When I left India for the UK in 1998, I had no computer or internet access. I was in London and knew that the famed Bombay-born soprano Patricia Rozario was also in the city, but the best I could do to increase my chances of hearing her was through the media. Goan acquaintances would drop her name and airily say “We must have you over for tea with her”, but it never happened.
Nevertheless, I heard her at the BBC Proms festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall just the following year; it was the Proms premiere of Sir John Tavener’s ‘Eternity’s Sunrise’. If I remember correctly, Rozario was clad in a crisp light sky-blue sari, alongside the Academy of Ancient Music, the London Philharmonic and Kurt Masur. I was in the arena (where for only 3 pounds then, one could stand and listen to the whole concert), just three rows of people away from her. When she took her bow to great cheers of appreciation from the audience, and someone near me said “Did you know she’s from India?” I couldn’t resist adding with some pride, “She’s from Goa, my hometown!”
In the years that followed, I either attended or heard on the radio (if I had evening on-call and couldn’t swap duties) her subsequent Proms performances in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2008.
But I only actually met Patricia Rozario in September 2003. I was working in Ashford, Kent, and Canterbury was within driving distance, and one of my favourite haunts. She was singing an all-Tavener programme, the world premiere of his Supernatural Songs, quite appropriately and atmospherically at Canterbury Cathedral, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Nicholas Cleobury. It was a truly sublime experience.
Little did I then even suspect that it would be the start of a beautiful friendship that persists to this day. But although I count her as a friend, every time I am in her presence, I’m aware that I am in the presence of true greatness and a rare instrument even though she is so unassuming and approachable, sometimes to a fault.
Let me digress now to my earlier years, when Bombay (today Mumbai) appealed to us like a magnet. Just as everyone descends upon Goa on the slightest pretext for a break, the allure of the metropolis was irresistible, and any excuse would do to “go to Bombay”. My base then was Chembur, and I often needed to go to “town”, either for orchestra rehearsals or concerts or “just like that”. And the BEST 92 Ltd took you en route past Girgaon and Charni Road, and the bus conductor would yell “Opera House”, and I’d try to get a passing glimpse of the empty shell of the dilapidated yet proud edifice.
What has one to do with the other? The stars recently aligned to gloriously bring them together. I joyfully accepted an eleventh-hour commission from Opera Now magazine, (“the most influential opera magazine in the world”) to cover the grand reopening of Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, painstakingly restored in loving detail after 23 years.
The prospect of actually hearing music in that space compelled me to clear my schedule. And who would be the star act of the evening? Does one even need to ask? The greatest western classical diva ever to emerge from Indian soil, and with deep roots in Mumbai as well as Goa, Patricia Rozario. It was a logical choice. No-one else could have been more appropriate.
It is fair to assume that the reopening was scheduled with Rozario as its centrepiece, overshadowing even the glittering Mumbai film festival opening at the venue the previous night.
The 574-capacity auditorium was literally filled to the rafters with Mumbai’s music cognoscenti, critics, journalists, theatre personalities and other dignitaries that included the owners, the royal couple of Gondal, Maharaja Jyotendrasinhji Jadeja and Maharani Kumud Kumari Jadeja. But a hush descended on the audience when Patricia Rozario and husband and accompanist Mark Troop walked onto the stage.
And so the magic began. It was only fitting that Rozario begin with Baroque opera in a newly-reopened Baroque-style opera house: the arioso ‘Care selve’ (‘O lovely woods’) from Handel’s pastoral opera Atalanta. Handel wrote the opera in 1736 for the marriage celebrations of the eldest son of King George II; and two centuries and three King Georges later, his descendant George V inaugurated the Royal Opera House in Bombay in 1911. And here we were, over a century later, in the same space. History was being made.
This is a challenging work to begin any programme, but Rozario’s messa di voce in the very opening phrase was truly breath-taking, and her shaping of the melodic line was utterly elegant, hitting the high notes with precision and quiet grace.
The rest of the programme showcased her broad repertoire with contrasts of period, style, language (Italian, German, French, Portuguese and English) and mood. Both the Puccini arias (Doretta’s aria ‘Ch’il bel sogno’ from ‘La Rondine’; and Musetta’s waltz ‘Quando m’en vo’ from ‘La Bohème’) were sung with much feeling and sensitivity, again with superlative placing of those ringing top notes.
In the Schubert Lied (‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’), the piano accompaniment mimics the spinning-wheel (right hand) and foot-treadle (left hand), while Gretchen gives vent to her heartache over Faust. We also heard Poulenc’s ‘Les Chemins d’Amour’; ‘Depuis le Jour’ from Charpentier’s opera ‘Louise’; and ‘Canção do Marinheiro’ by Villa Lobos.
But the show-stoppers were sung in English: ‘My Wedding’ from Jonathan Dove’s opera ‘the Enchanted Pig’ and ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s opera ‘Porgy and Bess’. And the encore? Another Puccini favourite, ‘O mio babbino caro’ from ‘Gianni Schicchi’.
As Rozario sang the Dove aria about the tiara and its sparkle, I looked at the opulent setting and realised that this was the city’s new tiara, all buffed up and polished; but Mumbai-born Rozario herself was the glittering diamond right in the centre of it. She gave it its sparkle that night more than anything else.
The reopening of the Opera House bodes well for music, specifically for opera, in India. And it gives a purpose-built stage for Rozario’s Giving Voice to India initiative, whose mission statement is “to set up opportunities for Indian singers to perform, as soloists, in choirs, in operas.” Rozario is the only Indian-origin western classical musician of her stature to consistently make return visits and work to build a tangible infrastructure in India, from grass-roots upward.
Many of you would have attended their all-Indian production of Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ at the Kala Academy. It would have been so apt to have it staged at the Opera House. One can envisage staged productions of Baroque and Classical opera by visiting and by home-grown troupes here. To quote the title of the Puccini aria: Che bel sogno! What beautiful dream!
(An edited version of this article was published on 30 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)