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Salman Rushdie's 'Shalimar The Clown' Is Now An Opera

Soprano Andriana Chuchman and tenor Sean Panikkar in a scene from <em>Shalimar the Clown</em>.
Ken Howard
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Soprano Andriana Chuchman and tenor Sean Panikkar in a scene from Shalimar the Clown.

Shalimar the Clown is Salman Rushdie's eighth novel. Published in 2005, it tells the story of a young man who seeks revenge after he's jilted by the love of his life. There's intrigue, violence, and conflict between tradition and modern society — the sort of stuff that makes for grand opera.

Now, Shalimar the Clown is just that. Adapted by composer Jack Perla and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph, the opera premieres tonight at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Rushdie says the novel sprang from one tragic image.

"I just found myself thinking every day of this image of a murder scene in Los Angeles, with a dead man on the ground and a man standing over him with a knife, and the dead man's daughter in the house just behind," Rushdie says. "That was the starting point of the story, and then I really, literally, had to work out who those people were."

The man with the knife is Shalimar, who was once a clown with a traditional traveling performance troupe. The dead man is a former American ambassador who stole Shalimar's true love. So the former clown becomes a terrorist assassin.

"It's a man killing the man who ran away with his wife and whose illegitimate child is in the house behind them," Rushdie says. "So there's this enormously emotional setup between them. And I think maybe that's what makes it operatic, because those kinds of grand emotions are things which opera does very well and feeds off."

"It feels in a way more topical than it did when I wrote it," says Salman Rushie, who wrote the 2005 novel on which the <em>Shalimar the Clown</em> opera is based.
/ Willis Arnold for NPR
Willis Arnold for NPR
"It feels in a way more topical than it did when I wrote it," says Salman Rushie, who wrote the 2005 novel on which the Shalimar the Clown opera is based.

"Opera is character-driven," says pianist and composer Jack Perla, who wrote the score to Shalimar. "It cannot be narrative like a novel because it takes twice to three times as long to sing any particular phrase as it does to say it. Sometimes four times as long."

Playwright Rajiv Joseph was commissioned to whittle the novel down to a libretto.

"It's almost like writing a haiku in terms of the words on the page," Joseph says. "You need to be as spare as possible. You need to write words and sentences that are as limited and short and small as possible."

It was a daunting task for Joseph, particularly given how much he respects Rushdie.

" Shalimar the Clown is a sweeping novel," Joseph says. "It's almost 600 pages long and it has so many characters and so many stories and they're so beautifully intertwined, and part of what makes it this work of genius is all of those things balancing on one another. So especially when you're talking about this as a hero of mine. it was very frightening to think to myself, 'Wow, so this part's going to be cut. I hope that he's going to be okay with that.'"

Turns out he was. Rushdie fielded questions and discussed his book with Joseph and Perla throughout the adaptation process. They refined the opera over months, trading email attachments with audio clips, bits of dialogue, and sketches of ideas that would be developed and abandoned. Perla says they met with individual singers to work on themes and dialogue, gathered around the piano.

"And so what's really truly odd about opera is that it does this flip where I'm alone, alone, alone, and then we go into production and I'm surrounded by some of the most extroverted people in the world, and it's awesome," Perla says. "It's really fun."

As much fun as the opera was to create, Perla points out the story itself explores tensions between culture, class, patriarchy, and imperialism.

"It has a very important story and point to make about the position of women vis-à-vis traditional societies, or the conflict between these patriarchal societies and the wish of men often to keep women in their place, and the modernizing societies and the drive toward freedom," Perla says.

Salman Rushdie says cultural conflicts on the other side of the world can't be ignored.

"The reason that it begins in Los Angeles but is about events on the other side of the world is that I'm trying to suggest that that's the world we live in," Rushdie says. "That a murder in West Hollywood can only be explained by events in the Himalayas, across the world."

The story's revival even forced Rushdie to reconsider its significance, more than a decade after the novel was published.

"It feels in a way more topical than it did when I wrote it," Rushdie says. "These conflicts haven't gone away. If anything, they've intensified. I mean, sadly, the world seems to go on being its worst self, if you know what I mean. The world just goes on being more intensely itself. The world is bad opera, you know?"

The team behind Shalimar the Clown hopes it's good opera — just about a bad world.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Willis Arnold