By guest blogger Rosie Sharp
It was quite the banner weekend for the arts in Detroit, and this blogger had the opportunity to attend two different performances, each of which informed the other in the most unexpected ways. The pinnacle of the weekend was Saturday night’s “Bollywood in the D” at the Music Hall Center for Performing Arts (a Knight Arts grantee). Produced and directed by Narendra J. Sheth, the concert proved to be an experience that was unexpectedly contextualized by the season-closing weekend at the Detroit Opera House, where I attended “I, Pagliacci” on Friday night.
On the surface, classic Italian opera might have little in common with Bollywood music — the live presentation of the original soundtracks to wildly popular Indian “Bollywood” musicals — but such rapid back-to-back immersion in the performances revealed their commonalities. Each represents a highly culturally specific performance medium (neither of which, it should be noted, is fully comprehensible to this blogger) and every master of their respective genre performs according to a highly codified system of gesture and vocal styling, drawing upon a musical tradition dating back centuries. Both performances took place in a foreign language, and were thus dependent on the expressive gifts of a set of truly virtuosic performers. In the case of “I, Pagliacci,” the banner performances included tenor John Pickle and soprano Jill Gardner who took the lead roles of Canio/Pagliacci, the original sad clown, and Nedda, his adulterous wife. “Bollywood in the D” had a breathtaking array of performers, featuring singers Pathiv Gohil and Sangeeta Katti Kulkarni, who flew in from India to rouse the crowd — largely sponsors and contingents of the show’s beneficiary, the Michigan Association of Physicians of Indian Origin — with their expressive rendition of classic and current Bollywood film scores, as well as the riveting Rujuta Joshi, Jonita Gandhi, percussions coordinator and fair Elvis impersonator Jay Antani, and an impressive cross-section of the Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Nan Harrison Washburn.
Indeed, it was the ensemble nature of “Bollywood in the D” that served to highlight an important difference between these two surprisingly similar performance genres. Between the extensive percussion section, the Philharmonic component, the live chorus, assorted rock band members and the sitar player, every “soloist” was performing against a backdrop of more than 60 people (the sheer coordination of components was truly awesome, and Mr. Sheth has a great deal to be proud of in his execution) — a clear embodiment of a collectivist culture. But the sad clown, tragic symbol of Western individualism (and perpetrator of heinous domestic violence), sings and weeps alone.
For that, “Bollywood in the D” takes the weekend’s top accolades, and I salute them on their resounding success in cultural fusion at its most chaotic, dynamic, and melodic.
Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts: 350 Madison St, Detroit; 313-887-8500; musichall.org