Brian Asawa Interview
November 03, 2014
Brian Asawa (pictured left) recently released a recording entitled "Spirits of the Air" with mezzo-soprano Diana Tash. The Merola Program is hosting a CD release celebration on November 7, 2014, honoring both singers, who are to attend and be interviewed.
How did you get your start in opera and how did you discover that you were a countertenor?
I was always very interested in music. I took piano lessons on and off since the age of 5. I sang in my elementary school chorus. In junior high school I took up cello and played in the junior high school orchestra. In high school I took up trombone and played in the award winning jazz band and award winning marching band at Venice High School in Los Angeles.
I attended UC Santa Cruz as a piano major, but my passion was singing. I sang in both the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir. My choral director and mentor gave me my first solo as a countertenor after I discovered my strong falsetto voice. I transferred to UCLA and focused entirely on my countertenor voice, graduated with a BA, then began a Master's degree at USC in Early Music, but left the program when I won the Met Auditions to start my career. The Met win was followed with my life changing participation in San Francisco Opera Center's Merola and Adler Fellowship programs, which provided me with musical, language, movement coachings, as well as performance opportunities that I never could have found elsewhere.
Regarding my early stages in opera, my first mentor was John Hall, the opera workshop director at UCLA. I performed in several productions there. At USC, I studied Baroque opera and performed arias with lutenist and early music specialist James Tyler and his Early Music Ensemble.
The first time I heard you sing was in Bayerische Staatsoper's Saul because David Daniels was indisposed. Does this sort of thing happen often as there are relatively few countertenors?
Countertenors used to be few and far between, especially in the United States, but now they is more supply of countertenors than demand. Countertenors like Jeffrey Gall, Derek Lee Ragin, Drew Minter, and myself brought the vocal category to the forefront in the US in the late 80's early 90's.
Regarding singers that are sick and unable to perform and replaced, it happens all the time. This is why singers in Europe are at such a huge advantage over American singers. Most European travel times are a two-hour flight or less. Jumping in for ailing singers is very common, especially in the winter.
I was at the right place at the right time. I just happened to be in Germany doing a concert tour in Baroque pitch of Handel's Saul, the last show in Wuppertal, when I got a call from my manager, saying I wasn't flying home to SF, but rather going to Munich to step in for David Daniels, who was ailing from bronchitis. There was no time to learn the staging, but I was able to quickly learn an aria which was cut from the concert tour version, and I had to sing the whole role up a half step.
It was crazy! I sang the part on the side of the stage, and the stage manager acted the part on stage. This is the best we could do. Singers are not robots. We get sick too, and the intelligent singers cancel, and the not so intelligent go on, and sometimes to catastrophic results. We don't have the luxury and assurance of pulling out our instruments from cases, or just opening a lid. No matter what instrumentalists say, they don't have the same stress that singers do. Many pianists or violinists have gone on with colds and even the flu because they can unless they are deathly ill. I have had numerous arguments with instrumentalists about this topic, but their instruments are not living in their throats.
Your repertoire includes many Händel operas, but you have also worked with contemporary composers such as Peter Eötvös and Daron Hagen. How do these roles compare?
Certainly the technical demands of contemporary opera are much different than Baroque opera. And more specifically, each role within Baroque and contemporary works presents different technical challenges. I found the roles of my lifetime in Peter Eotvös' Tri Sestri (The Three Sisters) as Masha, and in Georg Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre as Prince Go-Go.
Baroque opera is more exposed and technically challenging with fast coloratura arias, as well as slow, legato arias, often with long lines, requiring endless breath support. Contemporary opera often requires more vocal colors and heft, and the ability to count!
How was singing it working with West Edge Opera on Hagen's Vera of Las Vegas?
It was great fun. A professional drag artist was hired to teach me how to walk in high heels, and move like a drag performer. The make-up and wig alone took about 90 minutes to apply. Technically it was challenging to sing, because the role was written for a male soprano, and since I am a male alto, the aria was transposed a minor third down, making the role feel like there were two different tessituras.
How did the CD Spirits of the Air come together?
My duet partner Diana Tash and I met in Los Angeles Opera's 1995 production of Handel's Xerxes. We performed together at San Diego Opera in 2005 and were in different productions there the following season. I invited Diana to join me in a few benefit recitals for my church. We then performed in a duo recital at the Colburn School of Music in 2011. Subsequently we decided to do an all Baroque program, which we performed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Guadalajara. We recorded this with our continuo team and released it this month on LML Music.
What are your favorite operas?
My favorite operas are Elektra (I saw Gwyneth Jones in the title role blow the roof off of SF Opera in 1991), Xerxes, Giulio Cesare, Mitridate, Ascanio in Alba, Madama Butterfly, and L'incoronazione di Poppea.
Who do you look up to as far as musicians are concerned?
A partial list of singers that I admire are Mirella Freni, Leontyne Price, Pavarotti, Edita Gruberova, Carol Vaness, Domingo, Emma Kirkby, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Janet Baker, Marilyn Horne, Natalie Dessay, Jennifer Larmore, Jochen Kowalski, Reneè Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, John Tomlinson, and Joyce di Donato.
As for conductors, I admire Sir Colin Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Esa Pekka Salonen, Emmanuelle Häim, Ivor Bolton, and Gustav Dudamel.
We in the Bay Area were so sorry to lose your aunt Ruth Asawa, the amazing sculptor and arts education activist last year. Was she an influence for you?
She was such a generous woman. When I was young, we used to come up and visit her from LA, and she would keep us entertained with all kinds of arts and crafts activities, trips to museums, and even a lecture with Buckminister Fuller, a close friend of hers. She always was so gracious and showed such humility with regard to her gifts as an artist. When I started performing in my later years, she was so supportive and always came to my performances. She even came all the way to Mexico City for the Domingo Competition.
What are the challenges for opera singers in our age of social media and live high definition broadcasts?
With social media everything is instant. When people attend performances, they are tweeting and Facebooking at the intermissions about how everyone is singing, who the standouts are, how the conductor is conducting, how the orchestra sounds, and what the production is like. I have to say, it is refreshing that the audience has to put their devices away for classical performances! We are so attached and addicted to our phones, laptops, tablets that it's nice to see a forced break imposed, if even for a few hours.
I must say there are more benefits to the arts rather than challenges with regard to social media and the advancements of technology. Performances of operas and concerts are reaching so many more people than ever before through hi def performances. Musicians are now able to promote and publicize themselves so much more effectively than before the advent of social media. Luckily, there are very few incidences of cyberbullying amongst musicians. Most musicians seem very supportive of one another on social media. Sometimes fans can play favorites or be unnecessarily rude or critical, but one takes the good and ignores the bad.
Do you have a theory on why some many opera fans are also baseball fans?
It seems like opera fans are into many different types of sports. I personally love watching tennis and gymnastics, women's volleyball, and cheerleading. However, I know a lot of SF Opera chorus members who are completely obsessed with the SF Giants. On the topic of baseball, my father used to take me to LA Dodger games when I was a kid. I was probably more into the spectacle of being there, the chanting and singing, the Dodger dogs, and ice cream than the actual game!