Striking the Right Note

NEW DELHI –  Oh, the drama. In one scene a mother despairs for her lost daughter. In another, the relentless suitor presses on through multiplying hardships, all in order to get the girl. Not to mention the long interludes in which characters sing about falling in love.

At first, this might sound like a typical Bollywood script. But Christine Matovich Singh knows the real source: “The Magic Flute,” a German opera written in 1791 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though opera characters don’t usually run around trees when they sing, Bollywood and opera have a lot more in common than one would think.

“The soprano would be the young girl who falls in love with the boy the family doesn’t want,” Singh says. “The alto would probably be the mother, or the mezzo soprano, who disapproves highly. And then you would have the interfering auntie, or a sorceress.” Singh—a soprano who has performed with the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra—has played many roles in her U.S. stage career. Now she is taking her classical voice training in new directions, such as collaborating with the chart-topping Punjabi musician Rabbi Shergill on his new album, to be released this year. Beyond performing, Singh is working to bring opera understanding and appreciation to more people in India.

How did an American opera singer find herself living in New Delhi? The story itself would make a good Bollywood script. Singh married Indian novelist and editor Avtar Singh after a three-year, long-distance courtship, and the couple now have a 2-year-old son, Jagat. Singh admits to being worried about how her career would take shape after she moved to India. Yet opportunities kept coming. “My life here has become what it’s meant to become without me having to have consciously chosen it,” she says. “It’s the phone call in the middle of the night which says ‘We’re looking for the opera singer for Slumdog Millionaire; are you available?’”
Creating a new life The music room at her home is a space for serious vocal training—sometimes for unexpected members of the family. “Figo, aa jao…” she calls to her lanky Dalmatian, peppering her speech with Hindi words. Figo jumps up to place his front paws on her lap as she begins to sing his name in one long, drawn-out note, “Fiiiiiigo.” Each note gets successively higher, and Figo begins to leap and bark along with her, getting louder as well. “He does match pitch!” she shouts over him. Avtar and Jagat come to see what all the noise is about, laughing along with Christine.
The couple first met in 2003 at the wedding of Avtar’s sister in New York City. “He was wearing a turquoise turban and looking very charming,” she recalls. They danced together and went out on two dates before he traveled back to India. Despite such a brief meeting, they kept in touch. Sometime later, she had some extra vacation days and decided to visit him in Goa where he was working on his novel, The Beauty of These Present Things.

But it took another three years before she could, in her words, “make a logical leap” to move to India. They were married in May 2006. Since then, Singh says, her life has been full of happy surprises. Like, for instance, being part of a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2009.

Crossing artistic boundaries Singh says that it all started when she received an e-mail from a London-based casting director who had seen her opera performances mentioned in the Indian press. They were looking for an opera singer for a scene in Slumdog Millionaire where the main character, Jamal, watches a performance from the opera “Orphee et Euridice” on television and remembers his mother’s tragic death. She was skeptical but willing to see where it led, and then later, she got a late night phone call from director Danny Boyle himself.

She was pregnant at the time, but Boyle made sure that the costumers worked with her so that it wouldn’t be obvious on camera. Though it was certainly a memorable experience, she had no idea how far the movie would go. Her venture into pop music with Rabbi Shergill had a similar start to her film debut—an unsolicited phone call asking for her collaboration. Singh was honored, and describes Shergill as “very gracious and simultaneously focused on exactly what he needs musically to create a piece that is uniquely in his own style.” Even before she met her husband, Singh was involved in Indian culture and music. Her love of multiple music styles led her to work with DK Khambata, aka Bollygirl, an Indian American musician and disc jockey from New York City. Singh sang opera vocals over CD tracks to blend in with Khambata’s desi-themed sets.

“As a DJ you hear a track you like and very often you want to immediately make a mash-up to drop,” Khambata explains. “I thought the East versus West juxtaposition would make for a good mash-up…. I remember we dubbed her the one-take diva, because she nailed each recording in one take. There was no throwaway.”

A musical education Singh clearly remembers the day she fell into her lifelong love of opera. As an adolescent, she saw a performance by Jessye Norman, an African American opera singer, in San Diego, California. “She was singing this aria while lying down on her stomach, propped up in a half cobra,” Singh says. “I never saw music portrayed with such complete passion. I was hooked.”

She studied vocal performance for her B.A. at California State University in Fullerton and eventually went on a study abroad course in Italy, which led her to the Fiesole Conservatory—the same music school where the late Luciano Pavarotti trained. The vocal style she is trained in is also the same as Pavarotti’s—bel canto. It literally translates as “beautiful singing,” and Singh explains that involves lots of lyricism and agility, tending more toward Mozart versus the more dramatic styles of composers like Richard Wagner. She now teaches bel canto to her Indian vocal students, and during the day works at the American Embassy School as a music teacher. She has performed with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, the Neemrana Music Foundation, Aravali Centre for Art & Culture, designer Manish Arora’s fashion show, and charity fundraisers for Ritanjili and CanKids. Singh has also traveled as part of the American Center’s outreach programs, presenting operatic singing to Indian youth through the song “Kajra Re.”

“It has been a combination of a concert and an outreach, which I like, because if I am just performing to the same audience, it’s not really benefiting anybody,” she says. Though many of the famous operas are sung in European languages, Singh wants to make sure that opera is easily accessible to Indians and tries to sing mostly in English. Soon, she is planning to debut a song in Hindi, as part of a performance of ragas set to Western styles of music.

Given her love of Indian culture, if she could make any Bollywood film into an opera, what would it be? “Devdas is an ideal opera. I would say [Italian Giuseppe] Verdi would compose the music for it. If I were to say a romantic composer who knows how to get into the emotional angst and dissonance…” she pauses, looking up and considering her answer. “Yes, definitely Verdi.” Directors, take note.

By Erica Lee Nelson

Published in SPAN, May/June 2010