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Composer Douglas Cuomo And His Musical 'Dilemma'


Been a lot of talk this election season about moral choices. A new chamber opera about making the right choice premiered this week as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. The story is thousands of years old and from the other side of the world. And the opera's composer is best known for work that is distinctly American. From New York, Tom Vitale reports.

TOM VITALE: You know the music...

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Douglas Cuomo had been scoring TV shows for more than a decade when he got the call for a new project. Its director said the theme music should be sexy and sophisticated.

Mr. DOUGLAS CUOMO (Music Composer): It's got the "Sex and the City" part, but then it also had to let the audience know that it was OK to laugh, that it was a comedy, because at the beginning they were afraid because it was a little edgy, particularly for the time.

VITALE: The 50-year-old composer says "Sex and The City" has allowed him to pursue his serious music full time. He just had a work for cello and electronics premiere at Carnegie Hall. His new chamber opera, "Arjuna's Dilemma," is his most ambitious project.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: "Arjuna's Dilemma" tells the epic story of the warrior prince Arjuna from the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. And it does it by blending Indian classical music, Western classical music and jazz.

Mr. CUOMO: There is something about the sound of Hindustanis singing, the sound of the kind of early music, vocal singing, a quartet of women, in this case, and the sound of a certain kind of jazz tenor saxophone playing - that all of that is sort of about the ecstatic in music.

(Soundbite of opera singing)

VITALE: Cuomo knew the disparate elements in "Arjuna's Dilemma" would work together. But some of the participants weren't so sure. Badal Roy made his name in the jazz world playing tablas with Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, among many others. But he's never done anything like this.

Mr. BADAL ROY (Musician): For me, you know, this is like the orchestra. OK. This is the time to start. This is the time to end. In 40 years, this is the first time I'm doing this, and it's kind of uneasy for me. And I don't read music, you know, all I do is tune my drums and play my drums, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: On top of that, Roy, a Hindu born in 1945 in what is now Bangladesh, says he never read the Bhagavad Gita.

Mr. ROY: Since I was in Pakistan, I was not exposed to that. I was the only Hindu in University of Karachi out of 64,000 Muslims.

VITALE: The libretto for "Arjuna's Dilemma" is taken directly from the Bhagavad Gita. The dilemma of the title is that Arjuna can't bring himself to attack an opposing army in a civil war when he sees that the army is made up of friends and relatives.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: But the Hindu god, Krishna, is driving Arjuna's chariot, and he convinces the warrior that he must do what's right and take action. The role of Krishna is sung by a Muslim from Afghanistan, Humayun Khan(ph).

Mr. HUMAYUN KHAN (Actor): For me personally, I'm seeing the same messages you get in different cultures, different backgrounds, different religions, the philosophy of trying to understand life. So it's beautiful to see the parallels.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: But there is no parallel in Western music for the Indian rhaga(ph) that Khan will improvise and weave into the medieval-style vocals in the opera.

Mr. KHAN: One is the most important beat. When you finish the improvisation, you pick up the composition again and come back to that first beat and finish that subject.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: The role of Arjuna is sung by tenor Tony Boutte, who's more accustomed to singing Handel and Verdi.

(Soundbite of opera singing)

VITALE: In "Arjuna's Dilemma," Boutte sings in ancient Sanskrit, but the Louisiana native says he doesn't understand the language.

Mr. TONY BOUTTE (Opera singer): This music feels a little bit to me like gospel music. And some of the language, because it does end up feeling a little bit like nonsense sometimes, you feel like you're almost speaking in tongues.

VITALE: Can all of these sounds from different times and cultures come together? Critic Matthew Gravich(ph), who writes for the New York Times, says they do.

Mr. MATTHEW GRAVICH (Writer, New York Times): I've heard a good deal of miserable contemporary opera in which the atmosphere is nothing much, in which the word settings are nothing much. I feel that Douglas Cuomo in this piece has written something that very frequently makes you sit up again and pay attention.

(Soundbite of opera music)

VITALE: Composer Douglas Cuomo says his intention was to create a work that reflected the Bhagavad Gita's theme of harmony.

Mr. CUOMO: Part of the overall metaphor of the Bhagavad Gita is that everything is one. So the idea that everything can be kind of harmonized as one was something that was going through my mind as I was writing this.

VITALE: The one thing that's not in "Arjuna's Dilemma" is the commercial music that pays Douglas Cuomo's rent. He says he only put into his opera what he wanted to hear. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

SIMON: And this is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Vitale

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