Opera Theatre to stage double-bill production of “Always/Sāvitri”
The Opera Theatre will present “Always/Sāvitri” as its first live show since the start of the pandemic and its first ever performance of a Black composer’s work.
Courtesy of Jacqueline Kaskel
The Opera Theatre of Yale College, or OTYC, will stage a double-bill production of “Always” by Jonathan Bailey Holland and “Sāvitri” by Gustav Holst as its annual starter show.
“Always/Sāvitri” will take place on Oct. 9 and sets itself apart from past starter shows in several ways. It will occur in the Crescent Underground Theater instead of the usual starter show location of a residential college common room. The show also encompasses two operas in one production. Lastly, “Always” makes history as the first opera by a Black composer performed live by the OTYC.
“We chose these two operas to juxtapose [each other] because they’re so incredibly different,” producer Jacqueline Kaskel ’24 said. “One of them was written by a Black American composer. The other one was written by a British composer, but about a South Asian culture. There’s a lot of differences in their cultural backgrounds, but the love stories they discuss are universal.”
“Always” chronicles the transformation of protagonists Ellen and Joe’s relationship, contrasting its naive beginning with its bitter end. The same characters are each played by two different actors — one portraying the character at the relationship’s start and the other playing their future counterpart. According to cast member Alex Whittington ’22, the relationship’s initial and final realities are intertwined, creating “compelling dialogue between these two characters across their lifetimes.”
“Sāvitri” recounts the story of a woman named Sāvitri and her husband Satyavān from the Sanskrit epic “The Mahābhārata.” When Death arrives to claim Satyavān, Sāvitri persuasively bargains for his life.
While the theme of love under duress links the two operas, they are sonically and temporally disparate. Composed in 2016, “Always” is a modern opera that diverges from the typical musical convention of tonality — which is the overall sound a piece has based on the key it is played in — and captures different moods within Ellen and Joe’s relationship. “Sāvitri,” which was composed in 1909, features a slower and more traditional melody.
“Always” feels like a new era of opera we’re getting into, where a strict concept of tonality is abandoned,” Whittington said. “The music between Joe One and Ellen One is very lush and romantic, and the music between Joe Two and Ellen Two is more disjointed and chromatic.”
Conversely, “Sāvitri” contains motifs of death and loss, and features an appropriately “beautiful, haunting melody,” according to director Isha Brahmbhatt ’24.
Despite occupying two distinct stylistic realms, both operas reflect the OTYC’s effort to diversify its repertoire. “Always” will be the first opera by a Black composer put on by the OTYC. Last year, the OTYC held a virtual gala of works by Black composer William Grant Still, but “Always” breaks ground as its first live performance of a Black composer’s work. By representing South Asian culture, “Sāvitri” also brings a historically excluded story to the stage, Kaskel explained.
“Sāvitri”’s composer Holst was a British man, but Brahmbhatt noted that her directorship seeks to reclaim the epic from his appropriation. She incorporates unrepresented elements of the original story into the opera in an effort to present Indian culture in the most authentic way. By creating a more accurate portrait of the source material, she aims to pay equal respect to the individual beauty of both “The Mahābhārata” and of opera itself.
“We had really rich stories in ancient cultures which were brutally stolen by colonizers, and now people of color like me get to reclaim those stories.” Brahmbhatt said. “But also, I pay my respect to the beauty of opera itself. Opera is a European creation, and I want to preserve its beauty without forgetting that the story was originally an ancient Indian text, not a European one.”
The OTYC’s move to diversify its repertoire was implemented with little fanfare, but was thoughtfully deliberated. Last year, the OTYC instituted a Repertoire Research Committee in order to cast its focus outside the traditional opera canon. The committee researches and pitches works from contemporary composers such as Holland and broadly seeks to amplify stories not commonly portrayed in opera.
“Last year we were going through a lot of internal reflection and we wanted to implement policies that make our productions more accessible and far reaching,” director Nikhil Harle ’23 said.
Whittington voiced their support for this change, calling it “critical to the longevity of the institution as a collegiate opera organization” and “exhilarating.” “Always/Sāvitri” will act as the first production in this new repertoire that has been “so lacking from the history of the institution,” Whittington noted.
The Crescent Underground Theater is located in Morse College.