Thursday, March 23, 2023

Portland Opera’s “Thumbprint” elevates the human spirit with the story of Muktar Mai

Alok Kumar, Omar Najmi, Indira Mahajan, Neil Balfour, Sitara Razaqi Lones, Priya Judge, Samina Aslam, and Leela Subramaniam | Photo by Christine Dong/Portland Opera.

Portland Opera’s opening night of “Thumbprint” is still reverberating between my earlobes. The production that I experienced on March 18 at the Newmark Theatre presented the rarest of operas because a terrible event does not end up in a full-blown tragedy; instead, it leads to a life-enhancing outcome that continues to lift people’s lives today.

Based on the true-life story of Mukhtar Mai, a peasant from rural Pakistan, “Thumbprint,” written by Kamala Sankaram with a libretto by Susan Yankowitz, tells how Mai stood up for herself after being gang-raped by a wealthy and powerful clan. Although her culture demanded that she submit to shame and commit suicide, Mai found the inner strength and courage to fight back against those who abused her. She took them to court and astoundingly won, which reversed a centuries old tradition. Mai, who received world-wide attention from the press, then received settlement money from the government and started a school to teach girls how to read and write instead of using their thumbprint to sign documents.

The opera opened with expressions of joy and hopefulness of Mai and her family before she was violated by members of the Mustai clan. The men of the Mustai repeated words (“Honor”) and phrases about tradition in an attempt to wear Mai down and assert their superiority. They laughed derisively when Mai went to the police, but were absolutely stunned when she won, and as they sank into the background Mai, encouraged and embolden by her victory, soared higher and higher with renewed purpose.

This powerful opera, directed with insightful clarity by Omer Ben Seadia, hit a trifecta of thrilling performances from the singers, dancers, and orchestral musicians. And that was complemented by evocative scenery and lighting to mesmerize the audience for 90 minutes straight.

Sankaram created a unique blend of Hindustani and European music that suggested Pakistani culture in a way that was easy for outsiders like me to grasp. Sankaram shifted between intoxicating rhythmic patterns – some of which involved the musicians in syncopated clapping and chants. Sankaram made excellent use of the double bass to express the lowest points in the story. Among many stirring passages one of the most poignant was when the flute accompanied Mai and her father on the ill-fated journey to meet the rival clan.

Leela Subramaniam as Annu, Indira Mahajan as Mother, and Samina Aslam as Mukhtar Ma | Photo by Christine Dong/Portland Opera.

As Mukhtar Mai, soprano Samina Aslam conveyed a heavy load of emotion, overcoming a wasteland of shame with an inspiring sense of self-worth and determination. Soprano Indira Mahajan in the role of the Mother, fiercely ignited Mukhtar with a palpable sense of urgency. Leela Subramaniam’s brilliant soprano soared with hope and innocence as Mukhtar’s sister Annu. The softness of Neil Balfour’s bass-baritone wonderfully suited the gentle Father.
Alok Kumar as Faiz | Photo by Christine Dong/Portland Opera.

Tenor Alok Kumar gave a standout performance as Faiz, the leader of the Mastoi clan. His declamatory voice was filled with no-nonsense conviction that was grounded in a belief that tradition must not be changed. Lyric tenor Omar Najmi pleaded convincingly as a remorseful Shakur. Sitara Razaqui Lones and Priya Judge deftly heightened the drama with emotive dancing that never seemed intrusive thanks to the sensitive choreography of Subashini Ganesan-Forbes.

Conductor Maria Badstue, in her American debut, impressively guided the chamber orchestra, while giving precise cues to the singers. This was easy to notice because the ensemble was on the stage rather than in the very small orchestra pit of the theater.

The straight-forward set design by dots, a New York-based design collective, was versatile enough to suggest all of the locations in the story with the bare minimum of props. The plain exterior of a building made of clay had platforms on its left and right sides with stairways leading to an upper area that represented the home of the Matsoi. Huge constructs of see-through curtains served almost like veils – metaphorically expressing the unwritten customs of that part of the world, and when the curtain-veils were lifted at the end of the opera, you could feel a sense of relief.

Joe Beumer’s lighting terifically enhanced the scenery and the traditional costumes designed by Kara Harmon.

Even though this opera addresses with the subject of rape in one part of the world, it speaks to a problem that is happens all too often everywhere, and that is a very sad state for humanity.

On a final, positive note, one extraordinary feature of this production was its diversity. All of the performers, the conductor, and the choreographer were of South Asian descent. That might be a first for the world of opera and definitely puts a feather in the cap of Portland Opera, whose Artistic Director, Priti Gandhi, has Indian heritage.

Neil Balfour as Father, Omar Najmi as Shakur, principal dancer Sitara Razaqi Lones, principal dancer Priya Judge, and Leela Subramaniam as Annu | Photo by Christine Dong/Portland Opera.


After the performance, I asked Sankaram, who plays sitar, why she had not added that instrument to the orchestration. She replied that sitars cannot change keys. So, she would have needed ten sitars for "Thumbprint."

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