by Robert Leeper
Opera is no stranger to drama, but Sunday night's performance of the chamber opera Thumbprint at the Baruch Performing Arts Center—part of the ongoing PROTOTYPE Festival—grabbed you by the gut and pulled you in. Based on the true story of Mukhtar Mai, a woman from a poor Pakistani family who is gang raped as recompense for her brother's supposed "honor crime," after which she is expected to kill herself to spare her family from disgrace.
Though she comes from a poor family and is only able to sign her name with a thumbprint, Mukhtar battles with the internal and external expectations of tradition by putting faith in her own power and the Pakistani legal system. She names her assailants, and ultimately sees them convicted in a court of law; after, Mukhtar went on to create schools and become a leading voice for the women of Pakistan.
Despite the serious nature of the subject matter, Thumbprint could easily have fallen into a sob story or ephemeral pop-culture cliché. But, composer and star performer Kamala Sankaram, librettist Susan Yankowitz, and director Rachel Dickstein have created a piercing, engaging, even angering narrative. The story addresses growth, personal transformation, and the triumph of good over evil, with the opera's subtle presentation of these themes adding to their quiet power.
Onstage, six white braided cots were used to represent everything from the scene of the crime and a courtroom box, to Mukhtar's metaphorical road to liberation and justice. Most stirring was the representation of the rape itself: Mukhtar would gasp as the rapist stabbed a bag of rice, the contents spilling forth; a metaphor that was brutal without being gratuitous.
Sankaram's score is a gorgeous amalgam of extended vocal techniques and repeated ragas from the Hindustani tradition, set to western harmonies that help drive the dramatic action. Throughout, the lush, sophisticated music transitions to harsh, ominous drones and guttural sounds. Despite the complex score, the instrumental ensemble—led by Steven Osgood—was composed entirely of western instruments, the exception being a tabla included in Deep Singh's drumkit.
The opera also benefited from stellar performances from the singers, all of whom played multiple parts. Ms. Sankaram brought a light but potent voice to the role of Mukhtar, with a vitality befitting the underdog triumph story she is telling. Despite the darkness of Mukhtar's tale, Sankaram's face and voice expressed an infectious joy throughout.
Among the remaining cast members, of particular note was tenor Manu Narayan as Faiz—a Mastoi leader and the driving force behind Mukhtar's rape. Narayan's voice was powerful and filled with fury, his presence only intensifying as the performance went on. But Faiz is no one-dimensional monster: During the trial, he sings a potent aria about how he is a link in his ancestor's chain, and he will not be the one to break it.
One drawback was the episodic style of the work. The scene transitions were almost sitcom-esque, and had little to do with the dramatic action of either the former or latter scenes, breaking the continuity of the whole. Still, this was a small nit in an opera that is otherwise overflowing with musical richness and dramatic power.