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Anando Mukherjee is one of very few Indian male tenors on the global stage. Over the course of his stellar career, he has sung the roles of some of opera’s most well-known characters, including Rodolfo, the Duke of Mantua, Pinkerton and Nemorino; and appeared at leading international venues including the Belgrade National Opera, Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall and the Kennedy Center.
Can you tell us about your background? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
When I was young, my mother would always say to me, ‘Anando, you were born singing in the cradle. Even while you were developing cognition, you rarely cried, only sang’, and I knew I had an operatic voice,” says the robust and mellifluously toned Anando Mukherjee, 38, who is possibly the only operatic tenor of Indian origin today.
Born in a predominantly Bengali household in Patna, Mukherjee’s influences were largely derived from his artistic extended family and parents; his father being a surgeon and mother, a professional pianist. The revelation came as he sat in front of the radio, aged 13, listening to a beautiful, romantic and lush voice on the Indian national radio, as he describes it. The song that overwhelmed him and marked his foray into operatic singing was Here in my heart by Al Martino and he went on to become the founding member of Delhi’s premier choral group, The Capital City Minstrels.
What did you study?
Mukherjee completed his schooling in Delhi and then chose to pursue zoology for his bachelors, instead of arts, and for this he blames NCERT’s textbooks. “My early education was a terribly shackling experience and because of my aversion to economics and commerce, the only escape route I had at my disposal was science.
Music continued to be an important part of my life in the background,” says Mukherjee, who claims he would have become a history teacher if not a musician. In 2001, aged 23, Mukherjee graduated from the University of Cambridge in molecular biology, and the same year, decided that he would train to be an operatic singer. He sought out the best teachers and coaches in tenor singing, that included Swedish operatic maestro Nicolai Gedda, under whom he trained for about seven years.
Please describe your career path as an opera singer?
He made his first operatic debut at 29 at the National Theatre in Belgrade in 2007, which meant that for the first time he held the principal role in this play set to music and since then he hasn’t looked back. He has appeared at leading international venues including the Belgrade National Opera, Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall and the Kennedy Center.
You’ve spent some time with the New Delhi-based classical choir, The Capital City Minstrels (CCM). Was that an important foundation for your career?
The CCM was, and remains, Delhi’s premier choir. It was a very valuable experience in many ways. It was very important in order for me to get acquainted with the oratorio repertoire of composers like Vivaldi and Schubert. That, of course, is very important for a classical singer, because I’m not just an opera singer, I also sing oratorio. It was the beginning of my musical life as it were, and I look back upon it with a certain degree of nostalgia.
How do European audiences react to an Indian opera singer?
It’s mixed, but always overwhelmingly positive. Some of them naturally assume that I’m not Indian at all, because of my skin colour which is basically olive.
So they think I’m Mediterranean or South American. And another reaction I get is ‘Oh yes, you’re Indian! How unusual that an Indian should sing Italian and romantic opera so convincingly.’ And then one has to explain to them that it’s not that unusual considering that India was under colonial rule for 200 years.
You’ve been tutored by Nicolai Gedda, who’s considered one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century. How did you meet Nicolai, and how has his guidance helped you?
When I was singing in the chorus of the Opera Holland Park, which was one of my first professional jobs 15 years ago, the male tenor singing the lead had a very impressive voice. I asked him who he’d learnt from and he said Franco Corelli and Nicolai Gedda. I couldn’t believe it, they were both great heroes of mine. By that time Corelli had died, but I asked him if Gedda still taught and he gave me his number. And next week I went to Geneva, sang for him, and he immediately accepted me on the spot. It was an amazing experience, and over the next 7 years I learnt everything from him about style, interpretation, vocal technique. He had the most profound effect on my singing and it was always joyous and joyful being with him. It was priceless.
What would you consider the most memorable performance of your career?
Singing at the Kennedy Centre was probably the most memorable performance of my career. It was my American debut singing at one of the greatest theatres in the world, and also I was representing India as part of the Festival of India. So it was both a personal privilege but also a double privilege to be the official representative of India abroad and that carries an enormous responsibility but also a great honour.
Opera in India is limited to a small, elite niche in the metropolitan cities. Do you think it has the potential to break through that barrier?
Absolutely! What’s happening is that now you’ve got some very industrious and able young people who are heading up the various departments of the NCPA. These are highly sophisticated young people who have been exposed to the best of India and abroad. So opera is here to stay and I think it’s a question of social media, and the internet, and a matter of young Indians performing opera in India to Indian audiences with an Indian orchestra and an Indian choir. And you have all that now, with quite a group of Indian or Indian origin singers performing all over the world. That’s the most important bit because you need Indian audiences to see Indians perform this music. It is very much a branding exercise, and an exercise of outreach, and a serious investment in developing the art form. I’ve already seen opera developing into a significant presence in India and I look upon the future with enormous optimism.
In earlier interviews you’ve spoken about the possibility of singing operas in Indian languages. Is that something you have on the cards?
I’m actually in the process of releasing my first commercial album and for the Indian release there will definitely be singles released from that album which will be operatic songs sung in Hindi and Urdu. I can definitely see it being a runaway success.
INDIANISING THE OPERA?
“Along with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) and the NCPA in Mumbai, we have been trying to reach out to young Indians who might be interested in learning the opera. Opera is not as intimidating as perceived, but just unfamiliar to young musicians.
There are three steps towards Indianising the art form; writing in indigenous languages, in Indian settings and exposing the art form through Bollywood. In ten years time, I want to have an Indian opera company and would like to see the art have a strong foothold.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG PEOPLE?
Nothing can be achieved without hard work and idealism is important for every young musician today, because it is a tough journey. There are more valleys than there are peaks. Anyone who is an artist, must question themselves as to why they are pursuing this particular form of art.
If you think of it as a job, it will never fulfill you, but if you think of it as a service to yourself, you will somehow derive satisfaction from it. It may not be in the form of money or fame, but spiritual and artistic fulfillment of the soul.