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Mozart and the British Raj



One reason Nicholas Heath has set two Mozart operas in India might be an unconscious desire to reconnect with his roots.

The 52-year-old director was adopted at the age of two months by an English family, and research into his biological parentage suggests he is probably half-Indian.

He has no records of his father. "But I was told my biological mother came from Yemen, was unmarried and fell pregnant while a student in the UK, and that's all the information I had, " he says. "I put her surname into a computer which showed you where the concentration of names came from. It came out that that name probably came from Delhi. Also, in the late '50s there were many Indians living in Yemen. "

So far Heath's two London-based opera companies - Opera a la Carte and Regents Opera - have put on 23 operas, two of which are set in India. In September, Opera a la Carte performed Mozart's comic opera Cosi fan tutte (Women are like that) in a barn in Berkshire to raise money for the Peace International School, Rwanda. Originally, the Italian-sung opera was set in Naples. But Heath has set it in the British Raj of the 1920s. And in August, Regents Opera performed Mozart's

German-sung fairy-tale opera The Magic Flute in Windsor in the UK. This opera was transferred from Vienna, a 1930s colonial hospital in India.

"There are no traditional 19th-century operas I know of composed originally with India as setting, " he says. "Verdi's Aida is set in Egypt, Puccini's Madame Butterfly in Japan and Carmen in Spain, but I'm not aware of any mainstream ones set in India. "

As for whether his probable Indian roots influenced his choice of setting, Heath says: "As a director, you draw on all of your experiences and then do more research. Once I had the idea of setting something in India, it fitted really well. There is an underlying feeling that somewhere I am Indian. The next step is to have a DNA test. "

Heath is a Londoner who has never stepped foot in India. His parents' lifestyle was thoroughly English, the food at home all Western and non-spicy. "I had my first when I was 20, " he says smiling over a latte in a Starbucks at Paddington Station.

He chose to set Cosi fan tutte in British India because the concept of British officers during the Raj with their high-society wives could easily replace the original story of two officers in Naples in the 18th century with their fiancêes. In the original, the officers pretend to be called to war and return disguised as Albanians to test the love of their fiancêes. In his version, they come back dressed as Arabian Knights. He created a subplot too, of an Indian servant falling for an English lady-in-waiting and the duo running off together. Last month, when he put it on in Berkshire, he played the servant. He says he tries to cast people of Indian heritage in Indian roles, provided they have a work permit and can sing.

For The Magic Flute, he chose an Indian hospital because he wanted to stage a power struggle between the nurses and doctors in an old-fashioned setting and there were various aspects of India that suited the story well. For example, Papageno, the bird-catcher in the original, is portrayed as a feral Indian child who catches birds and then gives them to the nurses in return for food. He replaces the Freemasonry imagery with a medical hierarchy power struggle - a fight between the matron and the consultant doctor. In the original, the struggle takes place between Queen of The Night and Sarastro. His is a story about Brits going native in exotic India and fully embracing their environment. He uses a fululu (flute), which is played by the Sema Naga tribe in Nagaland, for the magic flute in the original. The old crone Papagena is an Indian leper covered in bandages, who when unwrapped by the doctors, is found to be beautiful at the end.

"I wasn't going to set it in Croydon, " says Heath. "I mean, for starters, the idea about the flute - no one in Croydon would be given a flute, but in India someone might be given a flute. A lot of Indian elements worked, including the theme that good and evil coexist to promote a balance, which is very Eastern philosophy. I just found India was like a glove that somehow fitted. "

His Indianised The Magic Flute is accompanied by a 12-piece ensemble. Heath's late father, cellist Kenneth Heath, was a co-founder of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra. His late half-Scottish mother was a former stage actress-turned housewife. Since she could not have children, owing to having contracted TB, the couple adopted three - him, his sister who is Indian, and his late brother, who is Irish-Iranian. For those times, what they did was quite daring, Heath admits, as there was no "celebrity tradition" of it and there was "a lot of racial tension in the UK".

At the age of four, Heath was rather disappointed to learn that the "people who had cared for him" were not his parents. "They told me when I was very young so that I was not constantly asking questions since I had brown skin and they were white. I was slightly disappointed. But I continued to view them as my parents. " He soon grew comfortable with his mixed race and adopted identity. He was nicknamed Nigolas at school, but says that this did not bother him.

"Being cross-cultural had its advantages, " he says with a smile. "For example, in Italy, people treated me like I was Italian;in Jordan they would offer me cups of tea, thinking I was Arabic, so I've had quite a chameleon existence. I think if you are brought up by a loving family, given an education and are level-headed, being adopted can open doors and not close doors. It gives one something extra. " One of his school friends was Pakistani. "I remember being given a Christmas present from him with lots of little mirrors on and my family had never seen anything like it before. "
Heath, who was a member of the Royal Opera Chorus from 1993 to 2006, started Opera a la Carte in 1993, just before he joined the Royal Opera House. Originally it was set up to provide intimate corporate entertainment to private clients, such as serenades at dinners or cabarets, but it soon started putting on full-length opera performances all over the world. It specialises in bizarre performances in unusual settings in the open air or on the street to appeal to first-time opera goers. Despite receiving no funding from the government's Arts Council, his two companies still make a profit. He would love to bring his operas to India. But for that, he says, "We just need a sponsor."

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