Give me Hope, Mozart!

Cosi fan tutte

It is not unusual for directors at opera house around the world, when staging operas even in the standard repertory, to transport the setting to a time and place far removed from that mentioned in the original libretto. In fact, it is almost de rigeur for this to be the case.

Don Giovanni set in a ghetto, Norma uprooted from pagan Gaul into puritanical 19th century America, a puppet-show version of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Rigoletto as bartender to his Mafioso don instead of the Duke. It’s all been done by now. It doesn’t even raise eyebrows anymore. Sometimes it works, a lot of the time it doesn’t. But opera directors carry on regardless.

So it should come as no surprise then, if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa (comic opera) Così fan tutte were set within a Syrian refugee home in 2014 instead of 18th century Naples. But this is the real thing. In May 2014, a group of over seventy refugees from war-torn Syria were housed a world away from the strife, in the tranquil ambience of a Franciscan monastery Oggelsbeuren in the district of Biberach in southwest Germany’s Upper Swabia. They became participants of an unique opera project.

The opera title Così fan tutte literally means “Thus do all [women]” in Italian, and is popularly used to mean “Women are like that”. The enigmatic title is taken from the words sung by the three men in the cast (Guglielmo, Ferrando and Don Alfonso) in Act 2 Scene 13, just before the finale. Don Alfonso, an old philosopher, lays a wager to the two young officers Guglielmo and Ferrando that their fiancées (Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively), in whose fidelity they have unswerving faith, will cheat on them given the first opportunity. The whole opera is built upon this idea.

Mezzo-soprano Cornelia Lanz, in an interview to BBC television, explained,”Our director (Bernd Schmitt) had the idea to put the setting of Così fan tutte into a refugee home… because the whole bet idea can derive from boredom. And where is there more of this than in a refugee home?”

Lanz, who plays Dorabella, has dreamt of playing a part in Così fan tutte since her teens. The concept took flight after she contacted Father Alfred Toennis, who is founder of the charity Give a Home, in Oggelsbeuren.

When the idea of this opera project was first mooted to the refugees sheltering at the monastery, there was some hesitation and even scepticism. Among them was Ahmad Osmani, who had been imprisoned for six months by forces of PresidentBashir al-Assad’s regime. But he was won over as well, and now describes the experience as “a great thing in my life.”

The rehearsal sessions involved daily physical, breathing and vocal exercises, language and diction workshops, and rehearsals with the chorus and crew to assimilate Syrian songs and dance into the production. The rehearsals had an open-door policy, and visitors were encouraged.

The opera project went a long way in integrating the refugees with the local village community. It has also given the refugees a new sense of meaning and purpose, and put an end to the humdrum monotony of their existence in their newly adopted country. Eighteen- year-old Mayza Chemali spoke to BBC TV of the transformative effect of the opera on her perspective and outlook for the future in Germany. The refugees and local villagers, and the opera production crew all worked together to set up the stage for the opera.

The opera also provides a medium for giving the refugees a voice, and to spread their message to a much wider audience. Syrian freedom songs and some stories of individual refugees have been incorporated into the libretto of Così fan tutte. Osmani explains “We are here because of war. We are asking for peace, this is our message. We are looking for peace. Stop war. Enough blood. This is our message.” His weary eyes betray the horrors that he has seen first-hand.

Lanz met regularly with the refugee community and through conversations and rehearsals, heard the stories of their turbulent lives and felt the need to”instil a strong and clear message of hope and peace” into the adaptation. “I am very touched and very hurt by what war does to people”, she said.

Lanz wishes the message of peace to transcend the conflict in Syria. “In the middle of a rehearsal, one of the refugees got a message that some of their family members in Syria had been killed, and that signifies why we want this opera to be a message of peace for Syrians, and also for the whole world.”

This unique production of Così fan tutte premiered in Stuttgart at the Theaterhaus on Sunday 5 October 2014.

In Print: NCPA’s ON Stage magazine, October 2014 issue

June is always a special month for Child’s Play India Foundation, thanks to the World Busk initiative (, in which we have been actively participating since its inception in 2009. This year we had two events, in Panjim and in Aldona, featuring the combined forces of our Suzuki violin children from both those locations. And our ensemble Camerata Child’s Play India comprising young musicians from the wider community performed as well. It was created in April 2013 with one of its goals being to eventually give a platform to our own Child’s Play kids to play in public some day. I was thrilled that Irfan Shimpigar joined the second violins for these concerts.

He played along with us at our well-received concert at Santa Cruz church in August too. Our violin kids stole the show again. One of the highlights of the programme was Georg Philipp Telemann’s famous viola concerto in G major (TWV 51: G9), played by Pablo Travé Gonzalez from Spain. It was Camerata’s twelfth concert since its creation, and it continues to enrich Goa’s cultural life.

Our young violin teacher Stefi Cruz did Child’s Play proud, representing us in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra in three concert performances in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. We were among just two institutions chosen to represent India in this partnership.

We have had a number of volunteers visit and work with us as well. In July-August, we were happy to receive again Santiago Lusardi Girelli and four young musicians (violins, viola and flute) from the University of Seville, Spain. In August we were also visited by Anya Hirdaramani, an Indian-origin Sri Lankan girl currently studying in the UK. She really helped us to strengthen our cello project at a crucial time for us. She taught me the rudiments so that I could work from scratch with a new batch of seven children, the youngest barely six. In a matter of weeks, they are able to play single-octave scales beginning from open strings (C, G and D) and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. A German volunteer is now working with them since early September, and will be with us for a year, during which time he will teach not only the children, but me as well and a couple of older children who have the flair for the instrument and could possibly become teachers. One of them is already working with the younger children to ensure that practice sessions happen daily.

India needs all the help it can get in developing pedagogy for strings, and it is even more acute for viola and cello. It is for this reason that I took up viola a few years ago, and now it is as a violist that I am more in demand, although the violin is still my primary instrument. Since June, I have begun teaching viola to three very bright, enthusiastic 11 year old girls at Child’s Play, and they are able to play scales and simple tunes with gusto. They played at their school on Teachers’ Day, something that gave them a tremendous shot in the arm.

We were visited in July by Avi Mehta, graduate of the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory, and actively involved with Sistema USA in Boston. He flew into Goa specially to visit us at Child’s Play, as he has a keen interest in El Sistema-inspired programs around the world. His feedback to us was very encouraging. It was instructive to learn that many issues faced by music education programs (for instance, the struggle for funding, the shrinkage of time for practice and music lessons due to encroachment by mainstream school work) are common across the world. Avi’s observations helped crystallise in my mind what it takes to have a successful project. It is the magic combination of five ingredients: dynamic, inspiring teacher; enthusiastic and hardworking children; supportive collaborator (e.g. the principal of the school or supervisor at the place where the sessions take place); adequate space; and just as crucially, enough time every day spent with the instrument.

In Hamara School Santa Inez where we first began Child’s Play, we have the first three prerequisites. We are even gradually winning the battle for time, although it is still not enough. But the issue of space continues to dog us, and needs to be addressed very seriously as we grow.

Bach, Handel and their ‘Ophthalmiater’

World Sight Day was celebrated last week, on 9 October 2014. It called to mind a rather unfortunate episode in music history involving sight and ophthalmology, or rather its travesty.

Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) who in later life went by the anglicised name of George Frideric Handel shared his birth year with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and with Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), making it a truly momentous year in music history.

Although it is believed Handel and Scarlatti did meet, in a test of skill at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome (where at least one account adjudged Scarlatti the superior player at the harpsichord and inferior at the organ; nevertheless in later life Scarlatti would cross himself in veneration when recalling Handel’s prowess), Bach and Handel never met. They almost did, though. Bach journeyed from Leipzig to Halle when he heard that Handel would be visiting his elderly mother there. By the time Bach got there, Handel had left.

By a really strange quirk of fate, and unfortunately for both of them, they consulted and subjected themselves to the scalpel of the same “eye specialist”. “Chevalier” John Taylor (1703-1772) gave himself the fanciful title of “ophthalmier”, a word coined by him. Taylor seems to have shown promise as an eye surgeon at the beginning, but spent the bulk of his career in self-promotion and creating a list of celebrity patients for himself. He proclaimed himself “Ophthalmier Royal” to King George II of England, and had the Pope, and several European royal families as his patients. He established himself as a ‘coucher’, or a cataract surgeon, removing cataracts by breaking them into little pieces.

John Taylor oculistTaylor started with good credentials, descendant of a long line of eye surgeons, and trained at St. Thomas’ hospital London. He published “An Account of the Mechanism of the Eye” in 1727. The title page of his autobiography has the motto ‘Qui visum vitam dat’ (who gives sight gives life), and his coach, rather creepily or tackily had eyes painted all over it. He travelled a lot, like other couchers, apparently because the post-operative improvements in their patients’ vision were fleeting before full blindness due to complications of infection etc set in, so it was prudent to leave town quickly after.

There is a paragraph in Taylor’s autobiography which mentions both the composers, and rather uncharitably talks about his experiments with animals in the same sentence: “But to proceed, I have seen a vast variety of singular animals, such as dromedaries, camels &c and particularly at Leipsick (sic) , where a celebrated master of music, who had already arrived to his 88th year, received his sight by my hands; it is with this very man that the famous Handel was first educated, and with whom I once thought to have the same success, having all circumstances in his favour, motions of the pupil, light &c but upon drawing the curtain, we found the bottom defective, from a paralytic disorder.”

So obviously the (in)famous Taylor not only had his surgical technique but even his facts about the composers wrong. He botched the operations in both cases, leaving them both blind, and it is thought that in Bach’s case the complications from the surgery could even have contributed to his demise.

Steven Isserlis, noted cellist and author of children’s books on music writes drily: “John Taylor operated (unsuccessfully) on Bach, as well as on camels and dromedaries (probably unsuccessfully too, but since they never talked about their experiences, we don’t really know).”

Taylor arrived in Leipzig on 27 March 1750, and operated on Bach a few days later. It is believed that Bach’s eye disease prevented him from completing “The Art of the Fugue”, a projected series of twenty fugues. He broke off in the middle of the nineteenth, where the theme ‘B-A-C-H’ (B flat-A-C-B natural) appears in the countersubject. Bach was operated upon twice. One newspaper reported that Bach ‘recovered the full sharpness of his sight’ after the first operation, but this seems untrue from other sources. By 8 April, Taylor had left Leipzig for Berlin, where his stay was cut short abruptly after the King banished him due to his failures.

After over a week of fever and slipping in and out of consciousness, Bach died on 28 July 1750.

Handel began to suffer from visual loss a few years later. In 1751, he had to pause while writing a chorus, with, poignantly, the words “How dark, Lord, are thy decrees”, scribbling in the manuscript that the reason he took a break was that his left eye was “so relaxt”. He was first couched in 1752 by William Bromfield, after some improvement followed by further visual loss, possibly total blindness, occurred. There is a pitiful account of Handel shortly after, at a performance of one of his oratorios, unable to play and ignored by the audience. He could not bear to hear the point in his oratorio ‘Samson’, where he had set the words “Total eclipse- no sun, no moon, All dark amid the blaze of noon” to music. But he made a comeback despite this, having to be led to the organ and to the audience to take a bow. In ‘Samson’, he describes loss of sight as “worse than beggary, old age or chains.”

The last operation was by Taylor possibly in 1758 when both he and Handel were in Tunbridge Wells, a fact corroborated by an anonymous poem “On the Recovery of the Sight of the Celebrated Mr. Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor”. Despite the poem’s optimistic title, Handel remained blind.

Lest we judge Taylor too harshly: he was among the first qualified surgeons to operate on the eye, a field which was largely the preserve of quacks, and probably did bring relief to many blind people at a time when (as we know from Handel’s own bitter railing at his predicament) blindness was a subject of apathy and ridicule. G. Coats in his book “The Chevalier Taylor” summarises him well: “Many elements go to the formation of the complete charlatan – bombast, effrontery, dishonesty, ignorance. All these qualities Taylor showed in perfection –except ignorance, and this is his chief condemnation.”

In a case of somewhat poetic irony, Taylor’s last years were spent in obscurity, and yes, total blindness.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Making in India: More than Industry and Technology



The ruling government has rolled out its ‘Make in India’ campaign with much fanfare. Its purpose is to woo investors, particularly Indian businesspeople who have been investing elsewhere, to return to the mother country. “Come; Make in India” is the clarion call being sent out to them.

The slick ‘Make in India’ website has a lion (why not the tiger, our national animal, one wonders) made up of cog wheels, emblazoned in profile across its homepage, and it has a long list of sectors ranging in alphabetical order from Automobiles to ‘Wellness’ (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy). The list also includes Mining, which is a loaded topic for us in Goa, as we have seen its fallout at the environmental level here over several decades, affecting our water, air and soil quality and our very future, with very little returning to the state exchequer. One can only hope we have learnt from past mistakes and will not repeat them.

A clear example is China, who we seem to be in competition with, and who launched their own copycat “Made in China” campaign closely on the heels of ‘Make in India’. We would do well not to repeat their mistakes. Their incredible growth rate has been achieved often at the cost of devastation of their environment and trampling on the human rights of their own people. I fervently hope India does not consider this a path worth following.

The Defence industry is another sector that might be seen by most of us as a necessary ‘evil’, but the idea that an entire industry can revolve on the premise of destruction of human lives is somehow unnerving to me. And the idea of my country collaborating with this objective in mind with other countries around the world, particularly Israel, which has recently claimed so many innocent lives in Gaza in the name of its own defence, makes it even more disturbing.

Obviously the ‘Make in India’ campaign is targeted at manufacturing and industry, and bringing in employment and revenue. Done responsibly, this could be good for the economy, of course.

But are our country’s needs only material? What about other indicators of well-being? How does one define “prosperity” and how does one begin to measure it?

There have been efforts by economists, statisticians, and social scientists to identify solid data indicators that are “illuminating, publicly available, and standardised across countries” which can measure “wellbeing” far more sensibly than the yardstick generally used but has serious limitations, namely the GDP (gross domestic product). Simon Kuznets, the economist who developed the concept of GDP, put forth this disclaimer at the very outset: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” But despite this, it continues to be used as a lazy tool for assessing a country’s progress.

The Legatum Institute defines prosperity as both wealth and wellbeing and uses a Prosperity Index as a new unit of comparison of prosperity between countries. The most prosperous nations therefore are not necessarily those with a high GDP, but those with happy, healthy and free citizens.

In their words, “Prosperity is more than just the accumulation of material wealth; it is also the joy of everyday life and the prospect of an even better life in the future. This is true for individuals as well as nations.” 

The nine sub-indices of the Prosperity Index are: A robust economy; Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Education system that is free-thinking, high-quality, accessible and that fosters human development; Democratic institutions that are transparent and accountable; Government and governance that is honest and effective preserves order and encourages productive citizenship; Health; Personal Freedom of individuals to voice their views, and to lead and choose the course of their lives; Security; and Social Capital (trustworthiness in relationships and strong communities).

The ‘Make in India’ initiative seems to address just the first two sub-indices. But there is much more that needs to be ‘made’, or addressed. A growing economy is necessary, but not sufficient, for national prosperity. Without additional factors–such as accountable governments, healthy citizens, strong social capital, and respect for civil and political liberties–a nation cannot achieve sustainable prosperity.

Therefore, going by the Prosperity Index, India currently ranks 41st, ahead of China (75th) despite its superior growth rate, and ahead of Russia (69th). It would be foolish of us to push for an increase in our GDP at the expense of the wellbeing and liberties of our people and of our environment.

In addition to manufacturing and factories and jobs, India should work really hard on improving the public health sector, sanitation, and a complete overhaul of the education system, making it truly accessible in every furthest reach of the country, and encouraging free thinking instead of indoctrination. Free speech and expression are of course a given, and the current Big Brother attitude to comments on social media and in the press, literature and art seem to be steps in the opposite direction.

Just as the red carpet is being rolled out for foreign investors in the finance and business sector, India urgently needs to be just as welcoming to pedagogues for music education to help us build a robust infrastructure for music well into the future. This is a page we can certainly take from China’s book. The current Government of India regulations make it almost impossible for charities and non-governmental organisations to bring in foreign nationals to work and teach here. At this point in our history, we need them to ‘Make in India’ a strong foundation for music pedagogy from the grass roots level to the very top. We can only hope the government is listening.

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Raising the Bar for Western Classical Music in India


Back in 2012, I had written a blog post after watching an interview on Prudent Media with Rohan Ricketts, a footballer who was then with Dempo Sports Club but who has also played in the world’s finest football teams. He made interesting observations about the state of football in Goa and the rest of the country, and I realised that many parallels could be drawn with the state of western classical music in India.

The fundamental issues are the same: the lack of infrastructure, both at the grass-roots and at the higher levels; of world-class coaching; of wider exposure among our youth to really high-quality playing; the ever-decreasing time spent by schoolchildren and college youth on anything deemed as ‘extra-curricular’ as school hours, homework and tests and entrance exams increase; and the current absence of a well-defined career path in either sports or music, and therefore the pressure from parents and society to pursue ‘white-collar’ professions even if the youth show real promise elsewhere.

I was thrilled during World Cup frenzy to hear my mentor Dr. Rufino Monteiro and my friend Eddie Noronha elaborate on Goa365 the radical new changes happening in Goan football, which if carried out consistently into the future, with rigorous world-class training, will undoubtedly yield great fruit in the future. And now we also have Zico as coach for FC Goa!

The ‘playing field’ of western classical music must be studied and its problems addressed with the same diligence. Clearly the powers-that-be in Goan football have made this analysis, and therefore their investment in the future, very wisely. Their own passion and deep knowledge of the game has been their impetus.

We should be able to admit to ourselves that our current level in the way we play and perform classical music, and teach and learn it, is far from the world standard. It is imperative that we get high-quality teaching, both for our really young children, and for those among our youth that might have advanced to a higher level. For too long, we have been doing the same thing over and over, and unsurprisingly, the ground situation has therefore also not changed much. As in football, a good ‘coach’ at the very earliest and onward will make a world of difference.

Exposure to world-class playing through regular high-calibre concerts achieves so much. It gives us the elemental experience of the “live” concert, which the best hi-fi equipment and videos can never match. It brings our youth into direct contact with musicians, who can inspire and become role models for them. So many musicians on the world stage and in orchestras got their ‘wake-up call’ when they were taken as children to such concerts. It was life-changing for them, and it could be for our children too.

These interactions also give the bigger picture to our youth, of the wider world of classical music. A few visiting musicians have commented to me that our youth lack the ‘hunger’ and ‘fire in their belly’ for making better music and learning more about the music. But this is not entirely the fault of our young generation, as they have just not yet been immersed in the optimal milieu. There is actually evidence to quite the contrary; that small improvements in the teaching of our youth yield very high dividends very quickly. If this can be done consistently, we can achieve so much more.

Classical music desperately needs patrons who are passionate about it and willing to invest in it, just as Peter Vaz and others like him are about football. We need purpose-built venues for music just as we do for football. Look at so many centres of musical excellence and higher learning around the world (the Juilliard School of Music New York; Peabody Conservatory Baltimore; Oberlin Conservatory Ohio; Curtis Institute Philadelphia; Conservatórios Gulbenkian in Aveiro and Braga); they began with the vision of one or of a group of philanthropists, which has left a lasting legacy that persists to this day, a century or two later. We remember their names today because of their vision and their generosity. Now is the time for the private sector to step forward, and do something that will benefit India and will boost their own image in society. There’s never been a better time than now. We as a nation have a new sense of self-confidence, and apparently we have the money too.

Our state-run music institutions like the Kala Academy also need to make a comprehensive, holistic clinical examination, (led by really knowledgeable, credible experts in music education, and not solely by politicians or bureaucrats), of the state of health (or not) of music in Goa, just as Dr. Monteiro and his colleagues at GFDC are doing on the football field. If we are to make a real tangible difference for the future, we need to widen our reach to tens of thousands of children rather than a few tens or hundreds. All of them have to be taught to a really high level from a very young age. If, as is currently the case, we do not have this expertise on the ground, we have to import it. There should be no short cuts here.

China has a head start of several decades on us, and is now in the enviable position of not only having enough high-calibre musicians for its own musical life, but able to ‘export’ them to the world.

Just as there are health benefits to be had from football which will positively affect our future generations, these benefits are true of music as well, not just for health, but in becoming better citizens and a kinder, gentler, more humane society.

Just as promotion of football can create a whole ‘industry’ and avenues for employment (coaches, nutritionists, equipment, merchandise etc), the same is also true for music. We currently have a severe lack of good luthiers, instrument restorers, piano tuners, etc, because there isn’t a living to be made from it. But if we take music to a truly high level, these opportunities will open up, and will improve the ‘game’ in an upward spiral.

There are so many parallels between music and football. Both are ‘played’; both require teamwork. In both, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. And the lessons learned on the playing field and the rehearsal room are just as valuable as, if not more than, any academic curriculum. I hope our educationists and policy-makers realise this.        

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Fiddler on the Roof

The recent staging of the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ by a group from Bangalore could not have been better timed, for it was in this month (22 September to be precise) that it opened on Broadway exactly fifty years ago, in 1964.

It was the first musical theatre run in entertainment history to cross 3000 performances. Fiddler ran for almost 10 years, holding the record for the longest-running Broadway musical until Grease came along to surpass it. It still is the sixteenth longest-running show in Broadway’s history.

Fiddler on the Roof was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

It is based on ‘Tevye and his daughters’ (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by leading author and playwright from the Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem (real name Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich 1859-1916), written in Yiddish and published in 1894. The musical gets its title from the painting “The Fiddler” by Marc Chagall. Chagall used the lives of Eastern European Jews as his inspiration for many of his paintings, and the fiddler was a recurrent fixture in a lot of them.


As we know so well from the musical, the Fiddler on the Roof is a metaphor for the precarious continuity of age-old tradition in the face of constant uncertainty and change. The story revolves around Tevye and his five daughters as he tries to maintain Jewish familial and religious traditions while the outside world gradually catches up with him and the rest of the closely-knit Jewish community in their village Anatevka in the Pale of Imperial Russia in 1905.

Aleichem, like Mark Twain wrote under a pen name (Sholem Aleichem is a Yiddish greeting ‘Peace be with you’, or ‘How do you do’) , wrote for both adults and children, lectured widely on tour in Europe and the United States, and their writing styles were similar. When Twain heard that Aleichem was being nicknamed “the Jewish Mark Twain” for these reasons, he retorted “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

Aleichem’s narratives accurately depict the life in the ‘shtetls’ (small towns with large Jewish populations) of Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and his characters have a cheerfulness and wit (manifest so brilliantly in Tevye and his daughters) that masks a tragic side to their lives.

Aleichem suffered from triskaidekaphobia, a morbid fear of the number 13. His manuscript pages have ‘12a’ instead of 13 on the thirteenth page. Interestingly, he died on 13 May 1916. Even his tombstone avoids this number, preferring to mention his birth and death dates according to the Hebrew calendar.

When in his 20s and living in Kiev, Aleichem would holiday in the summer with his family in Boyarka, a forest resort town an hour away. There, a dairyman named Tevye did the rounds door-to-door, delivering milk and home-made cheese and butter.

Aleichem loved Tevye’s wares and later wrote that the three things he loved most in life were newspapers, dairy foods and Jews — as well as his conversation, which he would scribble, amid chuckles, in his notebook.

Tevye soon featured in Aleichem’s writing, as “Tevye the Dairyman — The Story of His Sudden Rise, Described by Tevye Himself and Dictated to Sholem Aleichem Word by Word”, later revised as “The Jackpot” or “Tevye Strikes It Rich”. It is peppered with the witticism and the ‘Tevye-isms’ that makes Fiddler on the Roof so entertaining. The real Tevye in fact wished to remain anonymous, and requested Aleichem to leave his name out whenever possible. It is truly ironic that the tables have turned completely, with Tevye much more well-known and Aleichem now consigned to obscurity in much of the world.

Several decades after Aleichem’s Tevye stories, a Soviet theatre company visited Boyarka and were so impressed by Tevye that the actors bought him a new cart and dairy equipment.

In Aleichem’s several stories featuring Tevye, Tevye’s adventures play out in real time. In these stories, Tevye gains a fortune, loses it and is subjected to a series of his daughters’ ever-more non-traditional marriages. So the story we are familiar with through Fiddler on the Roof is just the culmination of a longer saga.

Aleichem was personally witness to the pogroms that were unleashed in southern Russia in 1905, and the pogrom and the Tsarist edict commanding the inhabitants of Anatevka to leave the village in the story draw to some extent from his own experience.

He fervently championed the cause of Yiddish as a ‘national’ Jewish language and of Zionism.

The dramatisation of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters, first for the theatre as a musical (with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein) and later as a film in 1971, has had its share of critics. Some feel that Tevye has been made too saccharine, too ‘sugar-coated’, in order to appeal to a wider public, especially in the US.

The musical and the film helped Aleichem’s story reach to a far wider audience than he could have dreamed, but also overshadowed his own writing.

Nevertheless, Fiddler on the Roof is emblematic of much more than just Tevye’s story. Jeremy Dauber, Aleichem’s biographer states “Forget Sholem Aleichem, there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.”

Bock’s music with its broad sweep of the orchestral palette is sensitively scored to bring the Jewish shtetl “to life”; the tone colour of a clarinet, a folk violin, and the Eastern European and particularly Jewish harmonies played out in lush string sound are highly evocative. The sighing pauses in the show-stopping “If I were a Rich Man” are as much a part of the score as the notes, adding to the wistful meaning of the song, a fantasy, lament, tirade and song of resignation and acceptance all in one. The quasi –onomatopoeic use of woodwinds at the precise moment that Tevye sings about the squawking of “chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks” is pure genius.

The production at the Kala Academy recently had its pluses. The main cast was well-chosen: Tevye, Golda, Mottel Tamzoil, Tzeitel, Perchik, all of whom delivered their lines really well. The Bottle Dance and Tevye’s Nightmare scene featuring Grandma Tzeitel and Frumah Sarah were cleverly staged. It was wonderful to hear ‘The Rumour’, which isn’t in the film version.

But there were huge drawbacks as well. The biggie was the use of an electric synthesizer in place of a live orchestra, which reduced the music to a real travesty. The fiddler was not up to much as well, but that didn’t really matter so much.

The whole production was rushed, as if they really wanted to shorten its length as much as possible.

This might seem like quibbling, but the mispronunciation of Tzeitel as ‘Zeitel’ when it should have been ‘Tseitel’ was jarring every time her name was mentioned, which was often.

And the very opening of the musical had the emphasis wrong when they sang “Tradition”. It should have been sung so that the first syllable of the word ‘Tradition’ was on the upbeat, and the second on the strong, downbeat ie “Tra-DI-tion”. This is how one would pronounce the word, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Instead, they chorus persisted in singing “TRA-di-tion”, with the first syllable on the downbeat.

“To Life” had several moments of dodgy intonation in the singing, especially from Lazar Wolf.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Star-Spangled Banner and the Indian connection

This year marks the bicentenary of the writing of the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America.

The poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” was written by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), lawyer and amateur poet. During the Anglo-American War of 1812, Key was witness to the 25-hour bombardment of American-held Fort Mc Henry at Chesapeake Bay, at the entrance to Baltimore harbour, by British ships of the Royal Navy on the night of 13-14 September.

Key was sent across a few days earlier to the British flagship HMS Tonnant as part of a two-man delegation sent to secure the exchange of prisoners between the warring sides. However, since he and his colleague had heard details of the plan for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive aboard British warships until after the battle.

According to historical accounts, the Americans imposed a complete black-out in Baltimore, and the only light that rainy night was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry (“the rockets’ red glare”), illuminating the American flag, then with fifteen strips and fifteen stars, the “star-spangled banner”, still stubbornly fluttering atop the fort. At dawn, it was still waving, and Key knew that the British attack had failed. It inspired him to write the poem on the back of an envelope in his pocket while returning to Baltimore.


Key’s brother-in-law Judge Joseph H. Nicholson realised that the words of the poem fit the melody of a popular tune “The Anacreontic Song” by English composer John Stafford Smith. It eventually took on the title “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Although it became the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag in 1889, and at military and other occasions in 1916, there was no official anthem. Robert Ripley (of Ripley’s Believe it or Not fame) in 1929 drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, captioned “Believe it or not, America has no national anthem.” The Star-Spangled Banner was officially adopted as the national anthem of the USA in 1931.

It is not the easiest of anthems to sing, on account of its wide note range, a twelfth (an octave plus a perfect fifth).

The rockets referred to in the anthem are the Congreve rocket, designed and developed by Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) ten years earlier. It was developed at the Royal Arsenal after the impressive performance of the Mysore rockets deployed by Hyder Ali (1721-1782) and his son Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) against the British East India Company in India, in the Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars, until the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ Tipu died valiantly in battle in 1799 and his kingdom fell with him. Several of the Mysore rockets were sent to England for analysis. From 1801, Congreve began a research and development programme at the Arsenal’s laboratory, leading to the Congreve rocket, an improvement upon the Mysore rocket.

In Tipu Sultan’s military manual Fathul Mujahidin, 200 rocket men were assigned to each Mysorean rocket artillery brigade called Cushoon. He had 16 to 24 such cushoons at his command. The military success of his rockets was their iron casing. It acted as a combustion chamber and also contained densely packed black powder propellant. This gave Tipu superior firepower compared to the British, whose rockets were not iron-cased, and could not withstand large chamber pressures and therefore their range was significantly reduced. Tipu Sultan is widely considered to be the father of rocket artillery in battle, and the devastating use against the British especially in the Third and Fourth Mysore Wars is regarded as a milestone in military history.

According to one British observer, a young English officer named Bayly: “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles …..The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”

Other accounts corroborated this. It was claimed that “the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from the rockets than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy” and an eyewitness told Congreve that in at least one instance, “a single rocket had killed three men and badly wounded others”.

The rockets contributed hugely to the military successes that pressured the British East India Company to sign the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784, bringing the Second Anglo-Mysore War to a close. It is of historical significance as it would be the last time that an Indian power would be able to dictate terms to the British. The humiliation of the treaty and the concurrent loss of the Thirteen Colonies in America made the British determined to put an end to Tipu Sultan. It was the writing on the wall for the British East India Company, whose stock shares dropped markedly after this, a matter of great concern to the British as its trade represented a sixth of the national income.

The Science Museum in London still has two Mysore rockets in its collection.

The Congreve rockets were to see action in the Napoleonic Wars as well in the War of 1812.

There is another “Indian” angle to the War of 1812. The real losers of the war were the Native American people, in particular those tribes that were allied willingly or otherwise with the British. Occupation of the Midwest by white ‘settlers’ had been fiercely opposed by Indian tribes, but the War of 1812 changed all this to the detriment of the Indians. At the post-war peace conference, the British had initially demanded an independent Indian state in the Midwest, but the withdrawal of British protection to see this through and the disintegration of the Indian confederation ensured that the Indian state never materialised.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


I was pleased to receive today this feedback and information from Mr. Arun Prakash, and I reproduce it in full:

Dr Dias,
I enjoy reading your articles in the Navhind Times, even though I am often out of my depth as far as your learned commentaries on issues related to classical music are concerned.
However your latest piece on the Indian connection with the Star Spangled Banner gives me an opportunity to interact with you on a subject that I know a little about – ships.
In fact, when I read the title of the article, I assumed that you would be discussing the fact that Francis Scott Key was incarcerated on board HMS Minden (not the Tonnant),in Chesapeake Bay, when he was inspired to write, on the back of an envelope, the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry”, which later became the Star Spangled Banner.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find you, very ingenuously, building upon the tenuous Tipu Sultan-William Congreve rocket connection to construct your fascinating piece.
Should you wish to return to this subject ever again, the ship Indian connection is much stronger………
HMS Minden was a Royal Navy 74-gun ship of the line (frigate), built in the Duncan Dock Bombay by M/s Wadia Master Shipbuilders. Built of stout Indian teak, she was launched on 19th June 1810, and saw half a century of service before being de-commissioned in 1861.
Incidentally, the oldest warship afloat today is HMS Trincomalee, Also built by the Wadias of Bombay in 1817 she is anchored in Hartlepool UK.
Regards ,
Arun Prakash

This month in Music History: 250th death anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau


This month marks the 250th death anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1784), one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque period. He was the successor to Jean-Baptiste Lully as the leading composer of French opera, and like his contemporary compatriot François Couperin, a great French composer for his instrument, the harpsichord.

His Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (Treatise on Harmony reduced to its natural principles) of 1722 earned him great fame as a music theorist, but it is as an operatic composer and composer for the harpsichord that he is chiefly remembered today.

Very little is known of his early life. The son (seventh of eleven children) of an organist in the main church in Dijon, he was taught music before he could read or write, and he later would claim that his passion for opera began when he was twelve. He was educated to be a magistrate, but took to music precociously, soon mastering the harpsichord, organ and violin, and teaching himself the elements of harmony and composition.

In his watershed Treatise on Harmony, he set forth for the first time the law of inversion in chords, evolved the system of chord-building by thirds (with the common chord as basis), and established a principle of chord progression by a “fundamental bass” not identical with the real bass of the music. His initial work did have flaws, which he amended and developed in subsequent publications. Rameau’s work stood out from previous treatises on harmony because he added a philosophical dimension in addition to the purely practical aspects of the subject, earning for himself the title “Isaac Newton of Music”.

Rameau was almost fifty when he made his operatic debut with Hippolye et Aricie. It generated great controversy for its revolutionary use of harmony and was lambasted by the supporters of Lully. It sparked off a pamphlet war between the ‘Lullyistes’ and the ‘Rameauneurs’. The latter was a pun on the word “ramoneur”, which meant chimney-sweep. But Rameau eventually won the day, and was in turn attacked in his own later life as an “establishment” composer.

The Querelle des Bouffons was the tussle of rival musical philosophies that raged in Paris in the 1750s, pitting French tragédie en musique against Italian opera buffa. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is known to us today as a philosopher, but he also fancied himself as a composer. He had written an opera, Les muses galantes (inspired by Rameau’s Indes galantes), but failed to impress Rameau with this musical tribute. In 1745, Voltaire (who was Rameau’s close friend and collaborator on many productions) and Rameau, who were busy on other works, commissioned Rousseau to turn La Princesse de Navarre into a new opera. Rousseau then claimed the two had usurped the credit for the words and music he had contributed, though most musicologists believe that the claim was spurious. Nevertheless, Rousseau held a life-long grudge against Rameau over this.

The Querelle des Bouffons had Rousseau and others in favour of Italian opera; and in one of life’s supreme ironies, the Lullyistes and Rameauneurs united in their support of French opera. The controversy did however help to steer the course of opera in a new direction, in favour of simplicity, something much after Gluck’s heart as well, as we have seen a few weeks ago. Indeed, Gluck’s three ‘reform’ operas of the 1760s betray an intimate knowledge of Rameau’s works. So when Gluck came to Paris in 1774 to produce a series of French operas it could be regarded as a continuation in the tradition of Rameau. Sadly, while Gluck grew in popularity, Rameau’s star soon waned, and interest in his music has only been revived in the latter part of the 20th century.

Rameau’s other operas especially his masterpieces Castor et Pollux and others were very successful, even though they were too often constrained by poor libretti. In 1745, he was appointed composer of the King’s chamber music. He was about to receive a patent of nobility before his death in 1784. Despite amassing wealth, he lived a simple life, and upon his death, his personal effects included worn-out clothes, his single pair of shoes, and a derelict single-keyboard harpsichord.

Rameau was an innovator not only in the theory but also the practice of harmony. His bold modulations and his varied part-writing are a significant step forward over his predecessors. He was one of the first to exploit the tone-colour resources of the orchestra, and by expanding the structure of the overture he pointed the way to the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.

The music of Rameau made a dramatic impact on my life, through the Soweto Buskaid String Ensemble at the BBC Proms 2007 at the Royal Albert Hall London. Their programme highlighted the dance music of Rameau from his operas and ballets. Indeed, danced interludes were obligatory in Rameau’s operas, even his tragic ones. He is hailed by German scholar H.W. von Walthershausen as “the greatest ballet composer of all times.” Excerpts of dance music from his operas (Dardanus; Hippolyte et Aricie; Castor et Pollux; Naïs; Les Boréades) and his ballets (Zaïs; Les fêtes d’Hébé; Platée) were played and danced to on the Soweto Buskaid programme, a feast for the ears and eyes. I went to the concert as I was intrigued that the ensemble featured disadvantaged children who had been taught to play to such a high standard. This concert (and that of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Orchestra, also comprising disadvantaged youth) was the decisive influence that led to the eventual creation of Child’s Play India Foundation The poise, confidence and high standard of playing of the music of Rameau by those young boys and girls from Soweto had a profound effect on me. In that sense, the music of Rameau quite literally changed the course of my life, and I hope through Child’s Play it will touch the lives of so many others.

(An edited version of this article was published on 7 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Classical Music at the Movies: Tosca becomes a Bond gal!

Bang in the middle of the fast-paced James Bond film Quantum of Solace, the action spills over onto the stunning set of Giacomo Puccini’s opera thriller Tosca on a floating stage (Seebühne) of the historic opera house on the shore of Lake Constance or Bodensee, in Bregenz, Austria.

When the publicity director of the Bregenz Festspiele (Bregenz Festival) received a phone call from an English-speaking film producer who didn’t want to divulge too many details about the film, she jokingly said to her colleagues that it could be a Bond film. Many months later, she was surprised to find her hunch had been correct.

The Bond production team had originally been interested in the sets for the previous opera production Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“The Masked Ball”) and one can see why. The very title suggests concealed identity and classic cloak-and-dagger potential. The set for this opera had a large skeletal hand turning the pages of a book. However, once a Bregenz opera production completes its two-year lifespan, the sets are destroyed. Fortunately, QoS director Marc Forster loved the set of Tosca as well. Both he and producer Barbara Broccoli were profoundly impressed – by the unique location on the shore of Lake Constance, the imposing stage set with its high level of technical sophistication, and the modern architecture of the Festival Opera House. This set featured a gigantic moving eye.


In an interview, Forster explained “I just loved the location, and I think the eye just has a great metaphor for Bond. Eyes and titles of Bond films and the gun barrel in the circle at the beginning. And I liked that it was ‘Tosca.’ And Puccini’s opera is also a metaphor of what is going on as well. I thought the whole thing was convenient…Tosca is a terrific metaphor for Bond on so many levels”.”

In the film plot, for some reason the “bad guys” choose to have a conference meeting through microphones and earpieces during a performance of Tosca while seated scattered about the opera house. Bond (Daniel Craig) eavesdrops on their conversation before breaking it up. The conspirators begin to exit from their seats, revealing their identities to Bond, and prompting the lone one of them who stays behind to shrug as he says “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone”.

Both the sets and the scenes from Tosca add atmosphere to the Bond film. The roving big eye also is an emblem for the police state that 1800s Italy had become in the opera, with the evil Baron Scarpia at its apex. And Bond is the eye in the film, spying on the clandestine meeting unobserved until he reveals his hand. The very word ‘spy’ apparently derives from the Indo-European root meaning to observe, behold, or look.

The choice of excerpts from the opera is also significant. Scarpia’s lustful aria “Va Tosca”, the finale of Act I, is a meeting of the sacred and the profane as it is juxtaposed with the Te Deum by the chorus as it rises to a swell to the heavens. It is as good a metaphor as any for the forces of good pitted against those of evil, as Bond does battle with the villains.

This is a powerful example of Puccini’s brilliant writing, and this particular episode possibly inspired Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather trilogy, where the baptism of Don Michael Corleone’s godchild is played out at the same time as his enemies are being systematically and ruthlessly eliminated.

Back to Quantum of Solace. The execution of Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi by firing squad on stage launches the gun battle that then erupts between Bond and the villains. It is depicted brilliantly, like a silent film, interspersed with flashes of scenes from the opera

The German magazine Der Spiegel applauded the way in which under Forster’s direction, “the aria drowns out the hail of bullets”. It went on to say “This artistic intent is new in the Bond film series. Action before never meant anything other than action…..Forster by contrast stylises the shoot-out as a fascinating ballet of death, and Bond is just one of the dancers”.

The scene where Tosca stabs Scarpia to death at the end of the Bregenz sequence in the film seems to foretell what will happen in the film. In the opera, this happens before the execution of Cavaradossi, but this is artistic license.

It all happens in seven-and-a-half minutes in the film. But short as the sequence was, the film crew spent a lot of time, effort and money on it. It took thirteen days to shoot, during which time the whole area was cordoned off. 1500 extras were recruited (from the thousands more that applied) to play the part of opera-goers at a sold-out performance in which the action takes place. At the time, all the extras knew was that they were being cast in “Bond 22” as the film title was still a closely guarded secret. Every one of the 1500 extras had to go to the make-up and grooming department, to be worked upon by dozens of stylists. Those who didn’t have their own tuxedo or evening gown had one provided for them.

In the Bregenz production of Tosca, Sebastien Soules and Karine Babajanyan sing Scarpia and Tosca respectively, with Brandon Jovanovich as Cavaradossi.

The raw emotions of power, love, deception, jealousy and revenge are common to both the opera and the film, and this is why the Bregenz sequence works so well.

Die-hard opera fans however had a field day discussing this in cyberspace, at the very gall of people talking during an opera performance, (never mind that it’s just a film) without being shushed by those seated next to them in the audience! You may have a license to kill, Bond, but please everyone keep quiet during a performance. The world can be saved after the fat lady has sung and the final curtain falls.

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Telemann’s Viola Concerto


Last Sunday, Camerata Child’s Play India conducted by Prof. Santiago Lusardi Girelli played a concert at Santa Cruz church. One highlight of the programme was Georg Philipp Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major (TWV 51: G9), with visiting musician from Spain, Pablo Trave Gonzalez as soloist. I try to avoid making absolute statements, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that during the years I’ve been in Goa, we’ve not so far had a viola concerto performed here before. So this in itself made this performance quite special.

This concerto is one of Telemann’s most famous of his surviving concertos, and still performed quite regularly for its beauty. It is also perhaps the first viola concerto ever composed (written around 1716-21 while Telemann was in Frankfurt as its music director) and the sole Baroque concerto for the instrument in the popular repertoire. It is thought to have been first performed in Frankfurt for one of the concerts held by the Frauenstein Association, an early form of philharmonic society that sponsored “weekly great concertos”, a subscription series of orchestral concerts.

It is precisely because of concerts such as these that Telemann resorted to writing concertos of any kind. In his autobiography of 1718, he actually confesses to being unmoved by the form: “I must own that since the concerto form was never close to my heart it was indifferent to me whether I wrote a great many or not”. Despite this assertion, he went on to write over a hundred concerti for solo instruments as well as other combinations. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most prolific composer in history, at least in terms of surviving oeuvre. He wrote 20 complete Lutheran church year cantata cycles, which amounts to around 1700 cantatas! And he wrote over 50 operas or secular cantatas, 125 orchestral suites, 125 concertos, 40 quartets, 130 trios and much, much more.


Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was born four years before J. S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, and outlived them all; Bach by seventeen years, and Handel and Scarlatti by eight and ten respectively. He knew Johann Sebastian Bach well enough to stand as godfather to one of his sons, and lent his middle name to the child: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. And he also was more than a passing acquaintance to Handel.

In his day, Telemann was regarded as the greatest musician in northern Europe, and commanded much more respect than even J. S. Bach, incredible as it might seem to us today. In fact, the prestigious post of Director of Music in the principal churches in Leipzig, where Bach produced so much of his sublime sacred music from 1723 until his demise in 1750, was only offered to him because Telemann turned it down in favour of the much better post of cantor of the major churches of Hamburg. Interest in Telemann’s music then receded until a revival of interest in Baroque music in the latter half of the 20th century.

In the same autobiography of 1718, Telemann also writes some of his own humorous verse, among which are the lines: “Give each instrument/what is suitable for it/So he who plays will do so with joy/ and you will take pleasure in listening to it…”

Telemann’s formative years in his birthplace Magdeburg Germany were spent learning to play various instruments. His intention was to familiarise himself with the basic techniques and sonorities of as many instruments as possible, rather than to become a virtuoso player. This knowledge was what he needed as a composer. His viola concerto displays a marvellous grasp of the unique, rich dark chocolately deep-throated timbre of the instrument.

The purported ‘weakness’ of the viola as an instrument that has led to much less music written for it as compared to its string cousins the violin and the cello, is also its greatest asset. The viola might not have the sweet brilliance of the violin or the low bass sonority of the cello, but its mellow tone is in a class by itself. It is conventionally used as a ‘filler’ in the orchestra, to add depth and tone colour to the harmonies of the string section. It is precisely for this that so many great composers loved and played this instrument, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert to Dvořák.

The viola concerto in G major has four movements (unlike concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, who followed the more ‘modern’ three-movement format for their concertos) in typical contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast fashion of a “church sonata” (sonata di chiesa): Largo-Allegro-Andante-Presto. The orchestral forces that support the solo viola are light: strings and continuo (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord). It can also be played by just a string quartet and solo viola.

The first movement Largo is slow and stately, with a beautiful expansive line for the viola in calm confident conversation with the rest of the orchestra. The second movement, Allegro, bubbles over joyfully in its syncopated, elegant melody, and is a good example of the ‘stile galante’ (galant style) that began to sweep away the high Baroque style towards the end of Telemann’s life. The Andante is in the melancholic key of E minor (the relative minor of the main or ‘tonic’ key G major) in which both the soloist and the ensemble seem to be in dialogue with each other, in search of an elusive truth. The finale, Presto, begins energetically in the ensemble, with contrapuntal cross-rhythms within its sections, and is joined in by the soloist, leading up to a robust conclusion.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


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