'Shalimar the Clown:' In Praise of Courage

By Raphael Maurice
In Culture

It’s an easy thing to praise well-done, classical operas coming from Puccini, Strauss, Gounod, et. al, but I have to say that when something new comes along, such as Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ “Shalimar the Clown,” and when you’re stricken with gooseflesh and your proverbial hat is blown off by the end of the performance, you’ve entered a place of risk and danger and beauty that defies unreasonable cynicism that assumes there is nothing new under the sun.

Sean Panikkar as Shalimar in Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, adapted from the novel by Salman Rushdie, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2016. © Ken Howard, 2016

Sean Panikkar as Shalimar in Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, adapted from the novel by Salman Rushdie, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2016. © Ken Howard, 2016

 

Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph have taken Salman Rushdie’s splendid novel and turned it into the best opera—again, something new and dangerous—that I’ve seen in several years of watching and listening. The performances and set design were breathtaking—truly giving into the scope of Rushdie’s vision in the book. And yes, by all means go and purchase “Shalimar the Clown” after or before attending OTSL’s courageous triumph.

I got to shake hands with Rushdie—who has been inconvenienced, shall we say, by his criticisms of religions and writings and defense of free expression, all these things having a history that was defended and fought for and are as precious as ever—and my body relaxed as if I’d just gotten a massage. I’m not trying to come off as a fan-boy, he just has a really great aura and grip.

I can only commend OTSL and everyone involved with this particular production for having the grit, bravery and sense to carry through with the project of the opera. Along the manicured lawns of OTSL and under the white tents afterwards, I still was reeling from the violence, density, and power of “Shalimar the Clown” in its musical form. I began reading the novel three days ago, and can only say that if there is an objective correlative to it, it’s this wonderful rendition in songs and action. Bravo.

I don’t care to go into specific singers and performers within “Shalimar the Clown.” Rather, it seems best to praise the entirety of the cast and orchestra and set designers, etc., because although Sean Panikkar and Adriana Chruchman and the rest of the group sing to a pitch of power and grace, the opera was seamless and truly felt as if everything and everyone were working in a sort of ethereal connection. It all came together, moving from scenes in LA to Kashmir to murders in limousines, from peace and joy to war and strife. OTSL took on a great deal of pressure to debut this work and again we should all attend and share the danger and joy that is “Shalimar the Clown.” And the opera is damned pleasing to hear, a strange and arresting series of songs that forces one to close the eyes and listen to something other-worldly.  Bravo.

To talk plot in light of “Shalimar” is truly to spoil this masterpiece for anyone who is thinking of attending. Reflecting back on the opera, after speed-reading the novel, I am in awe of the transfer from text to libretto to music to stage. The sights and set-design alone were riveting.

It’s one thing to see, say, Puccini done perfectly, which OTSL has done this season.  It’s quite another to witness an actual world premiere of something that surpasses the old classical operas, given the freshness, the alterity and risk involved. If you have not seen “Shalimar the Clown,” it’s a pity.  Don’t miss it.  That is really all I can say, and to the audiences and to OTSL, a resounding bravo from this typewriter, a resounding gratefulness that they have had the aesthetic smarts and political chutzpa to follow through with this.  Bravo.

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