I have huge admiration for the two artists behind Amplified Opera (aka AO), namely Aria Umezawa and Teiya Kasahara, a new opera company.
Aria directed L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi in March.
Teiya was larger than life singing in Pomegranate in June.
AO will mean opportunities to see & hear more of them.
Here’s how they describe themselves on their website.
IT MAY BE CONSIDERED A DIRTY WORD IN OPERA, BUT WE BELIEVE GREAT ART SHOULDN’T BE AFRAID TO
Raise your voice and be Amplified!
As far as I can tell AO are all about Inclusion. Diversity. Empowerment.
Amplified Opera’s first concert series “AMPLIFY” launches the company October 10, 11 and 12, 7:30 pm at the Ernest Balmer Studio.
I asked Teiya & Aria a series of questions to find out more.
Barczablog: Describe the pathway that brought you two –Aria & Teiya—together and led you to this collaboration.
TEIYA: In 2017 Aria and I met for coffee and ice cream to catch up. And I was telling her about my frustrations with auditioning. I wasn’t booking gigs at the time, and on top of that, I was uncomfortable because I was wearing dresses to auditions and trying to present myself in a way that is expected of a soprano.
ARIA: I remember asking Teiya how much energy they were spending thinking about their singing, and how much energy they were spending on how uncomfortable they were in the outfits they were wearing.
TEIYA: And I was like, “Most of my energy is on how I’m dressed.”
ARIA: And I was like, “Teiya. Newsflash. You’re not getting hired now, so what do you have to lose? Why not try expressing yourself in a way that feels honest?”
TEIYA: And that really shifted my thinking. I think in that moment, I think we both saw in each other that there was a spark, and that we wanted something more with our professional paths. There had been moments in each of our lives where had been talking about how to rethink the artform, and it was like, “Wow! There’s something here.” So we began talking about a new type of performance art company where we would start by thinking about what we as artists want, and then expand that to give space for others to tell their stories on their own terms.
ARIA: Could we find a more authentic way to resonate with audiences if empowered artists brought their authentic selves to the process?
Barczablog: Please amplify for us the connotations of the word “Amplify” that underlie the name of your organization “Amplified Opera (AO),” and of your first series of concerts, titled “AMPLIFY!”
ARIA: My good friend, Sean Waugh at SFO, suggested the name Amplified Opera for a couple of reasons. First, because opera takes great pride in being UN-amplified, so for a company that is trying to shake things up and disrupt the current landscape, it is a deliberately provocative name. Second, because the entire artform is built on showcasing the beauty and power of the human voice, yet we seldom let our artists truly speak their minds.
TEIYA: We want for ourselves, as leaders of this initiative, to really give energy and power into these stories that have been systematically oppressed and pushed to the margins. They’re just blips on our radar. There are so many other stories that aren’t cis, or white, or hetero, or able-bodied that are valuable in knowing and sharing, and we want to tell them loudly, and to give them more life and longevity.
ARIA: While the point of the name is not meant to be taken literally, we’re not particularly hung up on acoustic amplification or non-amplification. We just want to focus on telling stories loudly, and authentically – whatever that means to the artists we work with.
Barczablog: How do the politics of race & the tensions in the world serve as subtext for your shows, the context for AO? What do you presuppose in your Toronto audience and our anxieties about the world?
TEIYA: I don’t think we want racial tension as a subtext… I think it’s our foretext. We want to put those tensions front and center, and we want to lean into these uncomfortable conversations and highlight them. These conversations will become less difficult the more we have them.
ARIA: One of our artists, Michael Mohammed (who is directing “What’s Known to Me Is Endless”) sent me an article on the idea of Brave Spaces in the world of social justice. The very basic idea being that we need to draw a distinction between harm (which is destructive), and discomfort (which is instructive). We want to hold space for people to have uncomfortable conversations, so they can have opportunities to expand their understanding and gain empathy. What we assume about Toronto audiences is that they are ready and interested in fostering this kind of dialogue.
Barczablog: Let’s talk about the problem with representation in opera… Sexism, imperialism, focus on the 1st world: Are you aiming more for new work as opposed to inclusive productions of existing work..?
TEIYA: Both really. The Canon is wrought in sexism, imperialism, elitism, racism, ableism, the list goes on. In no way is our society of today reflected in these iconic works, yet we continue to put them on. The rise in “Regie-Theater” over the last few decades has shown us that we need a more diverse representation not only in producers and directors and of reimagining these old operas in new ways, but to also create more conversation surrounding why we are putting on these shows, what value a new concept of an old work can give us. Simply doing it because a director or company wants to isn’t a valid enough reason anymore.
New works also need to be better nurtured and given more time, resources, promotion and care going forward. Having a premiere and then being forgotten months later isn’t doing this industry nor for our decreasing audiences.
Representation really needs to start with the artists embracing their inherent agency. They are the face of opera, they are what everyone sees, so if they start to realize that they have a say, that they can use their voices in more ways than one, then we will also start to see change. We need to see this at the top, too, people who are making the big decisions, where money is allocated, who is being hired and what is being put on the stages. It all effects each other.
Barczablog: Are there political subjects missing from the operatic stage (for instance, an opera about climate change or being a refugee)..?
ARIA: We’re starting to see contemporary issues explored on operatic stages, (companies like Heartbeat Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, and the Prix 3 Femmes are doing that really well), but there could always be more. Opera is an artform about the power and abilities of the human voice. So we have these big, powerful voices but what are we doing with them? What are we saying? How are we enriching our communities by existing? How can we use the power of our voices to elevate those issues that are critical to humanity’s/society’s survival? I think in the broadest possible sense, opera is failing to communicate a genuine value to society because we have not landed on a good reason for existing. What can the world learn from opera that would help us to frame some of these crucial, political conversations?
Barczablog: Do you see yourselves representing or offering a pathway to those who are in some sense less able?
TEIYA: I think both being able-bodied people, we don’t begin to know what to offer those differently or less abled, but want to invite conversation to create opportunities for collaboration down the road. We started with people that we know already navigating the opera industry despite their perceived challenges, so with AMPLIFY this is where we are starting and we are excited to create more relationships with those folk within (that we don’t know of yet) and beyond the opera community to create bridges and share experiences, for example the Deaf community.
ARIA: The position we take at AO is not diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s diversity because people who have unique experiences tell unique stories, and those stories are valuable and worthy of sharing with the public. We want to know of all our artists: what leaps out at you about this artform that I miss because I don’t have the same lived experiences as you, and how can we use those insights to build a better society?
Barczablog: And how do you reconcile opera to virtuosity, which is often a showcase for showing an audience what the performer can do that the audience can’t.
TEIYA: I think it’s about broadening the definition of virtuosity, or excellence, or even genius. We need to recognize that these concepts are derived from a Eurocentric mindset that is steeped in a history of colonization and imperialism which only exists to the detriment of others.
ARIA: I agree with Teiya. In many ways, I feel we’ve weaponized virtuosity as a means of keeping certain groups of people off the stage, away from the podium, and out of the director’s chair. Virtuosity often refers to a technical precision that requires a great investment of resources: education, mentorship, and legitimization from the establishment. Certain communities have much greater difficulty accessing those resources – particularly those crucial mentorship opportunities, and the legitimization that comes from appearing on the world’s greatest stages. In many of these cases diverse talent already exists, but it’s seldom given a platform. So opera prioritizes so-called virtuosity, and in doing so, limits the types of people who have access to opera as a means of expression, and downplays the role that visibility will play in ensuring a contemporary value for our artform.
I think AO is trying to take two positions: First of all that virtuosity and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive terms. They can co-exist in the same artist, performance, or production. And second that art’s value to society is that it holds space for spectators to engage with profoundly emotional topics in both the beautiful and devastating sense. We will prioritize resonating with audiences, regardless of their background in opera, and will encourage our artists to push themselves to achieve new ways of connecting with people – whatever shape that takes.
Barczablog: Are you open to going beyond opera, for instance to musicals, spoken word, and dance?
ARIA: AO is about breaking things apart. About challenging the existing structures, and proposing new ways of moving forward. I think everything is up for debate. What is opera? What does that mean exactly? I think if we seek to answer those questions, we will naturally open ourselves up to many different mediums through our exploration.
TEIYA: Yes, we want to start with what we know, but we’ve both personally experienced the benefits of diversifying our practices and bringing together disciplines. Opera is supposed to be a culmination of all the artistic practices, but it still operates as a siloed discipline. There is rarely any allowance made for this holistic concept of singer and actor in one person for instance. Singers are known for “park-and-bark”, or for being wooden, etc. Yes, the vocal line must express the emotion, the sub-text, but there is also room for more.
Barczablog: Please talk about your performers: will you be inclusive or are you aiming to redress the balance, showcase persons of colour, and other groups who are under-represented.
ARIA: We will strive to walk-the-walk of inclusivity at AO, and we understand that that means we will have to engage with artists and audience members who may not share our views, and that is going to feel uncomfortable for us. We need some time to figure out how to frame those partnerships so that navigating that conversation benefits not only ourselves, or the artist, but the public.
TEIYA: We are definitely starting our initiative with artists from equity-seeking groups who have systematically been overlooked and who identify with groups who have faced tremendous barriers for years to be able to participate in this artform at the same level as predominantly white privileged folk, so that’s where we are starting. But by no means are we going to not include white artists. We pride ourselves on creating an environment on all levels of operating AO that is respectful, and inclusive.
Barczablog: Is it too early to ask you about possible future commissions, whether among librettists & composers from the under-represented constituency OR in the content, stories that might encourage your visibility and representing you in new works..?
TEIYA: Our mission, values and goals for AO is wanting to fill in the gaps of the industry – we hope that with AMPLIFY it will act as springboard for AO to grow its network in helping and serving artists, especially those of equity-seeking groups.
ARIA: I think if we identify a need, we’ll fill it, but for now we’ve observed that we have some amazing colleagues producing some impactful pieces across the country. No immediate plans for new works, but it’s absolutely on the table.
Barczablog: Do you anticipate to be funded and to identify donors from among the population you represent
TEIYA: Yes, and no. We hope that people who don’t identify from equity-seeking groups will see the value in the work we are doing with AO.
ARIA: I think that’s what it is really about. We believe there is value in the work we’re doing that extends beyond diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s diversity because when you engage with ideas that feel uncomfortable or foreign you stand to benefit from the insights, learning, and growth that accompany that discomfort. Sure, there will be a value for those who love opera (the chance to see new, extraordinary artists you may have otherwise overlooked), and there will be a value to our communities (the space and trust to find their authentic voice within the operatic medium), but there is a value to those who don’t appear to have any skin in the game as well.
Barczablog: Are you considering venues to perform among your target population: to show them what they’re missing, perhaps to get them on board?
ARIA: I think I would offer a reframe of that question, and say that we intend to engage with many communities, not so we can show them what they’re missing, but so that we can listen to them, and learn how we can better serve them.
TEIYA:. We hope that a large number of our projects going forward will be co-productions, in association with, in consultation with, etc. We want to work with existing frameworks and help better support them, not simply create something new on our own.
Barczablog: Is there anyone you can identify who has inspired this mission or energized you to start AO?
TEIYA: So many of our colleagues like Michael Mori and Jaime Martino at Tapestry Opera, artists and leaders in the Theatre community have been inspirations to us over the years: forging ahead to make opera relevant again. There’s a need for so many artists within the industry who are incredibly talented but aren’t getting the opportunities or support that others have, and I think without them, there wouldn’t have been a need to start AO. But our time is crucial. People are starting to voice their truth and people are starting to listen, and we are excited to help make that happen for people in opera!
ARIA: Honestly? Teiya inspired me. Beyond that, Laurie, Kenneth, Rich, Liz, Andrea, Trevor, and Michael inspired me. My colleagues in the Indie Opera Community inspired me. The people I met in San Francisco: Sean Waugh, the singers, administrators, directors, production staff, audience members and donors inspired me. We give ourselves a lot of grief, but there are so many thoughtful, passionate people who have a vision for an opera industry that is innovative, progressive, and inclusive. They are looking for a way forward, and we want to join the exploration team!
Barczablog: Thank you!
For its inaugural series, AO is presenting three concerts:
1-October 10, 2019: The Way I See It American mezzo-soprano and author Laurie Rubin (Do You Dream in Color: Insights from a Girl Without Sight), and pianist Liz Upchurch will speak to their unique experiences as individuals with blindness and vision loss navigating the world of opera, and how this element of their identity has informed their creative process. The concert will be directed by Aria Umezawa.
2-October 11, 2019: The Queen in Me An exploration of the ways in which the classical music world tries to control and limit queerness, gender expressions, and identities. This one-person show features soprano Teiya Kasahara as the Queen of the Night who, after 228 years, has finally decided to reclaim their narrative and challenge the patriarchy. The show is accompanied by Trevor Chartrand, and directed by Andrea Donaldson.
3-October 12, 2019: What’s Known to Me is Endless A look at the African diaspora, and how experiences of Black identity differ in Canada and the United States. African American baritone Kenneth Overton is joined by Canadian pianist Rich Coburn to speak to how their understanding of Black identity was challenged while working on both sides of the Canadian-US border. Canadian American, Michael Mohammed, will direct the show.
Each evening will feature a lecture-recital followed by a talk-back panel with the artists and guest speakers, to give audience members a chance to further explore the themes discussed in each concert. Talk-back panels will be curated and hosted by Margaret Cormier. Audience Activation Points around the venue will be designed by Matthew Vaile, and will create a more interactive experience.
Amplified Opera Concert Series: AMPLIFY!
October 10, 2019 @ 7:30 – The Way I See It
October 11, 2019 @ 7:30 – The Queen in Me
October 12, 2019 @ 7:30 – What’s Known to Me is Endless