NEW YORK – Asian performers have become a fixture in Western concert halls in recent years, with talents from China, Japan and South Korea regularly giving recitals and master classes at major cities in Europe and the U.S.
But Asian cast members remain a relative rarity in opera — the 400-year-old Western art where productions are judged not only by performers’ voices but also by their acting and appearance, which are expected to be convincingly European.
Japanese-born soprano Asako Tamura is one of the few who has managed to break such a barrier, reaching beyond the so-called bamboo ceiling that seems to keep Asians from reaching the very top of this quintessentially European art.
“If you only look for the opera roles cut out for Asians, Madame Butterfly will be about the only thing,” Tamura said.
“I’ve been determined to perfect my voice, diction and acting, so that I’ll never let my Asian background be a limitation in my stage presence,” Tamura recently said. “That’s what I have always been trying (to do).”
Born in the city of Joyo, Kyoto Prefecture, Tamura began piano lessons at age 4 with aspirations to become an international concert pianist. But she was a singer even before then, she said.
“My mother says I started my singing career at age 2. I already had a repertoire of about 50 songs then, and when I sang in a train, a gentleman sitting next to me gave me ¥500,” Tamura said, chuckling.
Tamura seriously studied piano until age 17, when she faced an insurmountable problem to her becoming a concert pianist — her hands were too small.
While her piano teacher advised her that she could major in the smaller keyboard instrument, the cembalo, Tamura saw, one day, an Italian opera production for the first time on a TV program.
“I was so moved by the beauty of the real opera — it was mind-blowing. That moment, I was convinced this was the path I wanted to pursue,” Tamura said.
After studying at Kunitachi College of Music and at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Tamura entered her first singing competition, Operalia, in 1997 without realizing how prestigious the event was. She ended up becoming a finalist and was personally advised by Placido Domingo to study in the U.S.
Tamura spent two years at New York’s Mannes College of Music on a full scholarship, graduating with top honors from the leading music conservatory. “I feel I learned everything at the Mannes course,” Tamura said.
But such musical accomplishments provided no shortcut to her professional career, she soon learned.
“Audition after audition, I was turned down. My confidence was totally crushed,” Tamura said. “The judges often said I lacked experience at major theaters. It was frustrating because I was entering the audition to gain that very experience.”
Tamura also indicated her Asian background may have been a major hurdle, saying, “Many judges won’t even look at me after a glance at my name.
“So I was determined to perform even better than Western singers. I took all kinds of lessons to perfect my performance, from diction, breathing to acting, almost every day.”
In time, she began to draw serious interest at auditions. But being a soprano often limited her potential role to only being prima donna — and nothing less.
“I was starting to think, maybe this is the reason why so many of my predecessors from Japan returned to the country after two to three years of study in the West.”
Just as Tamura was contemplating her own move home, however, she received an offer to perform as a soloist in the famous Three Tenors Concert with Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras at the Yokohama Arena in 2002.
The experience turned out to be a huge breakthrough. Later that year, Tamura made a critically acclaimed European debut in the title role in “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the National Opera in Romania, followed by a series of performances at major opera houses in other European countries, including Italy.
In 2004, Tamura was invited by the Hungary State Opera to tour in Japan as Gilda in “Rigoletto,” before making her U.S. debut in 2006, as Amalia in “I Masnadieri” at Sarasota Opera in Florida and as Violetta in “La Traviata” at El Paso Opera in Texas.
“I still go through auditions with hundreds of competitors. But having performed with the Three Tenors gave me a passport to get noticed at least,” Tamura said.
Tamura said her situation is somewhat similar to foreigners in Japan trying to make the cut in the world of traditional arts such as kabuki and noh, citing the Japanese hesitancy to embrace their talents and knowledge about Japanese language and traditions.
“Europe is full of ancient capitals and traditions, and I think it’s wonderful that they are being protected. But at the same time, it can be exclusive to outsiders and slow to move forward,” Tamura said.