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Shreya Sen-Handley on Being the First South Asian Woman to write an International Opera

12 September 20 interview: Nathan Warby
illustrations: K Kamminga

She’s had two books published by HarperCollins, written for international media and was even the regional head of a television channel at the age of 25. It’s fair to say that there are achievers in this world, and then there’s Shreya Sen-Handley. And if that impressive CV wasn’t enough, she’s now become the first Indian and South Asian woman to write a Western, international opera, called Migrations. We catch up with the multi-talented writer to find out more...

Writer, author, journalist. Nottingham-based Shreya Sen-Handley is undoubtedly skilled with the written word, having penned an award-winning book and enjoyed a prolific career in journalism. Despite her credentials, opera was not necessarily an artform that she would have expected to take on. However, after an email from the iconic Sir David Pountney to an old account, her libretto will feature in Migrations for the Welsh National Opera – making her the first Indian and South Asian woman to write a western, international opera.

“I hope it breaks down barriers and opens doors. I want to show other communities, including my own, that opera is for them, it doesn’t have to purely be a posh, white thing,” says Shreya, who credits the WNO for taking steps to improve its diversity. ”Opera is a very universal form of art, but in the past it has always been very exclusive.”

As well as being the first Indian woman to write an international opera, she also acknowledges that she is unique locally. “I’ve gathered that there aren’t any other opera writers in Nottingham at the moment, other than Stephen Lowe who I adore,” she explains, “So I’m doing something that is quite individual in the context of my background as well as where I am now.”

Shreya has built an impressive catalogue of work during her career, both in India and the UK, from her award-winning book Memoirs of My Body to her collection of unsettling short stories Strange. Her work as a journalist has seen her featured in The Guardian, as well as being the regional head of a television channel in Eastern India at the age of 25. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though, she overcame a violent first marriage which temporarily brought a halt to her writing. This most recent accolade is the latest in a history of personal and professional triumphs.

It’s not about shoving things down people’s throats, you want to draw them in and make them feel comfortable

Breaking new ground has naturally drawn extra attention to her work, but she insists that the potential pressure hasn’t impacted her or the piece. “I didn’t even know I was the first, the press told me after I had written it,” she explains, “South Asia has thousands of years’ worth of tradition when it comes to musical extravaganzas, just look at the Bombay film industry. So, I don’t know if it’s because of that, or just the natural rhythm I have when I write, but it actually came fairly naturally.”

In spite of being a prolific writer, opera wasn’t something Shreya ever expected to be involved with. “I think I wrote a play when I was in high school, and some poetry that made it into the school magazine, that was the triumph of my poetic career so far,” she laughs, “So opera definitely stood out for how different it was, but I really enjoyed the challenge. I’ve actually got some more opera projects in the pipeline that I can’t talk about!”

It’s not every day someone of international significance gets in touch with you, especially in an email to a long-forgotten address. “All I ever got on that account was emails from so-called Nigerian princes promising me millions,” Shreya jokes, “Suddenly I have an email from Sir David, a knight for his contribution to the arts, asking me to write something that I’ve never written before.”

Although she wasn’t expecting an offer from such a well-known artistic figure, it was her impressive resume that Shreya believes sparked his interest. “I’ve written hundreds of columns and I’m in the middle of writing my third book, but that’s all prose. In that sense, opera stands out for being very different to my usual work,” she explains, “Sir David could have easily gone with an established Indian poet, but I think he wanted a fresh voice who suited the project.”

The opera itself, entitled Migrations, which would originally have been opening in October, is a collection of work from six writers of different backgrounds, inspired by the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing over to the ‘New World’. Shreya’s libretto takes place in 1968 and follows Indian doctors within the NHS who have been invited to Britain by then Health Minister Enoch Powell. It aims to depict the troubles that faced migrants during that particular point in time, but also acknowledge and celebrate the positives that have emerged.

“The fact is there is still a lot of discrimination. Sometimes doctors from BME backgrounds are stuck in GP roles rather than moving up to something else. Even during the pandemic, if you look at the number of BME doctors who have died compared to the indigenous population, it’s a much higher number. It suggests that they are the ones who get the frontline jobs regardless of their qualifications. That being said, 72% of the doctors in the NHS in Wales are Indian, people who have settled down and become vital, respected members of their communities. In that sense – it’s a success story.”

Opera is a very universal form of art, but in the past it has always been very exclusive

The subject matter is one of great seriousness, not to mean the show will be without laughs. “It is a black comedy, I want to make people laugh but also keep sensitivities in mind,” she says, “It’s all about balance; you need to have that lighter touch while still making sure that you’re landing your punches. It’s not about shoving things down people’s throats, you want to draw them in and make them feel comfortable. When you’re sharing your life with someone, you’re building a bridge and that is when the message gets through.”

Shreya signed off with a message for anyone striving to follow suit, encouraging anyone who wants to pursue written work of any kind to try. “People write in so many different ways and one day you’ll find your niche. I think that writing gives you strength because everything that you’re bottling up comes out and if you’re getting validation from it, it can give you so much self-confidence.

You can catch Shreya’s work in Migrations when it opens next year as part of the Welsh National Opera’s 75th birthday, featuring Sir David Pountney, Sarah Woods, Edson Burton & Miles Chambers, Eric Ngalle Charles, Sarah Woods, Shreya Sen-Handley and music composed by Will Todd.

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