Concert review: Sankaram’s troubling, virtue signaling “Thumbprint”

Mukhtar Mā’ī (Kamala Sankaram) anguishing over her ordeal… and hopeful for the largesse of the well-to-do audience’s pity. (Image courtesy of Los Angeles Opera)

It’s the middle of August—the height of the summer doldrums. Which means that reviews from yours truly will be sporadic until next month. Until then, here’s a golden oldie of a review that I forgot to share back in June. 

That we’re living through some interesting times, at least in the West, ought to be fairly obvious to anyone by now. The arts, as is often the case, is a telling barometer of the zeitgeist, though in the present case, perhaps for unintended as much as intended reasons. 

A “CNN opera” with a potent whiff of political commitment à la Il prigioniero, Kamala Sankaram’s opera Thumbprint grapples with social problems which are very much of the moment. Yet its verbose and ham-fisted libretto not only scuttle that enterprise, but also inadvertantly teeters into misogynistic and anti-human territory. 

Towards the end of the work, the protagonist intones: “I thought the rape was the worst thing/That ever happened to me/Now I see it is also the best/Before the rape I was a dumb animal/I knew nothing, nothing.” In case the point was not made clear to the audience, the libretto also has Mukhtār sing that her brutalization “gave [her] life meaning.” Are we to believe that her existence would have been meaningless had she lived peacefully and found fulfillment with more quotidian concerns?

[…]

In “Thumbprint” violence is a safe and beautiful spectacle, a latter-day gladiator fight for bien pensants to project their expressions of ideological affiliation onto; for whom Mukhtār Mā’ī, the human being, is mere fodder in the interminable culture wars.

Worse than all that: Sankaram’s score is simply tedious and dull. 

Not that my fellow local music critics felt that way, who fell atop each other in order to fawn over this deeply flawed work. It reminded me of the hysterically positive reaction to Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, which seemed to me at least to be a mess. Yet both these creations have something in common: They essentially reduce their respective art forms to mere political pamphleteering and sloganeering. The “message” in each of these works takes precedence over everything else, including artistic craft. Opera and film cease becoming something in and of themselves. Instead the medium becomes a megaphone at the service of the “message,” with its characters no longer real people, but stark talking points with human features. It’s the triumph of sentimentality over reason—and symptomatic of a greater malaise. 

You can read the rest of my review for Thumbprint here. 

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