Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.

Sound Bites: Kamala Sankaram

The composer/performer defies categorization.
by Henry Stewart.

Sound Bites Kamala Sankaram hdl 117
Photographs by Dario Acosta
Sound Bites Kamala Sankaram sm 117
Composer/performer Kamala Sankaram, creator of a new virtual-reality opera
© Dario Acosta

KAMALA SANKARAM doesn’t write operas just because. “Before I write any notes down,” the composer/performer says, “the questions I ask myself are ‘Why are these people singing?’ ‘Why music?’ ‘Why can’t this just be a play?’ ‘Does it need to be a theatrical piece at all?’ And if there are no good answers to those questions, then ‘Why are you doing it?’”

Her highest-profile work yet, Thumbprint—which has its West Coast premiere at LA Opera in June—is the true story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped in 2002. Mai not only brought her attackers to trial but used the case to get schools built for women. “Mukhtar’s story is essentially the story of a woman who has no voice finding her voice,” Sankaram says, “so what better way to represent that than in this art form that really celebrates the voice?” 

Sankaram, raised outside San Diego, studied music as an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence but earned a PhD in psychology at the New School for Social Research, because her parents offered to pay for it—and she already had $35,000 in student debt. But music is obviously her passion. She sings (and plays accordion) in Bombay Rickey, which began as an Yma Sumac cover band but evolved into something less specific. Last year they took the cabaret slot at the Prototype Festival with a show about Sumac. 

Was it opera? Sankaram’s work exists at the edges of the art form, especially when it comes to technology: her virtual-reality opera, The Parksville Murders, viewable for free starting this month on Opera on Tap’s website or YouTube 360°, uses spatialized recorded sound, which she describes as “like being inside your favorite record”; for her upcoming Looking at You, an electronic thriller for the post-Snowden era, she hopes to employ tablet computers as a chorus and a means for ordering drinks. They might even display photos from your Facebook profile. 

Like many young composers, Sankaram’s influences are myriad and not always classical. (“I went through my trip-hop phase, like everybody does,” she says.) But she doesn’t think that’s so new. “Even Mozart, Puccini are borrowing from other idioms,” she says—“Mozart making these sort of Middle Eastern melodies for Abduction, or Puccini’s attempt at quote-unquote ‘Oriental’ music—which is not the PC term—in Turandot. They’re not thinking, ‘I’m going outside of what opera is.’ They’re trying to serve the story.” spacer



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