Sangeeta Kaur: Merging Genres to Center Herself

Sangeeta Kaur: Merging Genres to Center Herself

Sangeeta Kaur

Soprano Sangeeta Kaur tells CS how she merged experiences in opera and other genres, and the wisdom and welcome she found across communities to create successful new music as a classical crossover artist.



Grammy Award-winning soprano Sangeeta Kaur experienced a traditional education in classical singing, but her career path has been anything but traditional. From her days as an Opera Performance undergraduate student to her recent Grammy win for Best Classical Solo Vocal album, Kaur’s path has been shaped by the communities that have supported her and the collaborative environments she’s created. Her expansive musical career—which includes elements of classical voice, spiritual mantra, and even pop—has led her to collaborations with rock-and-roll legend Jon Anderson of the band Yes, two-time Grammy-winning New Age composer Peter Kater, renowned ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, and many more. Kaur says, “The thing that drives me to even wake up and do this work is…community. It’s because of collaboration. It’s because of all the people that have inspired me.” 

Kaur began her study of voice at the Bob Cole Music Conservatory at California State University–Long Beach where she earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Opera Performance. From there she went on to earn a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. After her education, including a young artist program in Europe and time studying in Italy, Kaur moved to New York City where she met the community that would change her life. 

Sangeeta Kaur

Three weeks after her arrival in New York, she met a music producer and composer who was also a yogi, and he asked her to record some of his work. She spent her sessions sight-reading music in a language she didn’t know for hours at a time and finding that she left each session with a deeper sense of peace. This was her first introduction to mantras. In those first few weeks of recording, she met “a whole community of meditators.” 

Kaur reflects, “I feel like that was the moment in my life where things shifted, because I started to sing differently. I started to connect to music differently. I started to connect to my soul much more deeply. It wasn’t about ‘I have to sing perfectly.’” She describes it as a barrier breaking down, moving her away from the expectations others put on her sound and moving her toward questions like, “How do you feel? What is the experience that you’re having?” And “What is the experience that you’re giving to others?” Kaur says this realization constituted a spiritual awakening that helped her realize her path was to “merge that world of music and spirituality.”

Kaur plunged herself into the study of yoga, meditation, and Buddhism while continuing to sing and use her voice in mantras. She began dreaming of creating operas based on ancient wisdom. She surrounded herself with a community of like-minded artists with the belief that one day they would be able to make music that was transformative. Kaur was inspired by an 11th century yogini by the name of Lady Niguma and believed that she would be the perfect subject for a new type of music that could integrate classical singing with mantras. She called her first album Niguma and released it in 2016, merging “a foundation alchemy of contemporary pop” with mantra music and her classical vocals. 

Only seven years after she discovered her path in New York, she wrote, produced, and performed her ambitious and acclaimed mantra opera Niguma: The Mantra Project at the Broad Stage in Los Angeles in 2016. In this project, Kaur was able to realize her dreams of creating the kind of opera she believed would be healing to those who experienced it. She was also finally able to work with her ideal collaborators from the artistic community she had begun to form back in New York, those she refers to as her “spiritual community.” 

In 2017, after the production of her opera, Kaur released an album titled Ascension, Niguma Vol. 2: The Mantra Project, which contained the music written for the opera. She has since released three other albums of New Age/Classical crossover music, including Mirrors (2018), Compassion (2019) and Illuminance (2020). 

After the release of these albums, Kaur took on a new artistic challenge when she created and performed her PBS debut as part of the 10th season of the acclaimed show Front and Center. Her show was called “Sangeeta Kaur and Friends” and included collaborations with ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, violinist Caroline Campbell, guitarist Laurence Juber, and many others. As usual, Kaur brought her vision of music that would be uplifting, inspiring, and transformative—and of an experience that would be as immersive as possible on television through her production of this show. 

Sangeeta Kaur

She found a venue where they could have LED floors and three LED walls so that the performers could be in their own “bubble.” She says the 11-hour day they spent performing and filming was “the most intense thing” she’s ever done. They filmed nine performances, and each was produced as if it were a music video. Kaur says she learned about her own strengths and weaknesses through the work on that project and that she’s proud of that experience. The show ran for 12 months nationwide and can still be enjoyed on YouTube.

Not only has Kaur’s career been supported by her spiritual and musical community, but she has also been embraced by another community. As she worked to produce Niguma: The Mantra Project, she was overwhelmed by the way she was championed by her Vietnamese family and community. “The Vietnamese community came out for this [and] has been amazing and so supportive.” Kaur talks about her Vietnamese heritage with gentleness and reverence. “I think the Vietnamese culture and the traditions also just make me who I am. As I get older, I really embrace my culture so much more…my soul is here to serve that community.” 

She refers to the wars and attempts at colonization that Vietnam has endured and how those events shaped its people. “There’s this element of survival and preservation, but also community. . .  That’s what I grew up with. And, so, I feel like that is very much ingrained in me.” Kaur is excited by the surge in young Vietnamese classical singers she has seen in recent years. She hopes that her Grammy win will “inspire classical musicians in Vietnam to just go for it and to remember “you are important and amazing, and what you’re doing is really hard, and you should be proud of yourself. Don’t stop. Keep on working at it.”  

Kaur and her career have indeed given her community much to celebrate. Last year, Kaur was the first Vietnamese American singer to be nominated as well as to win a Grammy award for Best Classical Solo Vocal album for her performance on Mythologies, an album on which she sang alongside fellow soprano Hila Plitmann. The album was composed by Danaë Xanthe Vlasse, who wrote her songs with Kaur’s and Plitmann’s voices in mind. Kaur says about Vlasse, “She knows our qualities. She knows our tone. She knows our range. She knows where we sit beautifully, so she’ll just put you up there constantly where you sound the best.” 

Sangeeta Kaur in The Broad Stage’s world premiere of Niguma: The Mantra Project, 2016.

About working with other female artists, Kaur says, “This is the thing I love about working with women. . . There’s this sensitivity and understanding and this depth. And, so, this collaboration in particular was extremely special because it’s almost like we can feel each other and read each other’s minds. We didn’t have to say too much. There was a deep trust, and it felt like a dream every time. It felt like we were in our little bubble, this bubble of sisterhood. . . I truly believe this is one big reason why we even won [the Grammy], because I feel like that energy was so strong.” 

Of her classical vocal education, Kaur says, “I think all the techniques that I’ve learned allowed me and helped me to constantly focus on the ease. It should always feel good, and I think without that training, I wouldn’t know how to make singing feel good all the time.” She notes that even in her college days, she was able to make correlations between her singing lessons and her yoga classes as they both addressed breath, placement, openness, and expansion. She found herself in both situations developing somatic awareness, asking herself questions like “Where are you holding tension?” and “Where do you feel the emotion?” 

For Kaur, it always comes back to that spiritual connection, and she’s excited to see more and more young classical singers find those connections. “The industry is changing. People are taking better care of themselves health-wise, mental health and physical health. And there’s a lot more yoga and meditation mindfulness going around.” 

Sangeeta Kaur in The Broad Stage’s world premiere of Niguma: The Mantra Project, 2016.

As for next steps, Kaur is still focused on collaboration. She and her husband Hai Nguyen are currently renovating a historical recording studio in Austin, Texas, which they have named Studio Hill. Kaur, along with her husband and the legendary recording engineer Gerhard Joost, aspire to create a space that serves the needs of classical recording artists, including a live room that can accommodate up to 40 string players and is acoustically tuned for classical singers, although it will also have changeable acoustic treatments for a variety of genres. 

Kaur’s advice to young singers is this: “I feel the most foundational thing is to really look deep and ask the question ‘Why?’ in every step. We need to always have something to come back to, to center ourselves again. Because no matter what is going on, if you can still come back to the original ‘Why,’ you’ll be fine.” 

Lisa Sain Odom

Lisa Sain Odom is an Assistant Professor of Vocal Studies and Musical Theatre at Clemson University and is an opera and musical theatre singer and stage/film actor. She holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Vocal Performance from the University of South Carolina and has taught both classical and musical theatre/contemporary voice at Western Carolina University and North Greenville University. She has sung opera and musical theatre in Europe and the U.S., and her students perform on Broadway, on cruise ships, in regional theatre, at Disney World, and on American Idol. To find out more and get in touch, visit