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A new children’s opera at Glimmerglass frames The Jungle Book as a refugee story

Composer Kamala Sankaram
Composer Kamala Sankaram

Fans of the Rochester chamber ensemble fivebyfive know Kamala Sankaram’s work from the group's 2021 album, Of and Between.

Now Sankaram (pronounced “SHANK-ah-rahm”) has produced a new opera, premiering at the Glimmerglass Festival. In retelling The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, she and librettist Kelley Rourke frame the tale of Mowgli as a refugee story.

Karli Cadel

“Our take on Mowgli is that this piece is about how we decide to welcome in people who are different than we are and the power of community,” Sankaram said. “I think they are very important topics, especially right now.”

The composer drew inspiration from Hindustani and Carnatic music of northern and southern India, blended with traditional European classical traditions.

Part of putting the piece together has been teaching the kids involved about Rāga.

“They sing through the use of the sargam,” the composer said. Sargam is the Indian equivalent to solfège, a technique for the teaching of sight singing.

“Glimmerglass is doing 'The Sound of Music' this season also, so if you hear ‘Do-Re-Mi’ in 'The Sound of Music,' you'll be hearing the equivalent in 'Jungle Book,' which is ‘Sarigama Padanisa,’” Sankaram said.

The Jungle Book was supposed to premiere in 2020.

Sankaram's path to becoming a composer did not run a straight line.

Composer Kamala Sankaram in conversation with WXXI's Brenda Tremblay
Brittany Lesavoy
Composer Kamala Sankaram in conversation with WXXI's Brenda Tremblay

“I was not supposed to go to music school,” she said, “I was supposed to become a doctor. And so, while I studied composition, as an undergrad, I left undergrad very much in debt, and my parents offered to pay for grad school if I did not go for music.”

Sankaram earned a doctorate in cognitive psychology, making music for her own pleasure. That path freed her to follow her own muse, she said.

“Not having gone through school and not having an identity as a composer allowed me to make things that were just interesting to me.” Sankaram said. “And it's very strange to me. I feel very lucky that I have a career as a composer now. It's not something that I actively pursued at first.”

One her next projects will be writing another piece for fivebyfive to mark the total eclipse of the sun in 2024.

Composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Kelley Rourke's
new opera, The Jungle Book runs at the Glimmerglass Festival through August 8th.

Brenda Tremblay has served as weekday morning host on WXXI Classical since 2009.