As one of the key musicians behind a groundbreaking project to combine one of the world’s oldest operas with traditional Indian classical music, Shahbaz Hussain is uniquely qualified to assess the lessons we can all draw from such an enterprise.
Orpheus, which will be staged at the Lowry next Saturday, is an Opera North production which works with South Asian Arts-uk, a center of excellence for Indian classical music based in Leeds.
Monteverdi’s opera will be sung in Italian and Urdu, with additional sections sung in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali. There will be a full orchestra on stage as well as six of the UK’s finest Indian classical musicians.
“I think what this collaboration shows us is that music is universal; all that changes is the accent,” said Shahbaz, one of the country’s leading tabla (or hand drum) players. “In all areas of life there is a need for acceptance and tolerance and music is a great platform to show this to people. Among Indian classical musicians, we have Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus playing all the same music and then collaborating with orchestral musicians.
“It’s such a good platform for true harmony in every sense of the word.”
Work on the project began in 2019 but was disrupted by the pandemic.
“Wed held a series of workshops to see if we could find common ground between the two styles of music,” Shahbaz said. “It worked very well but unfortunately everything stopped.”
Discussions continued online about how to bring these two very different styles together and in August the musicians finally had the chance to work together in person.
“It was an amazing journey for me personally,” Shahbaz said. “I learned so much from all the musicians on both sides. It was an absolute honor.
“Once we walked into a room and spent some time rehearsing, it was only then that I realized the emotional impact this music could have on the audience.”
Orpheus has been performed several times in Leeds, the home of Opera North, and the reaction has surprised everyone involved.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Shahbaz said. “The audience loved it. In normal opera, applause between acts is rare, but it happens all the time. That’s a real indication of how it was received.
The collaboration has led to a diverse audience ranging from diehard opera fans to those who grew up with Indian classical music.
“We had a good mix of audiences in Leeds,” Shahbaz said, “and I think when we come to The Lowry we’ll have even more of a mix of different communities, which will be great.”
Shahbaz had words of comfort for opera-goers who might be unsure about the project.
“All the musicians and all the performers understood what it took to produce something like this,” he said. “We didn’t try to step on anyone’s toes, be it Monteverdi, the orchestra or the singers and vice versa. We all respected each other’s traditions and it shows in the performances. Our mission has been to bring two cultures together and have a common ground where different styles can flourish and be together.
As a professional musician, Shahbaz loved working with an orchestra and singers.
“The music required a certain approach which is different from my classical approach and I had to adapt my instrument accordingly. As far as Monteverdi is concerned, we have done our best not to touch this part of the opera. The only difference the audience will hear is Indian classical music intertwined with the original score.
“As far as the story goes, as a musician you have to be aware of what the singer is singing to play properly. I couldn’t do something really funky and upbeat if they’re singing about a bereavement.
“Fortunately, we have some of the most amazing musicians on both sides and in our time together over the last eight or nine weeks, we have really become like family. It’s such a pleasure to know them. . »
Orpheus, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Saturday 19 November. Details of www.thelowry.com