New York: To those who complain that opera is an elitist indulgence served up to snobs in dinner jackets, New York`s latest world premiere may come as something of a shock.
Inspired by the horrific gang rape of illiterate Pakistani woman Mukhtar Mai on orders of a village council, "Thumbprint" is a USD 150,000 production currently having an eight-night run in a basement theater in Manhattan.
One of the most infamous sex crimes against women in South Asia, Mai`s 2002 rape, survival and metamorphosis into an international rights icon is as far removed from opera-house pomp as possible.
It may have earned a less-than-glowing review from The New York Times -- "muted," "not quite enough" -- but the score is an alluring blend of South Asian and Western music, and the production starkly innovative.
With a simple backcloth doubling up as a film projection screen, a few chairs and charpoys, the simple but powerful staging evokes the heat, the dust and the traditions of a Pakistani village.
Mai, now in her 40s, was raped to avenge her 12-year-old brother`s alleged impropriety with a woman from a rival clan.
Six men were sentenced to death for her rape in a landmark ruling. But five were later acquitted and the main culprit had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment: facts the opera omits.
Mai`s story has fresh resonance since the brutal gang rape of a student on a New Delhi bus and her death a little over a year ago sparked international outrage about the levels of violence against women in India.
"It`s inspiring," said the opera`s Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram, who also sings the lead role.
"This is a person who was completely illiterate and knew nothing of her rights and the laws of her country and yet she had the courage to step out," she told.
There is no staged recreation of the rape, which is instead portrayed by muffled shrieks of terror interspersed with a knife slashing open bags of sand.
Sankaram worked to recreate Mai`s world by combining Hindustani music, Western composition, qawwali and Bollywood.
"I am a sitar player as well as being a Western musician so I wanted to bring in elements of traditional culture but still keep it something acceptable to Western listeners," she said.