With music by Kamala Sankaram and a libretto by Kelley Rourke, The Jungle Book is the fourth youth opera to be commissioned by The Glimmerglass Festival.
“I have long been a fan of the music of Kamala Sankaram,” says Francesca Zambello. “With her background in the classical musical traditions of both East and West, she is the perfect composer to create an opera inspired by a story set in the heart of the Indian jungle. Kamala and librettist Kelley Rourke have given us a Jungle Book with a twist; Mowgli is cast as a young woman.”
Kamala’s score draws from both Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions, which are prevalent in northern and southern India, respectively. “Both use a system of raga, for melodies, and tal, for rhythm,” she explains. “Raga are comparable to modes in Western music, but the system is a little more complex. A raga gives the entire color of a composition. For our opera, I chose ragas that have very firm associations with particular moods. For instance, Raga Bhoopali is joyful, so I used it for scenes where the wolf cubs are playing. Raga Hindol, which is used to signal the approach of Shere Khan, is more mysterious and angry.”
Young Indian musicians learn ragas through a syllabic system called sargam, which will also be present in the score. (Sargam has its parallel in the western solfège system, which many people learned via Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Do Re Mi.”) The opera’s rhythmic patterns will also offer an exciting new challenge for cast members; most classical Western music is built on patterns of two, three or four beats, but patterns based on five and seven beats are common in Carnatic music.
Konnakol (vocal percussion) and body percussion (clapping, stomping, etc.) will add another color to the soundscape, as will the harmonium, which is used as a special effect toward the end of the piece. While the harmonium has become associated with Indian music, Kamala notes that it is “actually an interloper – it is a Western instrument that became part of the performance tradition during colonization. Because it has fixed notes, it can’t capture a lot of the ornaments, slides or shakes that are part of the melodies that are played by stringed instruments, or sung.”
“I grew up surrounded by both the Western classical music my mom was playing, as well as the Carnatic music my dad listened to,” says Kamala. “I studied Western music from when I was a little kid – I played piano and sang in choir. When I went to India as a teenager, my grandfather learned I was studying music and gave me a sitar. I’m excited to bring together these two musical traditions, not only to help create a sense of place in the story, but to offer members of the youth chorus a greater sense of the world and commonalities between cultures.”
In 2021, artist Tharanga Goonetilleke worked with Rourke and Sankaram to create an illustrated version of The Jungle Book, available in video form at glimmerglass.org.
For tickets and information about The Jungle Book, click here