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Drama With a Purpose

Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s new work for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, SHALIMAR THE CLOWN, based on Salman Rushdie’s novel, aims for the power of grand opera and the impact of contemporary relevance.
by Philip Kennicott • illustration by Nigel Buchanan. 

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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
Perla’s musical vocabulary also allows him to tell the deeper story of Rushdie’s novel, about the loss of paradise.

WITHIN THE FIRST FEW PAGES  of Salman Rushdie’s 2005 novel, Shalimar the Clown, an elegant, elderly and cosmopolitan Jewish man is brutally murdered in the streets of Los Angeles. He is killed by his Muslim chauffeur, a man from Kashmir who has nursed a toxic combination of fanaticism, hate and revenge. The victim’s daughter discovers her father’s body moments after the execution: “His throat had been slashed so violently that the weapon, one of his Sabatier kitchen knives, which had been dropped beside his corpse, had all but severed his head.”

Rajiv Joseph, librettist of a new opera based on the Rushdie novel, decided to begin his text as Rushdie did, with a murder. It was a bold choice, true to the novel, but perhaps daunting for the audience of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where the work will have its premiere on June 11. Composed by Jack Perla, Shalimar the Clown is the second opera based on a book by Salman Rushdie, whose literary genius is often overshadowed by the infamous 1989 fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In 2004, New York City Opera gave the premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, based on Rushdie’s most effervescent and happy confection. But Shalimar is a very different book—a risk-taking novel, both structurally and thematically, that delves into the fraught subject of ethnic and religious strife, the conflict between India and Pakistan over possession of Kashmir, and the origins and psychology of terrorism.


THE IDEA for the opera came from the composer, who has deep roots in alt-jazz and cross-cultural musical projects with Indian musicians. Perla’s wife is Bengali, and she turned him on to Rushdie years ago. Shalimar, he says, “jumped right to the top of the pile,” as he contemplated possible opera subjects. “It seemed so operatic,” he says, “with outlandish, writ-large characters, yet characters who are deeply human.” Perla’s opera career has been brief but meteoric. He wrote a short operatic scene, Betty Box Office, in 2008, and then composed Courtside, a one-act opera for Houston Grand Opera in 2011. Larger work followed, for LA Opera (the one-act Jonah and the Whale, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 2014) and Seattle (a chamber opera, An American Dream, at McCaw Hall, 2015), but Shalimar, scaled for Beethoven-sized forces, is his biggest and most ambitious project to date. And it aims for the sweep of grand opera. “It is a big piece,” says Perla. “The arc is grand opera in terms of its aesthetic sense and how much happens, and certainly in terms of the use of the chorus.”

After the opening scene, the opera flashes back to the childhood of the title character, and assassin, Shalimar. Perla’s background and close connections with Indian musicians, such as the young sitar player Arjun Verma and the great tabla artist Zakir Hussain, deeply influenced the musical style of the new opera, which uses complex linear raga forms and elements of North Indian and Kashmiri folk music. The result is a remarkably nuanced and complex musical palette, with scenes that have some of the interwoven thematic density of Western serial style, and others that sound like an Indian-inflected pastoral. The hybrid of musical elements allows Perla to chart, in clear musical terms, how the young Shalimar—a Muslim boy in love with Boonyi, a Hindu girl—becomes the older, vicious Shalimar of the opening scene. After the explosive and richly chromatic depiction of the murder, the musical language shifts to something far simpler, and hypnotic—a juxtaposition of musical elements repeated throughout the opera. 

Perla’s musical vocabulary also allows him to tell the deeper story of Rushdie’s novel, about the loss of paradise, the corruption of stable multicultural and interfaith communities, and the dead-end seductions of religious fundamentalism. OTSL artistic director James Robinson, who will direct the production, says the strength of the new work is its economical use of character and place to create a sense of atmosphere. The destruction of Kashmir is enacted by, and upon, characters such as Shalimar. “The book has 300 pages and a lot of description and insight into the characters,” says Robinson. “This is where Jack really thought about how to use the music to tell the psychological story, the emotional journey.” As in other operas—Robinson cites La Bohème and Eugene Onegin—the condensation of the story isn’t so much about reducing narrative as it is about building up a sense of time, place and social milieu. “The state of the world is presented very economically,” he says. 

But there is a strong moral element in Rushdie’s novel, a sense of outrage and impatience. It is a book with villains, and those villains carry over into the opera. As tensions rise between Pakistan and India, Kashmir is militarized. Fundamentalist Islam is preached in the villages, and as the old folkways of tolerance are forgotten and hopelessness spreads, the ugly message of religious absolutism gains ground. Frightening men, dubbed “Iron Mullahs,” corrupt paradise. Rushdie, born to a liberal Muslim family but now an atheist, has never been one to mince words about the dangers of religious extremism. That presented challenges to a creative team working in America at a moment when anti-Muslim demagoguery has been touted by political candidates such as Donald Trump.

“In the beginning the character of the Iron Mullah made me so uncomfortable,” says Perla. “This is the worst caricaturization, but that is how it is in the book.” Perla spent time talking to friends, including Zahir Janmohamed, an American author of Indian descent who has written extensively on Muslim issues. “He said, ‘Sometimes these guys are like cartoon characters, like the Bundys up in Oregon—it is the whole banality of evil.’ And I think as I got further into it, as I realized that there was a real humanity to Shalimar and Boonyi, it was justifiable.”


ROBINSON ACKNOWLEDGES  being concerned from the beginning. “When I heard what the subject was, I thought, oh my God, this is both daunting and fascinating,” he says. But the opera is being developed by and for a company that is establishing a track record for works that take on complicated and sometimes controversial subjects. Opera Theatre’s New Works, Bold Voices project has commissioned the 2013 opera Champion, by Terrence Blanchard (about a gay boxer), 2014’s “27,” by Ricky Ian Gordon (about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas) and now Shalimar. The company also produced a restaging of John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, about an act of Palestinian terrorism that left a wheelchair-bound Jewish man dead—a subject thatcaused controversy at the work’s premiere in 1991 and again when the Met staged it in 2014.

Opera Theatre’s general director, Timothy O’Leary, sees topical and politically complex opera as part of the company’s mission. “We are interested in works that deal with meaningful issues to our culture today,” he says. “And that often means dealing with things that are not comfortable, that are not at a safe distance. But I hasten to add that this is something we have pursued very thoughtfully—that risk is inherent to creative success, but risk has to be understood and contemplated. We don’t just pursue risk and let the chips fall where they may.”

The company has prepared a robust protocol of community engagement before opening night. That includes having the composer and librettist participate in public interfaith events, and private receptions that include a diverse range of local religious leaders. The company plans public panels and social mixers, all with an eye to creating awareness and sympathy for the opera’s message before its premiere. O’Leary says that he doesn’t consider the subject of Shalimar as primarily a religious one: “As much as this story resonates with current events, one message we will emphasize in our community conversations is that Shalimar is not motivated by religion. In his case—as it is, I think, in many real-world examples—it is personal loss and despair, which then becomes obsessive rage.”  

Even so, there are risks involved. Asked what he would do if there was a major terrorist event on the eve of the premiere, O’Leary said, “We think about all contingencies.” Pressed on the ugly hypothetical, he answered: “Artistic expression and bringing people together to experience works of art is one of the most important things that we do as a people, so we would never take a decision like that lightly. But I have trouble imaging a scenario wherein we would not go forward.”

Perla’s sense that the book had operatic potential is echoed by his collaborators. “Rushdie’s novels are operatic in their nature,” says Joseph. Robinson adds, “Rushdie always thought about Shalimar as his most operatic book.”


WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Verdi insisted that the essence of an operatic subject was strongly defined characters and intense, violent conflicts. Shalimar provides both. But the word “operatic” has become lazy shorthand for anything that strikes contemporary audiences as melodramatic. And Shalimar is decidedly not that. It belongs to a new and evolving meaning of “operatic” that encompasses works such as The Death of Klinghoffer, and Steve Reich’s Cave. And now, one can add Blanchard’s Champion and Perla’s Shalimar. Operatic, in this sense, is more than drama on the boil; it is drama with a purpose—drama that can function only through the multivalent, polyphonic possibilities of music. spacer 

Philip Kennicott , chief art and architecture critic for The Washington Post,received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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