Nine times out of 10, watching an opera means consuming art composed and created by men. Male composers dominate the field, as do male directors and male librettists. For an art form that coined the term “diva” and almost always portrays stories centered around a woman, that’s a lot of creative testosterone.
Which is why it was particularly refreshing this weekend to open up the program for L.A. Opera’s presentation of Thumbprint (produced in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects) and see not just one or two female names listed but an entire creative team –– composer, producer, director, librettist and designers –– made up of women.
Thumbprint tells the real-life story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani activist and educator who was gang-raped 15 years ago by members of the powerful Mastoi tribe in her rural village of Meerwala. According to the village’s traditions, a raped woman brought shame on a family. Mai was expected to commit suicide to restore honor to her parents and siblings.
But Mai defied that tradition, choosing not only to live but to take her case to the police in an attempt to prosecute her rapists. In her community, this action was so unheard of, so unexpected, that it quickly gained international attention. Nicholas Kristof wrote about her extensively in The New York Times. She traveled the world, giving speeches alongside Hillary Clinton and receiving awards from prestigious NGOs. With the money she received from the notoriety, she went back to Meerwala and opened a school for girls, a shelter for women and a clinic that offers free legal counsel to women who have been raped or assaulted.
If ever there was a story that demanded to be told by an all-female creative team, this is it.
Thumbprint was composed by Kamala Sankaram, a multitalented musician who also plays the role of Mukhtar Mai in this production. Sankaram is uniquely suited to this piece. The daughter of an Indian father, she grew up listening to Indian classical music in her father’s car. In addition to singing and playing the accordion, she also plays the sitar.
In Thumbprint, Sankaram is a brilliant actress, deftly portraying a complex, transforming character. Throughout the 90-minute drama she never overplays her part. She communicates a variety of emotions clearly and believably, drawing the audience into Mai’s despair, anger, determination and growing sense of agency through her expressive face and voice.
As a composer, Sankaram gives herself and her fellow cast members rich material to mine. Within her score are hints of Glassian minimalism, flashes of jazzy bass lines, Verdi-esque virtuosity and a plethora of South Asian folk-music styles. From the start of the piece, when the composer-performer sets the opera in motion with a flick of her wrist, the music is rhythmically complex, propulsive and alive. In addition to playing strings, flute, piano, percussion and harmonium, the six-piece ensemble chant, clap and hiss, creating a distinct sound-world.
Sankaram’s greatest gift as a composer is her seemingly endless ability to birth beautiful, memorable melodic motives and weave them together dramatically. It might seem strange to leave such a serious, intense performance humming catchy tunes, but that’s exactly what happened to me after just one listen. Sankaram gives Mai’s mother, father and sister emotive, twisting melodic lines that linger in your ear. Even the villains in this tale get instantly appealing refrains.
These melodies pack a double punch thanks to playwright Susan Yankowitz’s clear, concise libretto. Yankowitz hits a mark that so many librettists miss, balancing the poetic and profound with the expository. Most operas –– even English-language ones –– require supertitles for clarity. But no such aids are required here.
This balance is apparent when Mai’s mother and father bemoan the predicament they find themselves in as members of a poor class up against a powerful one. “When the Mastoi say the sun shines at night it is true,” the mother laments, her voice flickering soulfully around the vowels. “When the Mastoi says the moon shines at day it is true,” the father replies symmetrically. This imagery culminates in a powerful joint statement that they sing together: “Truth dies in the mouth of power.”
Their helplessness is profound. We understand details of the plot –– who has the power in this situation and why Mai’s family feel that they cannot fight it –– but we also recognize universal truths. Power, even in 21st-century America, too often determines its own truth.
The universality of the themes in Thumbprint are ultimately what make it so profound. Sexual assault is certainly not an experience limited to poor Pakistani women. In the opera’s portrayal of Mai’s rape, the strength of this all-female creative team shines. Using only a knife, a few bags of rice, shadows and a chorus of breaths inhaling and exhaling sharply, violence and violation are depicted palpably. Director Rachel Dickstein goes beyond the obvious here, portraying the out-of-body experiences and, later, the painful flashbacks that are part of assault victims’ realities.
After her rape, Mai is laughed at by men in her village. She has to present her case to a sneering male police officer who mocks her to her face. Her family suffers. She suffers. In court, she is asked to sign a document she can’t read: “Sign it with your thumbprint like all women do,” the policeman says, reminding her that in her society, even literacy is a privilege reserved for men.
In a thousand ways, big and small, Mai suffers indignities at the hands of the men who hold power in her community. Every woman, regardless of whether she has experienced an assault, will instantly recognize these experiences of being pushed down, disrespected and underestimated.
Throughout its well-paced, feature film–like story, Thumbprint communicates the female experience in a way that feels viscerally real. Take Mai’s relationships with her mother and sister, for instance. In most operas, women are only portrayed through their relationships with the men around them. Here we see a mother’s pain and a sister’s love as central to the plot.
Sankaram harnesses the power of this female trio to great vocal effect. Phyllis Pancella is outstanding as Mai’s mother, most notably in a post-assault scene in her daughter’s bedroom in which her voice descends to its lowest reaches as her heart sinks, aching for her daughter. Leela Subramaniam is transcendent as Mai’s sister. Together as an ensemble, the three women own this show.
In the end, Thumbprint is a dark story with a bright message. It is less about the awful things that happened to Mukhtar Mai, and more about a young woman who finds empowerment, agency and a voice.
It is also a reminder that both on and off the opera stage, women need more opportunity to tell their own stories. Their voices matter. And in Thumbprint, one woman’s story, told with authenticity and sincerity, gets to truly sing.
If you missed the performances, Sunday's performance is viewable on L.A. Opera's Facebook page, where it was streamed live.