We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, January 13, 2014


Kamala Sankaram (photo by Carl Skutsch)
Presented by Prototype for their second annual festival of new chamber works, Thumbprint is a profoundly moving work dealing with social justice for women.  An illiterate peasant woman named Mukhtar converted a tragic event into an advantage for herself and other young women; composer Kamala Sankaram (performing the lead role herself) and librettist Susan Yankowitz have converted her story into a most effective work that is musically and dramatically valid.  If dramatic liberties were taken it matters not.  There is such a thing as dramatic truth and Thumbprint has it in spades.

Mukhtar is a Pakistani woman from a small village who does what women do in that culture.  She stays indoors with her mother and sister, embroidering and cooking.  The women discuss finding a good husband who won't beat them; mama tells them that they cannot expect a man to be attractive or young since they have no dowry.

Bad news arrives; their 12-year old brother has been accused by a girl from a wealthy powerful family of "touching" her.  That this is a falsehood is of no consequence.  As is said so poetically in the libretto "Truth dies in the mouth of power".  He will be whipped perhaps until death.  The family is told that their only recourse is for a woman of his family to go to the girl's family and beg for forgiveness.  This is apparently a trick.  Her pleas are ridiculed and she is raped by four men of the powerful family.  She survives by detachment in a heart-breaking aria "This is me; this is not me".  The consequence is that she is disgraced and shamed; the only avenue left to her is suicide, which is something such victims are encouraged to do.

But Mukhtar's mother will not accept this.  She reminds her daughter that Mukhtar means courage.  The girl goes where none of her kind have gone before, having also been encouraged by the local imam.  She goes to the police and the case is brought to trial.  The wealthy family defends their position as one of tradition.  If someone dishonors your daughter, you dishonor theirs!  It is difficult for us 21st c.  Westerners to believe that people still live by such archaic codes.

Mukhtar wins the case and decides to get educated so she doesn't have to rely on a thumbprint in place of her signature.  She becomes an advocate for other women and promotes their education.

Ms. Sankaram's music is haunting and original.  Conducted by Steven Osgood, piano, harmonium, violin, viola, bass, flute and percussion are employed to create an Eastern-Western soundscape of memorable beauty.  The eminently singable vocal lines, marked by melismatic singing, are perfectly handled by the composer, by mezzo Theodora Hanslowe as the mother and soprano Leela Subramaniam as the sister.  The father was sympathetically portrayed by Steve Gokool and the other male roles by Kannan Vasudevan and Manu Narayan who were convincing in their arrogance.

Rachel Dickstein directed with a fine hand, emphasizing the concept of the heroine being on a pathway.  Kate Fry's costumes were appropriate; set design by Susan Zeeman Rogers was minimalistic.  Full attention was focused on the dilemma of the individuals.  There were video projections which we found innocuous when they were not distracting; the screen might have been put to better use for surtitles.

Anyone who reads or goes to the cinema is aware of the dreadful indignities and crimes to which women are subjected under sharia.  Can these tribal customs be fought?  Can those battles be won?  This work gives us hope.  Clearly this work earns its place by virtue of its storytelling and artistry but one cannot deny the superimposed political value of exposing evil and illuminating the courage to overcome it.

© meche kroop

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