst opera, so it was interesting to see what I had learned in my childhood transform into an opera libretto. Though Meera was born in India, she takes to her environment in the US with aplomb and enthusiasm. However, she looks back on her roots and tries to reconnect when she learns she is pregnant. I think this is the true immigrant story, which many of us (of all ethnicities) face in today’s America. I relate to her completely – though I was born in the US, I still feel a strong connection with my roots in India, and I know I will face a similar crisis when looking to the next generation. How do we keep that connection alive while still being an American? How do we honor our past while still living in the present? These are questions that River of Light illuminates, quite literally!
In the two operas, Holst’s Savitri and Perla’s River of Light, how, if at all, were the composers influenced by Indian music? Did this effect your singing or your artistic choices?
Both pieces use raagas in their compositions, and Jack Perla uses raagas along with taals throughout his composition. For Savitri, I sang the piece rather operatically, and my vocal technique didn’t change too much. In River of Light, I tried to emulate some of the vocal soundworld of Hindustani music such as using straight tone in places and clearly articulated coloratura – especially on one page, which we nicknamed “raaga-tura”! However, I still needed to use the fundamentals of western operatic vocal technique since, like most opera, I was un-amplified, and my voice had to carry over a live orchestra.
Over the last decade, the number of people of Indian heritage looking to enter the field of Western classical music has been steadily increasing. Do you have any thoughts or advice for them, as they begin to navigate this career path?
My advice is to stay true to yourself as an artist. I don’t try to be less Indian than I am, nor do I limit myself to just Indian roles. Being an artist is about being human, so the more we can draw on in our lives, experiences, unique heritage, and deep roots, the more value we can bring to our audiences. I also think we have a responsibility to act as arts ambassadors to our communities. Many Indians aren’t as familiar with Western classical music, and most have never been to a live performance. The more we can invite and include our communities, the stronger our connection will be to them and to our art. This was probably the best thing about singing these roles – I love meeting people after the performances who have never seen an opera before who tell me how moved they were and that opera is something they’d love to learn more about. That is why we do what we do!