‘Arjuna’s Dilemma’ is a chamber opera constituted of the unlikely combination of jazz, vocals inspired by Byzantine and Gregorian chants, and the Bhagavad Gita – with a libretto that ranges from English to Sanskrit. It is one of those pieces of music that reviewers like to term eclectic. Douglas J Cuomo, the composer, fills Venetia Ansell in on the background to the piece.
28th July 2008
Douglas Cuomo lives in New York and is best known for composing the theme tune to ‘Sex and the City’. He’s not your obvious candidate for a musical expression of Hinduism’s most sacred text, but a background in jazz and an interest in philosophy go some way to explaining why he conceived and composed ‘Arjuna’s Diliemma’. For Douglas, there is a sharp division between what he terms “my own work” and the television and film music which earns him a living. ‘Arjuna’s Dilemma’ is clearly very much the former, and not only that – it is, he says, also his most ambitious work to date. In part, because of the musical challenges involved but also because it’s such philosophically nuanced material. He emphasises though that he’s not trying to put forth his own particular interpretation of the Gita – “as a Western musician I’m simply not qualified to do that” – but rather make his audience think about the questions the text poses.
‘Arjuna’s Dilemma’ was conceived when Douglas started looking for a suitable text with which to “express the ecstatic in music, and explore religious and philosophical questions”. His desire to use a North Indian singer led him to the Gita, with which he was cursorily familiar. Further study made him realise that much of the text “chimed with my own thoughts on philosophy” and he decided to experiment with both the text and the singer in a Western context. Douglas believes that the Bhagavad Gita contains many universal ideas, applicable beyond a Hindu or Indian context – “but of course I don’t purport to understand it completely – it’s so nuanced and layered”.
And the unusual choice of opera, the West’s most high-brow art form, to present this piece? “I was trying to translate my philosophical understanding of the text into some kind of musical expression, and I latched onto the idea that Krishna is in all things, that everything is in fact one.” This unity in diversity Douglas wanted to express by bringing together disparate musical forms and creating a whole. He doesn’t feel that the ‘Westernness’ of opera should be a barrier to its lending itself to other cultures, although of course true opera can only ever be Western. “The definition of opera is less clear now – I think it can, or should be able to, absorb other cultural practices and traditions.” Indeed for Douglas, at a time when non-Western cultural influences are becoming so important, this is one way of making opera more vital.
The music has been performed once already, but is due to be staged as a full-blown opera in August in Purchase, NY, and then at the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn, NY. “Music can at times convey what words can’t”, so where the text moves beyond language, the ‘darshanam’ (vision) of Krishna, the music too climaxes and is at its most angst-ridden and emotional. The visual representation of this though is more potentially dangerous – how do you convey “what is more wonderful and horrific than what we can conceive”? For the staging there will be a simple and slow projection, says Douglas, nothing too ambitious. Much of the Bhagavad Gita, though, is essentially a conversation between Krishna and Arjun – not exactly high drama. But for Douglas the dramatic situation of this mid-battlefield crisis of conscience, and the “internal drama” suffice. “This isn’t a traditional opera in that it’s not narrative-driven, it’s more a meditative exploration.”
Douglas has been greatly encouraged by its reception so far, both among Americans as well as the Hindu community. Of course, it’s a very different experience for a New York audience, most of whom won’t know or even be aware of the Bhagavad Gita, as compared to those who have grown up with the Gita. For the stateside audience, he wants to “transport” them, and there are stage notes and so on to orient them. He hopes too that Hindus around the world will embrace it – “It’s respectful I hope and I’m not pretending to be an expert”. He would love to have it staged in India, and hopes that once it’s premiered this might just become a reality.
The world premiere of ‘Arjuna’s Dilemma’ is on August 22-24 at the Pepsico Theatre, Purchase, NY. The New York premiere will take place at the BAM Next Wave Festival on November 5, 7, 8 in Brooklyn, NY.
To listen to an excerpt click here: