How long have you been coming to Boston to perform?
I first came to Boston as an 18 year old freshman Violin and Psychology major at Boston University. I moved all the way cross country from Southern California for school. It was a huge shock to my system, especially experiencing winter for the first time! But I loved Boston so much, I stayed at BU after undergrad and completed my master’s degree in opera.
My route back to Boston since school has been very circuitous. I am currently based out of Bloomington, Indiana, where my husband, Jeff, teaches French Horn at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. We have two sons- Rhys, who is 12 and Blair, who is 7.
The way opera singers are employed is not what most people would think of as a “typical” job. We are independent contractors, hired to perform at specific companies in one specific show in their season. Each contract lasts anywhere from a month to 6 weeks and sometimes even longer. Last season, I found myself living and working in Seattle, Boston, Santa Barbara, Atlanta, Louisville, and Washington DC. I also had several shorter week-long gigs singing as a soloist with symphony orchestras.
I was originally engaged to sing Suzuki in Madama Butterfly in Fall 2020 at Boston Lyric Opera. As we all know, the world shut down, and performance organizations shuttered their doors. BLO decided to reschedule the production for Fall 2021. In the spring of 2021, after the horrific shooting of Asian women in Atlanta and the increased violence against Asians in the U.S., BLO announced that they could not, in good conscience, present the production of Butterfly they had planned on.
We then embarked on a year-long journey we called “The Butterfly Process.” We hosted 7 conversations via zoom that centered Madama Butterfly. We talked about the problematic aspects of the production, as well as why it’s important to keep the piece in the operatic canon. It was through the Butterfly Process that I started working closely with and eventually became an Artistic Advisor at the company.
Currently, I come to Boston 3-4 times a year for in person meetings, trainings, and performances. I also do a lot of “advising” via zoom and email. I’m proud to be part of a company that does such meaningful work in the operatic industry.
What does your organization do?
Our organization is an opera company- meaning that we produce performances and programs of all size stages from full-scale, mainstage operas to small community performances and beyond. A typical season for us includes three to four main stage productions and dozens of smaller performances and opera-centric events across the greater Boston area. Because of our itinerant nature, you’ll always find us in different areas of the community. This gives us the opportunity to produce opera in different ways. Sometimes, we’ll be in a traditional theater, and other times, you’ll find us at a cruise ship terminal, or an ice-skating rink. Our goal is to create operatic moments that enrich everyday life.
This September, we’re taking what we learned from “The Butterfly Process” and putting it on stage in a new production of Madama Butterfly. Instead of telling a traditional orientalist fantasy, we’re setting the story in the United States in the shadow of impending WWII. Through Puccini’s incredible music, we are telling an Asian American story based in historical reality. With an all Asian/Asian American creative team at the helm, Boston Lyric Opera is giving those of us who have been traditionally marginalized a seat at the table to make the decisions about the stories that directly affect our lives.
What are the benefits and challenges of working in America?
As an Asian American working in the opera industry, there are both benefits and challenges. I work in an industry where the art form stems from a Eurocentric point of view. Living in the society we do now, operas written hundreds of years ago can often seem problematic now. I have spent the majority of my career being pigeonholed into the role of Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. I have sung it close to 200 times. Because I look “different” than the majority of white opera singers, I’m often seen just for the way I look. This has made it very challenging to be hired for anything other than Asian identifying roles.
But, since 2020, our industry has taken a step toward addressing the issues of systemic racism that infect our stages and companies. We are at a point that we are grappling with not only where we’ve come from, but more importantly, where we want to go from here. When we look forward, the opportunities for success are endless- and this is both exciting and incredibly scary.
What is your favorite thing about Boston?
I’d have to say I have 2 favorites. First is the people! I have so many dear friends and family who live in the Boston area. Some people I’ve known for more than half of my life. It feels like coming home whenever I’m in town.
The second has to be the “chowda”. I’m a sucker for good clam chowder- and the best is in Boston!
Nina is co-founder of the Asian Opera Alliance