It starts with a song – the voice of the soprano echoes through with a bright vocal timbre. She sings of poison and the universe as actors gather behind her. They begin to breathe in unison; every inhalation is weighted, deep.
Every move is intentionally choreographed to allude to a struggle, a groaning and the impending birth of war and grief.
Malam Takdir wastes no time to question what it means to live – toying with the notions of fate, predestined circumstances and human flaw.
Written by Johan Othman and directed by Chee Sek Thim, Malam Takdir is the latest opera in Bahasa Malaysia (with English surtitles), inspired by the Mahabharata. The show’s project manager is Tan Hock Kheng
It will play at Komtar, George Town in Penang from July 21-23, before hitting the PJAC stage in Petaling Jaya on Aug 5 and 6.
Malam Takdir, produced by Five Arts Centre, is a sensitively written libretto, weaving in a capella music, vigorous and energetic dance movements and the rhythms and poetry of the national language, carving out relevance and expanding the possibilities of how a classical text from ages past can be realised through contemporary expression and intangible heritage.
The Mahabharata is one of the two epic poems in Sanskrit. The other is the Ramayana which was widely disseminated in South-East Asia. The Mahabharata is also regarded as an important source of information on how Hinduism developed between 400BC and 200BC, weaving in the dharma (moral law in Hinduism) and itihasa (historical narratives).
One of the important aspects of the Mahabharata is its use of mythological and didactic material surrounding the central heroic narrative that tells the struggle for sovereignty between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
Malam Takdir, suppported by Yayasan Sime Darby and the Creador Foundation, began as a series of conceptual ideas, with the foundation of the show needing to be tied back to source material.
“There is no one answer. I wanted to write an opera for quite some time and there were many ideas that I explored. The Mahabharata seemed to always draw me back so I thought why not pick a scene or an episode and go from there?” says Johan, the show’s writer and composer.
“One of the things that struck me is the idea of flaw – that everyone is flawed; there is no real perfection. That was one of the main themes that stuck with me. The Mahabharata is also an incredibly dramatic text that is theatre-friendly, and, at the same time, is not foreign to the region,” he adds.
The cast of Malam Takdir, featuring Hilyati Ramli, Tan Jin Yin, Kabilan, Desmond Ngooi, Teoh Chee Lin, and Wong Wei Hern, is a Penang-based line-up involved in the fields of theatre, dance, and academia.
Building the opera
“There was something about the image of the blind king and his 100 sons that was extremely attractive. Johan and I sat together, and we thought about a ‘problem’ to structure the drama and build the opera,” says Chee, a longstanding Five Arts Centre member, and the owner of Reka Arts Space in George Town.
The issue was the concept of fate. Malam Takdir revolves around the imagined conversation between the blind king and his attendant/advisor. The tragedy brewing ahead is the predestined war where all 100 of the king’s sons die in battle. As the blind king wrestles with the voices of his advisor and consciousness, the conflict that unfolds is one that looks at human volition, betrayal and fate.
The plot is grounded in the struggle of a father and a king, evocatively and thoughtfully brought out by Hilyati whose swift movements, carefully uttered words, and poignant emotions depict the inner turmoil and anguish. There is eloquence in her movement and acting that amplifies the resonance of the text to those in the audience.
Hilyati is no stranger to Malam Takdir, having been a part of its early staging in 2019.
The opera has since seen two major changes, firstly its translation from English to Bahasa Malaysia, and secondly, the character “bhumi” who carries the arias throughout the opera.
The latter was created after the duo realised the need to contextualise the Mahabharata.
Johan then composed a series of arias which will be performed by Tan Jin Yin, a classically trained singer who excellently brings out the theatrical context of the text.
In relation to the latter, Chee explains, “After the first version, Johan originally did not want to write the music. He said that the text was musical enough; that he could already sense the musicality of the performance in the text as it was.”
The text is also loyal to the use of old or classical Bahasa Malaysia which is rooted in Sanskrit. The formality, poetry and rhythms of the language shine through the text and music, evoking different kinds of emotions with words that are no longer used in everyday conversations.
Johan adds, “There are a lot of motifs in the text that are very musical, like cahaya dalam cahaya dalam cahaya, and ruang dalam ruang dalam ruang. The emphasis these repetitions brings, and the way the words are uttered, are very song-like. I was reluctant to add music because I wondered if it would end up removing or distracting the rich melodies that were already present in the text.”
The result is the sensitive intertwining of text, music, singing and staging that captures the vulnerability, emotion and passion of a father and a king who challenges the notion of fate.
Question of fate
Did this opera production push the directorial work into challenging directions?
“In a way, it challenged myself. I have spoken and thought about the notion of pre-determined fate at length. It’s such a huge part of our everyday language and culture. There are also religious understandings to add another layer,” says Johan.
“If our life is fated by something, should we challenge it? Not change, but should we challenge it?” he adds.
“There is a curiosity about the future and we have superstitions when something bad happens – the need for a reason, or the use of talismans to prevent things from happenings. These were all entry points that we used to look at the text,” says Chee.
“The script reveals a lot of subtle kinds of understandings and meaning specific to the story. I suppose the most significant aspect of the text would be the blurring of right and wrong.”
As the opera magnifies the problematisation of judgment, many viewers will be left in awe of its relatability and the more nuanced perspectives on what it means to live buoyed by notions of pre-destined fate and destiny, and how much of that can we question or challenge. Is it a flaw to do so? Or is it a flaw not to do so?
To quote Chee, “Sometimes there is no resolution. How do we pass judgment on what is right or wrong given the circumstances, in this case, as father and king?”
“We are many things and every time we make a decision, there are so many considerations we have to make in relation to who we are today, and who we are to the people around us,” he adds.
How do we sit with that?
Malam Takdir will play at Auditorium A, Level 5, Komtar, George Town in Penang from July 21-23 (more info here) before continuing its run at the Nero Event Space, PJAC in Petaling Jaya on Aug 5 and 6 (more info here).