Writers, Opera, and Chitra Divakaruni’s River of Light

March 21, 2014, by

RIVER-art-newWhen we think of writers and the different mediums through which they share stories, we think of novels, memoirs, poems, perhaps even oral traditions. But do you ever think of opera?

Houston has a thriving literary community and one of the many ways writers are enhancing the cultural life of this city is through serving as librettists for the Houston Grand Opera.

The comingling of writers with the Opera has been going on for several years and Inprint is proud to be a part of it. In 2006, the Houston Grand Opera approached Inprint to identify a Houston writer who could develop and write a unique libretto for a main stage piece celebrating Houston’s diversity. The overall project was called “Song of Houston,” and the piece—for soloists, chorus, and orchestra—was called The Refuge. The writer was to spend months interviewing dozens of people in six different Houston immigrant communities, and then distill these stories into a libretto portraying the struggles to get to this country and adjust to life here in the United States. Inprint recommended Leah Lax, a UH Creative Writing Program (UH CWP) alumna, on the basis of her work teaching senior citizens for Inprint, and the piece was a great success, resulting in a major write-up in The New York Times.

Since then, Inprint has connected HGO with several Houston writers who have written libretti for original works commissioned by HGO, including Farnoosh Moshiri (The Bricklayer), Irene Keliher (A Way Home, a bilingual opera), Janine Joseph (From my Mother’s Mother), and Bao Long Chu (Bound)—all UH CWP alumni. Inprint also worked with the HGO staff to select Houston writers to teach writing workshops to senior citizens in the Third and Fifth Wards, which resulted in poems set to music by composers at UH and Rice—these teachers were also UH CWP graduate students. As a result of this partnership, Inprint Executive Director Rich Levy now serves on the HGO Community Outreach (HGOco) Committee, where he is helping the HGO staff to envision future collaborations with Houston area writers.

Now HGO is building on its success and continues to work with the city’s top writers.

As part of its Song of Houston: East + West series, HGOco is presenting River of Light with the libretto written by Houston writer Chitra Divakaruni. Amongst the literary community here, Chitra is a household name. Chitra, an American Book Award winner and faculty member at the UH Creative Writing Program, is the author of novels, short stories, and poems, including her latest novel Oleander Girl.

ChitraChitra was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about River of Light, her involvement, and the writing process.

INPRINT: You’ve written novels, short stories, poetry. What was it like writing a libretto? Was the writing process very different?

CHITRA: Yes, the writing process for the libretto was totally different. For one, I had to take into account that each line would be embellished by music. The composer Jack Perla (with whom it was a joy to work) gave me a great piece of advice up front. He said, “Think short and skinny!” I had to make sure each line was short enough that he could then work his magic with music. I had to condense the entire story, while still developing a conflict, climax and a resolution. What helped me a great deal was listening to a number of operas and reading other librettos. And the fact that I also write poetry.

INPRINT: Can you tell us a little about the story without giving too much away? Is it based on anything you’ve previously written or experienced yourself?

CHITRA: At the heart of River of Light is the immigration experience, which is such a big part of the American experience. That is also my personal experience, moving from India via California to Houston. But Meera’s story is different from mine. She is already a self-assured, professional woman when she arrives in America (I was a callow student), and she loves being a Houstonian. It is only when she suddenly finds herself pregnant that she begins to worry about how she will pass on her culture to her baby. I guess that last part is something I struggle with, too, as a mother.

At the heart of River of Light is the immigration experience, which is such a big part of the American experience. That is also my personal experience, moving from India via California to Houston. But Meera’s story is different from mine.

INPRINT: Have you been involved with all stages of the production, giving advice on the set designs, the costumes, attending rehearsals?

CHITRA: Yes, HGO, the wonderful director Loren Meeker and the fabulous music director David Hanlon have involved me throughout the process, from an early design meeting to going over the pronunciations of Indian words, to character interpretation. I’ve been attending rehearsals, and it’s quite surreal and marvelous to hear the words I wrote sung so beautifully.

INPRINT: What do you hope Houston audiences take away from this experience?

CHITRA: First, the sheer beauty of the production. The set is amazing, with a chandelier and cut out backdrops and Indian fabrics and shadow puppets and Indian dancers–and more that I don’t want to give away!

Second, the amazing blend of Indian and Western classical music. There will be sitar and tabla in addition to western instruments.

Finally, a unique vision of what it means to be Houstonian, and how we do it in so many ways. This opera is a celebration of diverse cultures coming together in love, solving thorny problems and sharing their heritages with each other.


Sunday, March 23, 3pm
Sri Meenakshi Temple Auditorium

Tuesday, March 25, 11am
Ripley House Neighborhood Center

Saturday, March 29, 7:30 pm
Sunday, March 30, 2pm
Asia Society Texas Center

For more information and tickets click here.

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