Bess in Show

indira_mahajan1The life of a diva is filled with flowers, but they’re not all red roses flung upon the stage by adoring fans. Sometimes you have to buy the flowers yourself to brighten up a lonely apartment in a strange city.

Such is one of the many rituals of Indira Mahajan during her long months spent on the road working for whatever opera company offers her a job.

But this season is brighter than usual, not only because Ms. Mahajan is in Los Angeles, but because she’s singing a role she grew up on: Bess, in one of the two casts performing in LA Opera’s “Porgy and Bess.”

FineArtsLA spoke to Mahajan about her gypsy lifestyle, the chance to finally play Bess, and the ongoing controversy surrounding the Gershwin opera.

FALA: What’s your ethnic background?

IM: My father is Punjabi and my mother is black American from North Carolina. I was born and raised in New York City.

FALA: How did you become an opera singer?

IM: I started playing the violin at five, and my mother, being an opera singer, saw that I loved performing, so she provided me with opportunity. I went to arts camp and did school plays and ballet. And I grew up in a house where there was always classical music.

I went to the “Fame” high school and knew that I was going to do something. Then I went to Oberlin College and after I graduated I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sing anymore. I was thinking about public policy and was on my way to a Ph.D. I was discouraged and knew that singing would be a hard career choice. Then I met a teacher who said “Give me a year and let’s see if this is something you can actually do.”

FALA: What were you discouraged about?

IM: I thought there are so many artists and so few possibilities, and I had post-college angst about “What am I going to do with myself?” Just feeling unsure as to whether I could support myself doing this.

FALA: So how did you end up committing to the craft?

IM: I was very fortunate because being in New York I had access to some of the best teachers available. I did an opera workshop and it attracted a lot of managers and agents who go to conservatories to scout new talent. I was really fortunate to get picked up. I thought, “If this manager thinks he can represent me, then let’s go for it.”

FALA: What was your first job?

IM: Musetta in “La Boheme” with New York City Opera. I did a national tour, and then performed at Lincoln Center, and that was just unbelievable. This was 1997.

FALA: Since then you’ve performed in opera companies all around the country. How does that work? Do offers just keep coming in and you’re booked solid two years in advance?

IM: You hope you are. Usually you’re like an independent contractor; you don’t have an exclusive contract with one company. People here about you or you audition and that’s how you get jobs. That’s how you end up working for all these companies within a year. Another company may be doing a “Porgy,” so they’ll fly to LA and see it and hire me for their next one or some other opera. So you just hope you’ll get booked and get work.

FALA: How much throughout the year are you performing?

IM: You may do four or five operas a year, with each company having a six-week period. So that’s 24 weeks at least that you’re gone. And it can be really daunting to be away from home that long. Sometimes you’re gone almost the entire year.

FALA: What’s the hardest part about being on the road all year?

IM: It’s like being a gypsy. The hardest thing is to pack up and leave your home. But once you get there, I’m a creature of habit, so as soon as I get somewhere I settle in and find what channel “Law and Order” is on because that makes me feel connected to the world. Then there’s Netflix with movies I can watch, because you’re spending a lot of time by yourself. And then I go and buy some flowers or something that will make the apartment mine. And then with this job I’m traveling with my dog for the first time.

FALA: What is the Bess role like for you?porgy.jpg

IM: It’s incredibly gratifying to sing this role because when I was a child my mother did a “Porgy and Bess” and I got to be one of the orphans. I fell in love with this opera. I’d sit in the wings and watch it night after night. I learned everybody’s part and I’d perform the entire opera for my mother. So for me to get a chance to perform it is really a dream come true. Bess is the first leading lady I fell in love with.

FALA: How does “Porgy” compare to singing something like Donizetti?

IM: Only the language and culture is more familiar; it’s no less vocally challenging. I just finished doing “Madame Butterfly,” which was very vocally challenging, and Bess is up there as well. It’s a very physical and dramatic opera, and requires a great deal of stamina. It’s just a different style, like singing Bel Canto versus Wagner. All very demanding, just different styles.

FALA: Controversy has surrounded this opera since its inception, primiarly for portraying a group of black Americans as poor, drug-addled and violent. With so many decades of hindsight, what do you make of this?

IM: I understand the controversy surrounding this: You don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes and myths. And for a group of people that have been enslaved, you don’t want to continue that. You want them to be portrayed in a positive light. And there are aspects of “Porgy and Bess” that remain controversial. I think we have to look beyond the time it was written, to the themes that transcend that: love and loss, and of course the beautiful music.

FALA: How important is race in casting? No one bats an eye if Cio-Cio San is played by someone of another race.

IM: “Porgy” has to be performed by black artists, because it was written specifically for black artists. I think there was a clause in the Gershwin estate that there shouldn’t be white artists performing the roles in “Porgy,” except the detective and that sort of thing.

FALA: On a lighter note, what was it like attending the “Fame” school?

IM: I felt really proud to be there. In high school you feel geeky and awkward enough, but then you’re put in a setting with kids your age who have the same interests, and it’s very encouraging.

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