Opera singer puts Punjabi spin on Schumann classic to better reflect her culture

A Victoria-based opera singer is putting her own spin on a classic German song cycle in order to better reflect her Punjabi-Canadian community.

Simran Claire, 24, an opera singer with Pacific Opera, is part of the group’s Citizen Artist program. It’s an eight-week paid virtual residency that mentors young opera singers and provides them with resources to create a music video.

As part of the project, Claire is updating Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauen-Liebe und Leben, originally composed in 1840, to reflect the life of her 75-year-old grandmother and the cultural differences in her story, such as her arranged marriage.

The poem, which translates to A Woman’s Love and Life, tells the story of a woman’s life from the moment she sees her future husband for the first time and falls in love, through marriage and parenthood, and up to his death. 

“I have always loved the music from this cycle but have found it very hard to relate to the story,” Claire said. “It’s just the type of love that is expressed in this story is so grandiose and all-consuming, and that’s definitely not what I grew up seeing.”

Claire decided to bring some of her own experiences as a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian, along with the experiences of her grandmother Gurbax Kaur Claire, into the piece.

“My grandmother and a lot of other people in my family have all had arranged marriages and so this kind of western idea of falling hopelessly in love has never existed in my life,” she said. 

“She had never met the man she was marrying. She didn’t even see him [again] until two months after the wedding … My story doesn’t start with boy meets girl. My story starts with the wedding, and then they meet afterward. The love comes after the children.”

Simran Claire is adapting the song cycle to better reflect the life of her 75-year-old grandmother Gurbax Kaur Claire, who married in very different circumstances to the subject of Schumann’s work. (Submitted by Simran Claire)

While she will be singing in the original German, the video will have Punjabi surtitles. 

“My parents and my family have always been so supportive of my career and my journey through the arts, but when they come to operas, I think it’s difficult for them to relate,” she said, noting that her grandmother, like many women of her generation, wasn’t formally educated past Grade 5.

“English surtitles above an opera stage that’s being sung in Italian, that’s kind of difficult for her to follow along with.” 

Claire says she hopes the video will be a way of opening up the opera world to her family and community. It’s also a reflection of a larger conversation about representation and inclusion taking place in opera.

“The opera world has always been seen as this very kind of stoic, rigid, uptight world,” Claire said. 

“We’re having all these conversations about what it means to be reflected in our art, who is reflected, do the artists have a say in the works that are programmed … as a Punjabi-Canadian, I’ve never had the chance to sing a work by someone who looks like me, you know?”

The music video is scheduled to be released in February 2021.

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