Amar Muchhala: How a Gujarati Boy from Mumbai Made it to London’s Royal Opera House
The male tenor opens up about the the niche community of opera singers in India and how finding success here may be more challenging
Aside from fleeting and rather vague scenes in films like Dil Chahta Hai, Pretty Woman or other similar pieces of pop culture, there haven’t been many instances where Indian audiences have been exposed to opera. While there are a lucky few who have had the opportunity to see it live, most have an image of powerful, high notes belted out in foreign languages, or the cliché ‘sing in a high pitch until the glass shatters’ image.
So how does a Gujarati boy from Mumbai, who initially set out to pursue business, make it to performing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London? “No one plans for it,” Amar Muchhala says over coffee a few days after he arrives in Mumbai to begin rehearsals for his shows here. “I grew up in Ville Parle, I went to Jamnabai [Narsi School]… so we weren’t exposed to Western music.” He reveals that he used to sing as a hobby while he was studying Business Management at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and that was when people started noticing he was good at it, encouraging him to give it a shot.
But why choose to pursue opera in particular? There are several artists within India who, like Muchhala, are trained in Hindustani classical and have expanded their musical repertoire to include other genres [these include Pavithra Chari of jazz fusion duo Shadow and Light, metal sitarist Rishabh Seen, Bengaluru-based producer Worms’ Cottage and more.] “Of course there’s a lot of music happening here in Mumbai, there’s a lot of jazz, pop, crossovers… everything,” he agrees. But opera hasn’t made anyone’s list yet and Muchhala feels that’s where the appeal lies — in its niche status.
There was also the thrill of dropping a ‘conventional’ career course to pick up and dedicate himself to studying opera at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London in 2011. He knew what he was doing, had a strong foundation of Hindustani classical and was ready for the struggle; his parents, however, were a completely different story. “Oh yeah, they were mad,” he says with a laugh when I ask about his parents’ reaction. “They’re hardcore Gujaratis so it was difficult for them to fathom. It took a great amount of courage to discuss it [taking up the profession] with family and take some risks.” As much as he defends the art and his dedication to it, he is not afraid to point out that its future in India is a precarious one.
Mumbai-born British soprano Patricia Rozario and New Delhi-based baritone Darwin Leonard Prakash are a few names that come to mind in addition to Muchhala, but there aren’t many more that have represented India internationally. The lack of familiarity of the art in Asia and the questions around making a living out of it bring in an automatic self-doubt amongst those who are interested in it, as well as in their families. “Even in the West, most South Asians have a half and half,” Muchhala says. “They’re either doctors or lawyers and they have [their art] on the side.” He admits that he almost abandoned opera twice, too. He decided to give it up and returned to Mumbai in 2013 to join his father’s business but couldn’t help being drawn back. “I thought I’d do a half and half but nahin hota hai [it doesn’t work.]” All of a sudden he got a call to audition for a production titled The Firework-Maker’s Daughter [an operatic adaptation of short children’s novel by English author Philip Pullman] at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden later that year and it was after landing the part of ‘Chulak’ that things really took off. “Once there is a banner, a validation of the art, it becomes easier for people to accept.”
According to him, the lack of exposure to opera’s history and significance as an art globally is the main culprit. “Even I didn’t know what opera was to be very honest when I first started, because you don’t understand the gravity of it all,” he admits. “We are taught, ‘Oh it’s music, how does it matter? You get a gig, perform it.’ Sometimes even my father asks ‘Are you getting paid?’” Muchhala recalls that when he used to spend his first few student years working at the Royal Opera Hall as an usher, it was extremely rare to even see South Asians attending the concerts. Worse was that whenever he would see them, they would ask, ‘But what do you really do? Do you do something on the side?’ There was also the one time he was asked if he was from “the technical department” while backstage at a production he was about to perform at.Although Muchhala’s training is Western, how he conducts himself and who he is circles back to being Indian and that’s not something he wants to lose–which means there is no shaking off the discrimination. “In the operatic world there are Italian tenors, German tenors, American tenors… That’s how they identify themselves,” he says, adding that the tag is important because it’s a chance to represent your country. But the moment you say ‘Indian tenor’ the perception is that because an artist is Indian, they wouldn’t have had the appropriate training. Ironically, the label doesn’t escape him while he’s India either. “Here the moment you see a European artist, the perception is that he’s going to do something you haven’t seen before.” It’s an unfortunate situation and needs to change, but it won’t until people attend shows– which they don’t. “It’s a vicious cycle,” says Muchhala with a laugh.
We move on to a conversation about his training in Hindustani classical and Western classical and Muchhala says the two forms are completely different and rarely confluent. “The play of harmony doesn’t exist in Indian classical,” he says. “Western music has a lot of harmonic structure, where the different harmonies layer on top of each other, while Hindustani music is more about rhythmic structure.” When he started learning opera professionally in London, the first thing he had to work on was his diction and accent. “I had to work on changing my tongue position, releasing all the tension and training my ears to get used to the Western sensibilities of music-making,” he shares. “So it was a difficult transition.” It took five years before he was comfortable with singing different accents without ‘sounding Indian.’ Since then, he has performed roles in Italian, German and various Slavic languages.
Much like Chari of Shadow and Light, Muchhala agrees that the discipline that goes into classical music scares audiences and artists alike. “There is a lack of patience,” he says, adding that the most common thing he sees people gravitate towards nowadays are remixes or online trends and quicker ways to both, consume and produce art. He shares that a lot of the time he gets asked to feature on remixes, jingles or fusion-based tracks, but it’s not where his heart lies. “I always got offers like, ‘Why don’t you make a CD’ and I always saw them as short-lived endeavors,” he says. “We [opera singers] can’t be recording artists. We can’t perform in a small space.” The entire art form is crafted to be performed in a big space with an orchestra and with no amplification whatsoever; this skill is hard-won and the training deeply ingrained in opera singers. “That’s why we sing so loud, the instrument is supposed to ride over a 100-piece orchestra.”
Muchhala has a valid point about art having to be relatable to be successful and he feels that perhaps that’s where opera falls short in India. “If you’re in the West you hear it. There are radio channels dedicated to it, it’s in the soundscape– but here it is not.” But without funding, there’s not much anyone can do, even if there are younger people who are interested in picking up the art. For Muchhala, his family’s resources were available to him to pursue his endeavour but he laments the fact that there are numerous people who are not as lucky and need sponsorship, guidance and a platform. He mentions the efforts of the National Centre for the Performing Arts often makes it possible to bring him down to perform with a symphony orchestra, and wishes there were more such patrons in the country because at the end of the day, most other countries want to put their artists first. “As frustrating as the business is, I’ve come to understand that everyone, including establishments, need to do what they need to do,” he says. “If they need a foreign artist to sell tickets, they need to do it to make money. So it’s catch-22 sort of situation.”
But can you guarantee eventual success? “You can’t,” he says in a surprisingly cheerful tone, adding that you can only keep at it, just like most fine arts. Having earned a good foothold after 10 years in the field, Muchhala’s focus will now be on cracking more opera houses internationally in addition to building an audience in India by increasing his performances in the country. He hopes the intrigue and curiosity about an Indian pursuing such a rare art form would be enough to draw new listeners in for his shows. Another massive hurdle is of course the fear of the unknown and a fear of not getting your money’s worth, which is something he wants to erase as well by presenting the best shows he is capable of. “I understand the limitations that I have, I am happy to work with that,” Muchhala says. “But maybe if I can reach out to a wider audience and they enjoy what they hear, it might help younger artists who want to take it up.”
Watch Amar Mucchala’s performance at NCPA Mumbai in July this year: