PORTLAND, Ore. — For once, the soprano survives.
Different from many operas where the tragic and transgressive soprano dies, Thumbprint’s heroine lives. Portland Opera’s current production tells the real-life story of Mukhtar Mai (soprano Samina Aslam), the Pakistani woman who chooses life over traditionally shame-induced suicide after she is gang-raped for a supposed “honor” crime.
In order to “restore order” and to compensate for her younger brother’s alleged sex crime involving a girl from the Mastoi tribe, Mukhtar’s effort is nightmarishly turned into a four-man, tribe-sanctioned rape. The role of the arrogant Faiz, who runs the Mastoi show, is performed by rising-star tenor Alok Kumar, who skillfully juggles several roles. Each singer, other than the protagonist, sings several parts, underlining that Thumbprint is neither a big nor elaborate production, though it carries a huge human-rights message. Portland Opera’s four-performance run through March 26 at the Newmark Theatre marks only the fifth time the work has been produced in the nine years after its 2014 premiere at New York City’s Nagelberg Theatre.
In this 90-minute piece (seen March 18), Susan Yankowitz’s poetic libretto and Kamala Sankaram’s Indian-influenced fusion music mesh masterfully. Every character is Muslim, so no racial or religious issues fuel the conflict. But a class/caste power struggle does exist. The Mastoi are rich landowners in Pakistan’s Punjab province, and Mukhtar’s family belongs to a poor clan. “Truth dies in the mouth of power,” Mukhtar’s family sings.
Though Mukhtar is illiterate, unmarried, 30 years old (the opera does not reveal her age), and devastated for her family’s honor after the rape, she pursues her rapists, after a lot of hesitation, by going to the police with the encouragement of her family and of her imam (tenor Omar Najmi, who also plays several other roles). At the opera’s pivotal point, she is given courage and a heavy-duty buck-up talk by her mother (well-cast soprano Indira Mahajan), who helps her find strength when Mukhtar considers ending her life. “Remember your name!” the mother sings. Mukhtar means self-respecting, strong.
Not knowing how to read or write, or that Pakistan has a constitution, she puts her thumbprint on documents to start the legal process. The Mastoi tribe criminals, which include two elders, are sentenced to death, and at the end of the opera, Mukhtar starts a school for girls with a measly check she is given by the government. This starts her on her journey of human-rights activism, still going on today.
It was 2002 when the rape took place, and global news paid attention when the trial occurred. Where did she get the courage to speak out? she was asked by reporters. “Someone has to be the first drop,” she sings. “… One voice sings, thousands hear the song.”
Several multi-talented artists contributed to the opera. Composer Sankaram is also a coloratura soprano. In Thumbprint, she gives Mukhtar a role in which her voice grows stronger and stronger. At the beginning, she sings mostly in ensembles, especially with her mother and sister Annu (soprano Leela Subramaniam). As the opera builds, she hits high and then higher notes, embellishes them, and eventually proves herself a stage-stealing star. “The opera is about voice,” Sankaram explained during a pre-performance talk, “and how Mukhtar finds her voice.”
With an Indian father and American mother, Sankaram studied European music and spent eight years learning the sitar. (She also has an eclectic music group called Bombay Rickey.) Thumbprint, she said, is “a fusion of two traditions,” blending raga-based music with European harmony, though little harmony comes through in the men’s singing. She adds clapping, part of Southeast Asian musical tradition, and repetitive chanting that surfaces as haunting background music. Instruments include a Western drum kit as well as a tabla, a piano, harmonium, flute and strings in an ensemble that plays onstage, partially hidden by a scrim constructed of material that resembles slender bamboo pieces. Maria Badstue, who was adopted from India and grew up in Copenhagen, conducted. Her pacing was deliberate and painstakingly respectful of the score. The performance began with five minutes of silence, making the music even more dramatic when it finally began.
Shaped by New York-based design collective dots, the clever set incorporated a bi-level design. Domestic life goes on below, and crimes and confrontation happen above. Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia efficiently manages to move a cast whose members morph into various characters up and down the stairs, behind and in front of the scrim, without singers colliding. And to add to the action, two dancers (Priya Judge and Sitara Razaqi Lones) cover the stage with movements choreographed by Portlander Subashini Ganesan-Forbes. They brought an expressionistic dimension, though some dance cynics might say they were a distraction and easy enough to ignore.
Mukhtar’s story is far from over, though she has already become a symbol of hope for oppressed women. Her website is down and we wonder why, and the Pakistani government has limited her travel and appearances. Ultimately the lower court called the gang-rape an act of terrorism, and after years of legal wrangling and appeals, her rapists were eventually acquitted. The opera does not go there; it stops with the first conviction.
Rape is a crime that many surviving women are fearful to report, and for which many men have not been punished — all over the world — not just in Southeast Asia. As Sankaram said in her talk, despite Mukhtar’s work and story, the world remains in a sorry state for women’s rights and humanity.