When Greg Mitchell agreed to come to Nepal and design Arjuna’s Dilemma, the first Western style opera produced in Nepal, he was entering a world of South Asian arts and culture largely unknown to him. Although an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Santa Barbara, with hundreds of design credits in regional, off Broadway, Broadway and international theatre and opera, Mitchell had never been to Nepal. In a planning visit in January 2016, he first viewed the magnificent wooden and stone carvings and statues of Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the opera will be performed and, as we say in American slang, “was blown away.”
Arjuna’s Dilemma, a 70 minute fusion opera by the American composer Douglas J. Cuomo, tells the ancient story of Arjuna’s great hesitation to go to war with his kinsmen, with text from the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Kabir, sung in Sanskrit, Hindi and English. With Stage Direction by Deborah Merola, Artistic Director of the Kathmandu based One World Theatre, and Music Direction by Maestro Jonathan Khuner, Assistant Conductor and Prompter at the San Francisco Opera and the Met, Mitchell is joined by other American Guest Artists, including the international opera singers Roy Stevens and Annalisa Winberg, and the outstanding live sound designer Lucy Peckam.
But it is primarily to the young people of Nepal to whom Mitchell is turning to more fully understand and realize this project. His early conception of the set was to use local bamboo to create platforms and central stairs, while highlighting the carvings, Shivalinga and statue of Shiva’s bull on the stone stage of the Bhitri Chowk, where the opera will perform. (There is a low cost Preview on September 1 for the neighborhood residents of Patan Dubar Square; a Gala Reception and International Premiere on September 2, planned as a Benefit for ongoing earthquake reconstruction at the Patan Museum; and public performances at 7 pm September 3 through September 11, 2016. (No performance on Tuesday, September 6 for the opera singers to rest their voices). In a special attempt to reach out to young people, at every performance there will be 60 student tickets sold at Rs 200 for floor seating with a great front view of the stage, and a presold Special Student Matinee on Wednesday, September 7 (with no evening performance that day).
Mitchell also is committed to use local theatre workers to build the structures that will preserve and highlight the fragile structures of the existing buildings and to hire local vendors for light and sound equipment. As the Scenographer explained to the rapt eight One World Theatre actors in the Ensemble and Rajkumar Pudasaini, who embodies Krishna, and Salil Subedi, who plays Arjuna, Mitchell imagines a set with added, even hidden objects and totems that the actors can create, add to the set and use. Interestingly, in an improvisation, Merola already asked the actors to imagine returning to their damaged and destroyed homes after the earthquake and finding a random object, a child’s shoe, a torn photograph, or an object like a brooch that was meaningful to them.
Mitchell also wanted to invite talented young Nepali artists and artisans to create their own original art to be added to the set. At a full production meeting, the theatre workers fingered the beautiful model of the set and began to imagine their own contributions. Sagan Thapa Magar was asked to bring the amazing masks he created for the OWT production of Yerma and together the mask maker and actors came up with the idea of a mask making workshop that created the different faces of Lord Krishna. Kabi Raj Lama, whose recent show “From Tokyo to Kathmandu” combined contemporary lithographs on stone using ancient methods, was asked to show his new series created after the 2015 Twin earthquakes when he found shattered icons of Shivalinga in temple spaces.
At the suggestion of Sangeeta Thapa, Director of the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Greg Mitchell met with the Sujan Chitrakar from the Art Department of Kathmandu University, who will introduce him to many students’ artists. Kurchi Dasgupta, visual artist and art critic, suggested other names of promising artists who would like to contribute.
Already Kalsang Lama, a wonderful Studio 7 and One World Theatre actor, and a much praised costume designer for OWT productions, including of The Seagull, Yerma, and Anna in the Tropics, has come on as an Associate Costume Designer. There is great talent in Nepal, but for young artists to not only get employment, but high level training in set, lighting, sound, and costume design is a real gift. Mitchell and the other American and European Guest Artists in turn feel gifted by the generous sharing of cultural knowledge, art traditions, and skills from Nepal.
Design is not the only area of the Arjuna’s Dilemma production in which young Nepali theatre workers are being invited in. The One World Theatre Company makes a practice to introduce acting interns who in a sense work their way up to more and more prominent roles. So Amrit Dalit, who began as a walk-on in In the Red and Brown Water, went on to a featured part in The Laramie Project, is now a full ensemble member, showing the dance training he has received from Alize Biannic, who dances Arjuna’s bow Gandiva in Arjuna’s Dilemma, and the recent Sushila Arts Production of Ruslan’s Amazing Adventure. Amrit is joining a very senior ensemble that features the female ensemble Aruna Karki, Shanti Giri, Pashupati Rai, and Srijana Adhikari, and the Utpal Jha, Hemanta Chalise and Hum B.C.
The revered Indian classical singer Gurudev Kamat, who sings the voice of Krishna, has an understudy Sudesh Subedi; the Tabla players Jagannath Dhaugoda is also from Nepal and Subhan Khan from India were trained at the Indian Cultural Centre. Even our two interns, Stage Manager Carolina Stevens from Southern Oregon University, and film student Annie Hope from Vassar College, are young artists-in-training and joining their Nepali peers in this amazing Arjuna’s Dilemma opera.
Intercultural communication and international collaboration are catch words in many project descriptions, but Greg Mitchell in his outreach, reliance and trust of young Nepali artists, and the entire team of junior and senior, world class and community, Nepali, Indian, American and European artists and artisans, this ideal is being put into wonderful practice.