A Russian touch to make Indians sing opera

Nadya V Balyan, a Delhi-based Russian choir conductor, spends her time promoting and nurturing the culture of academic choir singing in India.
Balyan 1
Nadya V Balyan has been living in India for past decade. Source:Alexandra Katz

While being known for having an ear for music, Indians rarely study Western classical music the same way they study and practice Indian classical music. This is more evident when it comes to choir singing of opera and Western sacred music. Nadya V Balyan, a choir conductor from the Russian city of Tula, who has been living in India for past decade, is challenging this trend with her own approach to choral conducting and singing.

Talking to RIR during her recent tour to Mumbai with The Neemrana Music Foundation Choir which she has been training for the past few years, Balyan said her professional path as a music teacher and a choir conductor in India started about eight year ago. Before moving to India with her family in 2006, Nadya, a graduate of Dzezhinsky College of Music, Tula and Moscow State University of Culture & Arts, worked as a music teacher and choir conductor in her home town.

She was appointed head of the Music School of the Russian Cultural centre in New Delhi in 2008. She moved on to work as choir conductor for the City Choir Minstrels (CCM) and later joined the Delhi Chamber Choir in 2011.

Nadya has been associated since 2013 with the Neemrana Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization aiming to promote opera in India and promoting musical education as well as awarding scholarships to Indian musicians to study in India or abroad. The Neemrana Foundation, founded by the late Francis Wacziarg and now managed by his daughter Priya Aude Wacziarg, is a part of the Neemrana Hotels group known for restoring some of India's historical properties into modern day heritage hotels.

Source: Alexandra KatzSource: Alexandra Katz

Over the past few years, Nadya has trained The Neemrana Music Foundation Choir to perform in several operas staged by the Foundation in India and abroad. These include such operas as Charles Gounod's Romeo &Juliet and Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo. She admits that the lack of a formal system of music education in India has always be a major worry for her in working with Indian choirs.

Trained  within the robust and time-tested music educational system of Russia that comprises seven years of elementary education (music school), four year of secondary education (music college) and five year of higher education (music conservatory), Balyan now has to work with choirs where some people do not read sheet music.

"This is something that one cannot imagine in Russia. But in India a lot of people are gifted with a great ear for music or a good voice, even though they do not know how to read (western) musical notes. Sometimes, I have to sing the melody of each choir section (choirs generally consist of four voice sections – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass - RIR) or record them in order to make choir singers remember the scores," Balyan says.

Using English, Hindi and sometimes even Russian to explain the way music should be understood and sung by the choir, Balyan is very innovative in her work.

"It is not that easy to explain what I am expecting from the singers because our backgrounds, our cultures and even our musical education and experience are so different. But I have managed to find the way," she says. "Very often, to explain what the music that we sing is all about, I find examples in Ramayana, Mahabharata or Indian movies and even daily life. Take Romeo and Juliet, for example: families are against the marriage of lovers because they belong to different castes!"

Source: Alexandra KatzSource: Alexandra Katz

Balyan and several other Russian musicians living in Delhi are now planning to set up a music school or studio based on the principles of the traditional Russian music education system. The students will not only learn to play an instrument of their choice or sing, but will also study solfeggio, theory, harmony, composition, chamber music and choir, and give exams at the end of each year of studies.

"We are now exploring the possibilities of affiliation with any of the established musical education institutions in Russia. This way we could provide tour Indian students an officially recognized certificate upon completion of the course," Balyan said, adding that India, too, is slowly moving to establish official standards of Western classical music education.

Return of the Opera

Balyan's latest project with The Neemrana Choir was ‘Opera Gala’, an opera concert organized by the Neemrana Music Foundation and the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation at the recently opened Royal Opera House in Mumbai. Opera Gala was the first programme staged at the Royal Opera House after its restoration. The programme featured arias from famous operas, including Handel's "Poro, King of India", Vinci's “Vil trofeo”, Bizet's  “The Pearl Fishers” and Rimsky-Korsakov's “Sadko” among others.

Built in 1909, the Opera House was inaugurated in 1911 by King George V, and used strictly for staging operas until the 1930s, when low demand for opera made its owners modify the hall to accommodate movie screenings and fashion shows. The Opera House was acquired by Vikramsinhji, the Maharaja of Gondal (a province in Gujarat) in 1952. Since the 1980s, however, the theatre lay idle until Vikramsinhji’s son Jyotendrasinhji Jadeja commissioned its restoration in 2010.

The Royal Opera House Mumbai has hosted operas and live performance of artists like Bal Gandharva, Prithviraj Kapoor, Dinanath Mangeshkar and Lata Mangeshkar. It is quite possible that Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian prima ballerina, could have performed on the same stage during her tour to India in 1923, as there are records of her performances in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta.

Although opera has never really been a popular genre in India, the reopening of the historical Opera House in Mumbai and the management’s plans to attract world-class opera producers, may soon witness a new trend. Ashish Doshi, Director of the Royal Opera House, said the theatre would not stage its own operas but serve as a venue for various ceremonies, shows, as well as theatre and opera productions.

Asked about plans to being a Russian opera to Mumbai, Doshi said such discussions were taking place with the Russian Cultural Centre in Mumbai and the Russian consulate. The Opera House would welcome proposals from opera producers.

For Nadya Balyan and the Neemrana choir, staging a Russian opera in India has long been a cherished dream. 

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