Kishani at Sadler's Wells: Another "first"

By Tara Cumaraswamy

Kishani Jayasinghe has already made history as the first Sri Lankan to sing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. On June 2, she also became the first Sri Lankan opera singer to perform at another prestigious London venue, the Sadler's Wells Theatre, when she sang the role of Sifare in the Classical Opera Company's production of Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto.

This was Kishani's debut with the Classical Opera Company, which specialises in the music of Mozart and his contemporaries. It is one of the most innovative and highly regarded young arts companies in Britain and in its short life has acquired a reputation for launching the careers of several young artists who have subsequently reached international stature.

Mitridate was Mozart's first major operatic success, written when he was only 14 years old. Performing it was quite a challenge, as early Mozart, is, by Kishani's own admission, "fiendishly difficult”. Early Mozart has some similarities with Baroque music, which is highly ornamented and requires immense vocal agility.

Another challenge faced by Kishani was that she was playing a male character and wearing trousers on stage for the first time! Notwithstanding this, it would be fair to say - based on audience reaction, and not on the present writer's personal bias - that among the cast Kishani stood out for the polished quality of her singing. The distinctive timbre of her rich velvety soprano showed to particular advantage in "Lungi da te", the most beautiful aria in the opera, for which she received audience applause lasting several minutes. Said Kishani afterwards, "Just getting to sing that incredible aria made up for all the discomfort of having to sing it in a man's suit!"

This was an interesting production in many ways. It re-instated many of Mozart's original arias, which he had been forced to cut or rewrite for its première in 1770, partly due to complaints that they were "troppo tedesco" ("too German")! However, its staging was very modern, replacing ancient Pontus (now in present-day Turkey) with an anonymous Middle-Eastern city which is at war with an unnamed (western) enemy. King Mithridates was attired in a combat jacket, while the others wore suits or other costumes designed to symbolize differing degrees of loyalty to "the West" or to Mithridates. The action was based in a "situation room" in the palace, with ultra-modern Minimalist lighting and décor, and much use of technological devices such as computers and video screens.

The plot is quite simple: King Mithridates is betrothed to the beautiful Aspasia. Both his adult sons, Sifare and Farnace, are in love with her. While Mithridates is away on a military campaign, Farnace (spurning his fiancée, Ismene) makes advances to Aspasia, but Sifare, out of loyalty to his father, does not speak of his feelings. When Mithridates returns and finds out that Aspasia actually loves Sifare, he suspects the wrong son of betraying him. In the end, Mithridates discovers the truth but dies of battle wounds; Aspasia and Sifare are free to love each other and Farnace is reconciled with Ismene.

The role of Sifare was originally sung by a castrato, but the modern practice is for such parts to be sung by sopranos (or counter-tenors). Even though this did not affect the way she sang, Kishani had to "psych" herself into feeling and acting like a man, by making hand gestures in straight rather than curved lines, squaring her shoulders and walking more heavily to give the impression of authority, making her movements strong and decisive rather than light and graceful, and so on. Kishani conceded: "Whilst I personally dislike wearing trousers on stage, it made it easier for me to play my character. Though I have to say that having spent my childhood tagging along with my older brother and his friends, I was a bit of a tomboy myself, which also helped!"

In the past too, Kishani has demonstrated the ability to engage fully with her characters. During the two years she spent at the Royal Opera House she played a variety of roles and was able to convey their essence with equal conviction, whether it was the impish vivacity of a Giannetta (L'Elisir d'Amore) or the resigned acceptance of a Mimi (La Bohème).

Here she successfully captures Sifare's integrity and adherence to filial duty despite being torn by his feelings for Aspasia. But what you carry away with you is, of course, Kishani's singing: consummate voice control, with the ability to drop from a thrilling full-throated climax to the merest whisper within a couple of notes; perfectly judged vibrato which is never overblown; deeply sensitive colouring of words; and, above all, the burnished-gold quality of her voice.

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