She’s having the Cirque du Soleil experience of her life, but Meetu Chilana, who previously toured in Cirque’s production of Koozå and is currently winding up her run at Radio City Music Hall in the company’s Zarkana, is making it into the “Meetu experience.”
New York-based Chilana, who was born and raised in New Jersey, is playing the role of Clown Diva Castafiore in the surreal Zarkana (the title fuses the words “bizarre” and “arcana”), and understudying the fanciful roles of Lia (the magician Zark’s assistant), Mandragora (Flower Pistil Mutant Lady), Kundalini (Snake Mutant Lady), and Tarantula (Spider Mutant Lady). She also voices the animated Pickled Lady.
The different characters allow her to further explore a vocal range that has already proven broad enough to have been showcased on tracks from Bollywood lyricist Shabbir, Bollywood hit producer Eric Pillai, U.K. Indian producer Rishi Rich, New York bhangra producer DJ Rekha, producer/writer producer/songwriter David Maurice (credits include Jay-Z and Garbage), and songwriter/producer Livingstone Brown (Seal, Avril Lavigne).
Her eclectic 2007 Indian fusion pop EP I Am featured six original songs in English, Hindi and Punjabi, and featured “Lost,” from the 2006 feature film Hiding Divya, which starred Madhur Jaffrey and concerned mental illness in a South Asian-American family, and in which Chilana also played a key part.
“The EP gave a taste-test of all the different styles I like to do,” says Chilana. “I’m always very adamant about showing the variety of my voice, and Zarkana does just that.”
Born to first generation Pujabi Sikh parents, the singer-songwriter-actress-producer was trained as a youngster in jazz, tap and ballet dance, as well as piano, violin, flute, handbells, devotional kirtan performance, and bhangra dance team. She went on to lead a jazz trio, host TV shows and act in commercials and plays; she also associate-produced Hiding Divya.
“I was a ‘golden child’ most of my life–good grades, part of every club, choirs and instruments, a lot of bhangra,” says Chilana. “I did a lot of Off-Broadway theater: Jihad: The Musical, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007, D.D. Jackson’s original jazz opera Quebecite and Liz Swados’s RakheLeah—and Koozå.”
Koozå was a touring Cirque du Soleil circus production that premiered in 2007.
“It was more traditional–a tent show with a beautiful theme about an innocent character,” says Chilana. “It also required an Indian-flavored vocal.”
This was perfect for Chilana, who had been in India recording and seeking a record deal. She joined the Koozå cast in May, 2009, and did three tours of the show through December of 2010.
For Zarkana, which she joined in January, her part has been greatly expanded.
“I get to sing some Indian-type things,” she says. “Like right before the Pickled Lady falls into the vat there’s some traditional Indian classical vocal. Flower Pistil Mutant Lady is actually more operatic and lyrical. Snake Mutant Lady is a nut job, inspired by Nina Hagen: operatic at times, but growling and evil, roaring, belting, screaming, laughing, whispering and hissing—anything goes! A real good way to release tension, I’ll tell you that!”
Spider Mutant Lady, she continues, “is just angry, belting, growling. And then there’s Lia, who ties everything together, with more of a pop sound that’s gentler but also most akin to Broadway.”
When Chilana isn’t singing the lead parts, she’s often singing in the background, like during the fantastic juggling and acrobatic Russian bar segments, and during the beautiful sand painting sequence.
“As understudy, I try to make it all very Meetu–Indian influenced with little turns and tricks and flairs, but poppy. I want to create something that’s unique to me, and I can do that because the director allows it. But that’s the great thing about Cirque: There’s structure to the sections, but room to breathe within them and put in your own colors and stamp.”
Chilana notes that being a mezzo, she was forced to increase her range to the soprano range of the singer she understudies.
“I now have so much access to so many notes and colors I didn’t know I’d be able to perform on stage,” she says. “I sang a lot of jazz growing up, studying Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Sarah Vaughan, Eva Cassidy—along with pop artists like Mariah Carey, The Cranberries, Natalie Merchant and Sade. On the Indian side, [Hindi film “playback” singer] Geeta Dutt, [ghazal king] Jagjit Singh, [legendary Sufi Qawwali devotional singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Kha, and [legendary Bollywood playback singer] Asha Bhosle, who inspired me to create an alter ego, Disco Madame—a Bollywood femme fatale from the 1970s and ‘80s. When I’m not trying to sound operatic, the range and texture of my voice naturally sits in a Sade-esque place, but after doing these shows I feel I could do anything in this voice!”
Incredibly, Chilana must sing her Zarkana roles in a harness, as her characters are often suspended in the air.
“I took a lot of Pilates training!” she says. “The first time I’m out as Flower Pistil Mutant Lady, I’m 60 feet in the air! The first time I did it, it was really scary, but the character is very queen-like, looking over everything, and now it’s cool.”
The Spider Mutant Lady character requires a special swivel harness.
“I went 15 feet up, and froze the first time because I didn’t know how to move when my feet aren’t touching the floor. Then I went up to 35 feet, and had to breathe and say a prayer and just let myself go and flip upside down! But I got the hang of it, and it’s the best thing in the world: Oh my God, it feels like flying.”
Another challenge comes from the lyrics, which like the dialog, is essentially gibberish.
“It started out in English but changed to gibberish to make it sound more international,” says Chilana, who had only two weeks to learn the new versions. “The words mean nothing and weren’t necessarily written to be sung—and I had a really hard time memorizing them. But now that I have them down I can see the benefit. And the gibberish also helped me expand my expression and exploration of my voice, because I’m not constrained in having to get poetry across to tell the story—which was confusing to us and the audience. Now we have freedom in using pure emotion and expression to get the story across—which is a very different experience from Broadway.”
Chilana notes that her voice teacher gave her three months before she wore out her voice doing Zarkana.
“It’s like running a marathon, but I never lost my voice because I kept exploring,” she says.
Chilana now looks to take what she’s learned to Broadway and elsewhere when Zarkana’s Radio City run ends on Sept. 2.
“This has been a huge stepping stone for me,” she says. “I’ve learned so much vocally and physically, and I’m at the top of my game and want to continue to grow.”
Featured on DJ Rekha’s new label Beat Bazaar Music’s first single “Pyar Baile” (“a mix between old Bollywood disco and Brazilian baile funk”), Chilana had been working on a new recording until she “ran away with the circus, literally,” she says.
But during her stint with Cirque du Soleil, she discovered what she calls, “the Meetu experience.”
“Even performing with my jazz trio, I put in the little twists and turns of Indian music that means something to me,” she says, “the little half-tones that pull your heartstrings like sappy Bollywood movies—that help me express the song in my own way.”
She now looks to collaborate with other artists, applying “my new extended vocal instrument, that’s a gift from Cirque.” And the former student at Hackensack, N.J.’s Academy for Medical Science Technology is especially happy that her family has seen her perform for Cirque du Soleil.
“I saw a glimmer of hope in my parents’ eyes,” she says, “and a little pride in their voices when they said, ‘Maybe she doesn’t have to be a doctor.’”
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