Traversing the Opera-sphere: An Artist-of-Color Roundtable

Indira Mahajan and Thomas Cannon in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess, 2019

Artists Othalie Graham, Paul Chwe MinChul An, and Indira Mahajan share their experiences with repertoire as it relates to their ethnic makeup and identity.

 

Navigating the opera world as a singer of color can feel like being thrown into a turbulent sea of asking the question, “Where do I fit in?” In the past, opportunities for artists of color were often based less on one’s vocal gifts and more on how that artist’s ethnicity ticked a box or reinforced a racial trope. I interviewed soprano Othalie Graham, bass Paul Chwe Minchul An, and soprano Indira Mahajan about how they have traversed the opera industry trying to balance being an artist of color and simply an artist.

 

With what repertoire are you most closely associated?

Mahajan: I’m closely associated with Italian operatic repertoire as well as the role of Bess from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, having performed the role over 200 times. 

Indira Mahajan

An: I’m a multi-genre singer and have experience performing from pre-Renaissance to contemporary. In the earlier part of my career, I did mostly standard operatic rep, mostly Mozart to Puccini. These days, I do a lot of oratorio work as well as contemporary work. I have especially enjoyed singing works created or influenced by Asian and Asian-American writers.

Graham: The repertoire that I’m most closely associated with would be the title role in Turandot, having recently sung the role with the Detroit Symphony, the Edmonton Opera, Gran Teatro Nacional de Peru, and Arizona Opera. I’ve also done quite a bit of Wagner in concert. 

 

As a singer of color, how often do you find yourself cast in roles that reflect your ethnic makeup?

Graham: I don’t find that I’m cast in roles connected to my ethnic makeup very much. I have done Serena in Porgy and Bess a couple of times in concert and certainly Aida a few times, but that’s really it. I would love to do more Aidas.

Othalie Graham

Mahajan: I’ve performed over 25 roles, and only a handful have been ethnic specific. I am aware that I am fortunate because that is not always the case for many singers of color. 

However, I do enjoy performing roles that represent my lived experience or have cultural and historic significance for me and my family. For example: the role of Fannie Lee Chaney, mother of James Chaney, in Steven Stucky’s oratorio August 4, 1964 as well as performing the role of another mother in Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint with Portland Opera, which tells the story of Mukhtar Mai, the first female victim of gang rape to bring her male attackers to justice in Pakistan.

An: In staged works (not oratorio/concert) this current season, I am performing six works. I portray AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] characters in Bora Yoon and E.J. Koh’s operatic reimagining of the film Handmaiden, which is a recipient of the Opera America Discovery grant; in Stuck Elevator by Byron Au Yong’s and Aaron Jafferis at Nashville Opera; and with Opera Santa Barbara in American Dream by Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo.

In previous seasons, portrayal of AAPI roles made up less than 10 percent of my stages works. Most of those experiences were portrayals of Japanese characters in Madama Butterfly.

Paul An

Have you found it challenging to be cast in roles that are not associated with your ethnic makeup but are ideal vocally?

Mahajan: Very early on, I had role models, mentors, and a support system—my mother Barbara Mahajan, an African American opera singer, and the late Betty Allen, president of Harlem School of the Arts, who helped guide my decision making and helped me navigate these challenges. As a result of this support, I did not find it as challenging. I mostly performed roles from the traditional standard repertoire before I did a lot of performances of roles associated with my ethnicity. I think that made a huge difference in the trajectory of my career. I didn’t feel stuck only performing roles relegated to my ethnicity.  

However, I think now, as we are seeing more productions written by composers of color becoming part of mainstage repertoire, singers of color have more opportunities to perform at bigger houses, and hopefully that can lead to singers of color being invited back to do more than just roles assigned to them by ethnicity.  

I think the greatest challenge is getting the opportunity to perform a role more than once. Often, singers cast in roles associated with a particular ethnic makeup will have an opportunity to perform that role many times throughout the course of their career, but not have that same experience with other repertoire. 

Graham: Absolutely! I can’t say that emphatically enough. Not with Turandot but with Wagner and especially Elektra. I love her so much. I recently covered her at Teatro San Carlo Napoli. I don’t think there’s ever been a black Elektra or Brünnhilde. Not getting opportunities to sing certain repertoire, as we know, isn’t only about talent. It has to do with the gatekeepers and who they want to promote.

Othalie Graham as the title role in Nashville Opera’s Turandot, 2015

An: This is interesting. Since I portrayed mostly non-Asian characters in the past, I didn’t think too much about finding a footing in or outside that repertoire. I am now finding myself performing a lot of AAPI roles and, while I am really heartened to see works with Asian voices being produced and cast sensitively, I find myself wishing I could tell the organizations hiring me for these important works that I am equally able to sing roles in non-Asian repertoire.

 

Are you seeing a shift in the industry where companies are expanding their casting artists of color in a variety of repertoire?

Graham: I’m seeing a shift, but I’m still amazed when I see articles about a colleague, and it says so-and-so is the first Black person to ever sing this role in history. It’s 2023! It still feels like we must work twice as hard to get half as far.

An: Ability or desire? They’ve always had the ability, but I’m glad to see a shift. I hope it’s long lasting.

Paul An as Raj in HERE Arts Center’s production of Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You, 2019

Mahajan: Yes, I believe there are companies committed to taking steps to cast more artist of color in a variety of repertoire. I’m glad we are seeing more diversity, because I have always known there are plenty of singers of color who are qualified to be cast in a variety of roles.

I had a unique experience having grown up around incredible opera singers of color my entire life. My childhood was spent hearing great singers who had very little opportunity to perform in opera houses where roles were not race specific. 

I do believe there are people in this industry who want to change the narrative and create a space in opera that represents greater racial diversity and equity. The conversations we’ve been having in our country, particularly in the past two years concerning DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], continues to challenge traditional ideas about opera. As companies create more opportunity for underrepresented composers to have their work programmed, we will see more diversity in casting.

Ultimately, I believe the idea of “traditional opera,” particularly traditional American opera, is changing and becoming more inclusive.

 

What advice would you give younger artists of color as they begin their careers?

Graham: Make sure that you stick with the repertoire that you know you should be singing, but be open. When I was younger, we were always told not to sing Porgy and Bess so you don’t get stuck singing only that opera. Then I saw a big opera company was doing it, and it was maybe 10 or 11 shows! I would have killed for that job at the time because I had a mortgage!

Mahajan: Looking the part doesn’t mean that it is vocally right for you. It’s good to try things out; however, the decision should be made with the advice of a singer’s teacher or coach.  You want to have longevity and be able to enjoy a long and healthy career. I understand completely the temptation, because singers want to sing. They want to take advantage of the opportunities that all too often are few and far between. This is when having a good support system is vital to a singer’s longevity.

An: I would encourage young singers to be true to themselves and find joy and power in everything that they sing. While it is heartening to witness a growth of creations and productions that amplify all voices, it is important to always check in with yourself and to be your own strong mouthpiece.  

 

Finally, what are some dream roles that are not necessarily performed by singers of color that you’d love to perform?

An: I would love to sing Filippo from Don Carlo one day.

Graham: Most definitely Elektra, Isolde, and Brünnhilde. Another dream role, The Foreign Princess in Rusalka, I recently performed at Portland Opera in April.

Mahajan: My dream roles would be Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, and Bellini’s Norma. 

 

When opportunity and imagination are allowed to flourish in our art form, the results can be exciting, revolutionary, and inspiring. It’s an exciting time for artists of color and, like An said, let’s hope “it’s long lasting.”

As opera companies continue to hire artists of color either by creating new works or reimagining traditional ones, we all look forward to the day when we are no longer celebrating the first Black artist to do this or the first Asian artist to do that. But the day when it is a norm to see our stages reflect the diverse communities our opera companies serve.

Eric McKeever

Eric McKeever is a New York-based opera singer whose 2022–23 season includes performances with Opera Columbus, On Site Opera, Opera Delaware, the Penn Square Music Festival, and the Casals Festival of Puerto Rico. He is also a passionate arts educator having worked as a teaching artist for the Met Opera Guild and served as the manager of education programs for Kentucky Opera. He holds a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from The Ohio State University and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from Capital University.