Shalimar the Clown | Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Shalimar breaks new ground musically and gets enough right dramatically to make it well worth your consideration.


Shalimar the Clown, which had its world premiere his past weekend by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), is a groundbreaking opera based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Salman Rushdie. Shalimar breaks new ground musically and gets enough right dramatically to make it well worth your consideration, although it also has some problems with characterization and pacing.

The action in Shalimar begins near the end of the story, in Los Angeles in 1989. India Ophuls (Andriana Churchman) is celebrating her 25th birthday with the gift of a new bow (of the shooting variety, and you know what Chekhov had to say about that) from her father, the American diplomat Max Ophuls (Gregory Dahl). This happy scene is interrupted unexpectedly by Max’s chauffeur, Shalimar (Sean Panikkar), who murders Max.

The story then jumps 25 years back in time to the fictional village of Pachigam in the Kashmir Valley (a region in the northern Indian subcontinent, whose ownership had been contested by India and Pakistan). Shalimar, part of a group of acrobats performing in the village, casts his eye on the lovely Boonyi (also Churchman), and it’s love at first sight. She’s equally taken by him, and, as young people will, they sneak off for a rendezvous.

What Shalimar and Boonyi don’t realize is that they are being filmed by the pervy schoolmaster Gopinath (Geoffrey Agpalo), who denounces the two young lovers before the village elders. Their illicit relationship does cause a bit of a stir, as does the fact that she’s Hindu and he’s Muslim, but the elders decide that everything will be OK if the two will marry immediately (in real life, Hindu women have been maimed and killed for far less, but this is a fairytale village created out of Rushdie’s imagination). An angry mullah (Aubrey Allicock) appears at the wedding to denounce interfaith relationships, but even he can’t entire dampen the day’s joy.

While Shalimar seems to have everything he wants, Boonyi wants more—and she’s not sure what that “more” is, but it’s not to be found in a small village (where life will probably include grinding poverty, a baby every year, and absolutely no control over her own life). She sees an opportunity for escape in the person of Ophuls, then ambassador to India, who is known to have a wandering eye, and whose wife Peggy (Katharine Goeldner) is unable to have children. Boonyi casts her lot with Ophuls, while Shalimar can only return to Pachigam and hope his wife will return to him.

If the first act is all about hopes and feelings, the second act is far more political and less successful because of it: Opera is a great medium for exploring emotions, not summarizing events or delivering history lessons. Shalimar channels his frustrations into politically-motivated violence, becoming a noted assassin for a jihadist group. Peggy steals Boonyi’s baby, India, to raise as her own, and Boonyi returns to Pachigam, where everyone shuns her. There are atrocities on the Hindu side as well, as the army lays waste to Pachigam, dramatized in part by a bizarre rape-ballet that has the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than building to a climax, this opera wears down the audience, and it was clear on opening night that many did not recognize that it had ended until the house lights came up.

Although the opera bears the name of Shalimar, his character remains largely unknown to us—he occupies a number of roles (child acrobat, rejected husband, cold-blooded killer) but lacks an interior narrative. This is not the fault of Panikkar, who offers a fine performance but is built into the libretto by Rajiv Joseph. There’s also a key dramatic misstep early in the opera, when we are supposed to understand that Shalimar is a child taking his first steps on the tightrope—it would not have been difficult to use a child actor for that part of the story-telling, and all the suspension of disbelief in the world doesn’t make Panikkar, a tall man, believable as a child. Boonyi, by contrast, is thoroughly tuned into her inner life and more than willing to share it with us, and Churchman steals the show with her dual portrayal as Boonyi and Churchman (she’s also a good dancer, which is key to the character of Boonyi). In a smaller role, Goeldner makes a searing impression as Peggy, Ophuls’ wife, who first makes you feel her suffering, then reveals her darker side.

Shalimar offers rich opportunities for stage spectacle, which are well-realized in this production. Allen Moyer’s two-level unit set is effective in establishing the locations, from the lush green of Pachigam to the urban grit of Los Angeles—the latter partly indicated through projections designed by Greg Emetaz. James Schuette’s costumes, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting designs, and the choreography by Sean Curran also help create the multiple locations of Shalimar. Above all, the music by Jack Perla successfully bridges East and West, featuring a typical pit orchestra supplemented with sitar (Arjun Verma) and table (Javad Butah), two key instruments in Indian classical music. The music in the most effective scenes, including Boonyi’s seduction of Max, also makes the greatest use of the Indian instruments, and the integration of eastern and western music is the greatest triumph of this opera. | Sarah Boslaugh

Shalimar the Clown will be performed by the OTSL through June 25 at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, MO 63119) in repertory with La Boheme, Macbeth, and Ariadne on Naxos. Single tickets are $25 to $125, with various subscription packages also available. Further information is available from the OTSL website.

Photo: Ken Howard

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