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The unfulfilled dream of Sir Maurice Gwyer

Bangalore Opera House, the landmark on Brigade Road, was in bad shape and plagued by legal cases filed by encroachers, before Samsung stepped in to save it

RV Smith | New Delhi |

Delhi nearly got an Opera House in the late 1930s, had the first Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, Sir Maurice Gwyer, succeeded. But the dream remained unfulfilled and Bangalore got this distinction. The Samsung Opera House there has now been adopted by the South Korean multinational on a 10-year lease from the family of K Ramakrishnan on condition that the house, spread over 33,000 sq. ft, be preserved in its originality, complete with the mud-tiled roof. This Opera House is a business hub but with recreational and other facilities, especially for youth. Incidentally, it came up some 40 years after the departure of Winston Churchill from the city where he was posted as a gentleman cadet before moving on to Allahabad and then to South Africa for duty in the Boer War.

Coming back to Delhi, Sir Maurice Gwyer was a great lover of Shakespeare’s plays and he wanted the Dance Hall of the Old Viceregal Lodge, where Lord Mountbatten had proposed to his fiancée Lady Edwina in 1922, to convert it into a an Opera house. According to gossip heard in the 1960s in the Civil Lines, an American friend had suggested to Sir Maurice to stage the musical version of the famous story, The Devil and Daniel Webster as a starter to the proposed opera house.

It’s worth recounting this masterpiece of American folklore in which the legendary lawyer Webster fought a case with the Devil himself. A poor farmer, who had suffered huge losses in natural disasters, exclaimed loudly one desolate evening that he would gladly sell his soul to the Devil himself if his fortunes turned for the better. Later that evening a man in a black suit visited the farmer’s house and got a deed signed for seven years of good luck after which his soul would go to the Devil. The man in black was Satan himself. When that period ended, the farmer was greatly perturbed and persuaded Daniel Webster to take up his case, which he did. After an all-night trial, in which the spirits of some of the most notorious characters of American history acted as judge and jury, Webster was able to win the case (just as the cock crew to herald morning) after giving a parting kick on the back of the Evil One, who had come with a mousetrap to take away the farmer’s soul.

Sir Maurice was enthused by the story, which reminded him of the one written on the same lines by J F Fanthome about a Madrasa teacher of Shahjahanpur, on whose behalf some of the dead luminaries of the town acted as judge and jury. The teacher, Mahfouz, accused of expelling a suspected jinn boy, eventually won the case after a night-long trial in a deserted cemetery.

Unfortunately, the opera on the Devil and Daniel Webster could not be staged for lack of musicians though Louis of Bombay House had managed to get some actors, including three girls ~ Dolly Inglis, Helen Roy and Margaret Hamilton ~ as the female cast. The Devil’s part was to be played by Henry Brown, an alcoholic, and Peter Pereira, a lawyer, was to act as Daniel Webster.

It’s worth mentioning that the Opera originated in Italy towards the close of the 16th century, when Akbar the Great was hosting the Jesuit missionaries at Fatehpur Sikri. They probably told the emperor about the classic “Dafne”, produced in Florence by Jacop Peri. Akbar was familiar with Christmas plays staged by the Italian and Portuguese merchants at his court but a musical opera was something beyond his ken. However it was during the time of his successors that Henrich Schutz, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Henry Purcell made their mark as proponents of Opera, followed by George Frideric Handel and later Wolfgang Mozart who staged his Italian comic operas in the late 18th century.

“Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theatre, according to computer information sources: Such a “work” (the literal translation of Italian word “opera”) is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist, and incorporate a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume and, sometimes, dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19 th century has been led by a conductor.

Opera is a key part of the Western classical music tradition. Originally understood as an entirely sung piece, in contrast to a play with songs, opera has come to include numerous gen res, including some that include spoken dialogue such as musical theatre, Singspiel and Opera comique. In traditional number, opera singers employ two styles of singing: recitative, a speech infected style, and self-contained arias. The 19th century saw the rise of the continuous music drama.”

It is this tradition that was the inspiration for the Bangalore Opera House. The landmark on Brigade Road was in bad shape and plagued by legal cases filed by encroachers, who had set up multiple shops inside it. It was then that Samsung stepped in to save Bangalore’s showpiece and how well they did it is worth appreciation. The multinational is not averse (like the Aga Khan Trust) to the idea of taking up the sponsorship of some historical building in Delhi on the same lines as per the impression one got after a visit to its central office in Gurugram. A likely project could be the preservation of Arab Sarai, near Humayun’s Tomb. But the decision will have to be taken at the highest level and until then Bangalore Opera House will continue to enjoy its patronage.

Reflecting on Sir Maurice Gwyer’s plans for an opera house in Delhi, had he succeeded it would have added to the city’s pride and we might also have had an opera on The Tempest, the Vice-Chancellor’s favourite play, which made him name Miranda House after its heroine. No wonder his daughter too was named Miranda. Meanwhile, the Old Viceregal Lodge (built during the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1922) and its Dance Hall probably continue to dream in vacancy of a pet project that failed to materialise.