Many operas are about issues and challenges people faced in ancient or medieval times — but not "Thumbprint." This contemporary opera, which is making its West Coast debut with the L.A. Opera at REDCAT, is based on the true-life heroic story of Mukhtar Mai.
It deals with the contemporary issue of rape and women’s rights in Pakistan. Still, the three women who created the opera believe the themes of feminism, sexual violence and women’s equality resonate with women everywhere.
In 2002, Mukhtar Mai was gang raped and then paraded naked through her remote Pakistani village as punishment for a crime her younger brother had supposedly committed. Pakistani tradition dictates that women who are raped are expected to commit suicide or hide themselves away forever in shame. But instead Mai chose to stand up for herself and for fight for justice.
“She found the impulse within herself to say this is not right like this is fundamentally not right! I did nothing wrong and I'm being punished, these men should be punished for what they have done to me,” said Thumbprint’s producer Beth Morrison.
Morrison runs a bi-coastal contemporary opera and new music production company called Beth Morrison Projects. She was so inspired by Mai’s story that she commissioned an opera based on it.
What makes this story even more remarkable is that Mai, being from a low caste in Pakistan’s poorest region, was illiterate when the attack happened. Susan Yankowitz, who wrote the libretto, says, “Mukhtar had to sign her charges with her thumbprint, and at that moment she understood how important it was for her to have an education and to be able to sign in a way that was dignified.”
Yankowitz took that fact as the inspiration for the opera's title. She based the libretto on a series of in-person interviews she did with Mukhtar Mai in New York and Washington D.C.
"I don't see theater or opera as just entertainment; I see it as a way to to talk about something," says Yankowitz. "Now it needs to have artistic excellence I hope this does... but it also needs to have content which is often in my view sorely lacking both in contemporary theater and contemporary opera."
Mai won her case in court. Six of the fourteen men accused of her rape were convicted and sentenced to death. It was a landslide victory for women’s rights and sent shock waves through the Pakistani society. Later, a number of them were acquitted on appeal.
Instead of taking the money that Mai got from the court settlement and moving on quietly with her life, she built a school in her village for girls and devoted herself to promoting women’s rights.
The "Thumbprint" creative team used the language of music and opera to add a level of emotional intensity to Mai’s story that Yankowitz says just can’t be achieved with words. Kamala Sankaram composed the score and also plays Mai in the show.
“I used the operatic voice as a musical metaphor for Mukhtar finding her own voice. The first half of the show stays pretty much in the middle range which for a soprano is not the most powerful part of the voice but then as Mukhtar sort of finds herself and makes the decision that she's going to take her case to court it expands upward above the staff and starts to add coloratura which is a lot of fiery fast-moving notes,” said Sankaram.
When "Thumbprint" premiered in New York City in 2014, producer Beth Morrison wanted Mai at the premiere but she didn’t have the resources at the time. Now, with "Thumbprint" making its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles she decided to try again. "It's always been on my mind to have her come," says Morrison, "So about six weeks ago we were like, maybe we should try again and see if we could make this happen now."
But it hasn't been easy. At first they couldn’t find Mukhtar. Then when they did, she didn’t have a passport. Once she got that expedited, she needed to get a visa. That's a process that could take weeks or months– time they did not have. Morrison reached out to contacts who knew people at the Pakistani embassy in Islamabad for help. In the meantime, she had to raise the money to cover Mai’s expenses.
The entire "Thumbprint" creative team felt equally as strong about getting Mukhtar to Los Angeles for the premiere. “There's this beautiful line in the libretto that comes directly from Mukhtar," Beth Morrison says, "which is 'one voice sings and a thousand hear the song.'" For Morrison, this line embodies her belief in opera’s ability to tell stories in a unique way that inspires others.
"I think it’s important that Mukhtar see the piece because I want her to know that her story has touched people and that it also has this epic quality to it," says Kamala Sankaram.
“I would love her to be able to see it...to see that her story has resonance beyond Pakistan, that it has resonance really everywhere,” said Susan Yankowitz.
The creative team's wish came true. They were able to raise the money with help from the LA Opera and a member of Beth Morrison's board of directors. Mai was granted her visa. And she got on a plane just in time for her to arrive in Los Angeles for the premiere of "Thumbprint."
"Thumbprint" runs at REDCAT theatre Thursday, June 15 through Sunday, June 18. Tickets available at LA Opera.com.