(UPDATE: A commemoration and celebration of Brian’s life and artistry will he held at the Los Angeles Opera on Sunday May 22 at 4:00 p.m.)
GERALD SEMINATORE, DMA
It’s taken me several days to process the news of Brian Asawa’s death at the age of 49. Yesterday, the New York Times published an obituary. There have already been many tributes online; here is one more to add to a chorus of sadness and regret.
I knew Brian for more than 20 years, was in a few shows with him, and saw him in several others. I recall his work in The Coronation of Poppea at Glimmerglass and Los Angeles, Xerxes in Santa Fe and Cologne, Giulio Cesare in San Diego, and Death in Venice at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps my most vivid memory is his portrayal of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Houston Grand Opera. I remember the distinguished, coiffed lady with a soft drawl who greeted me kindly when I took my seat. Her husband was a talkative man sporting cowboy boots and a bolo tie. When Brian came onstage and began to sing, I was in a reverie of sorts until the gentleman suddenly exclaimed “what the hell? It sounds like he’s been gelded!” The countertenor revolution had arrived in Texas! During the intermission, we had a pleasant conversation about the countertenor voice. I imagine there were similar conversations everywhere that Brian sang.
More recently, Brian collaborated in recitals and recordings with mezzo-soprano Diana Tash. In 2011, I heard them perform a beautiful concert together in Los Angeles with pianist Armen Guzelimian. I also heard Brian in recital programs with Victoria Kirsch, another fine pianist and collaborator. Brian once confessed to me that recitals made him a little nervous. As with many performers, he may have felt more liberated when he was in costume, and in character. I had hoped this work might point to a new career phase as a recitalist in art song and vocal chamber music. It would have been a way to extend the time he had to share his artistry with us.
(With the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, photo uncredited.)
Brian and I were very different temperamentally, and we never really were close friends. For one thing, he loved house music, while I could barely tolerate it. He also pointed out to me that he was a Libra, and I was a Capricorn, which apparently meant that our personality traits were mismatched. However, I enjoyed his companionship and his hospitality on many occasions in the USA and Europe. He was always upbeat, energetic, and stimulating company. Over the years, Brian had many great successes, and also some challenges and disappointments. I learned a lot from him about the imperatives of first-rate artistry, and about the pressures of the opera world at the highest levels. He also offered me some constructive critiques of my singing, and encouragement when things got difficult in my own career. An example: I had secured a fest contract in Germany, but things were a bit rocky starting out. After singing for Brian during an impromptu consultation in Cologne, his verdict was “you are a fine Spieltenor, but for God’s sake, let me hear your real voice!” The price for this advice was a glass of Kölsch at a nearby pub. It was one of the clearest voice lessons I ever had, and the most thirst-quenching.
I am also grateful for the conversations we had over the years about vocal technique and artistry. Brian was very forthcoming with advice for teaching the countertenor and male soprano voice. My own teaching of a handful of countertenor and male soprano students was better because of that advice.
I last saw Brian in 2013, in a Long Beach recital with my colleague Mark Salters at the piano. By then, it was clear that a transition was in progress. Brian had optimistic goals for developing a new artistic agency, for continuing to grow as a teacher, and for aging gracefully in his singing. He encouraged my aspirations for Spacious Vision, which was then just getting off the ground. We discussed collaborating on a program, but as he had many other projects underway, that was something for the future. Soon afterward, we both got caught up in the vicissitudes of our lives, and fell out of touch. Phone calls that were put off for a few weeks were eventually put off for a few years, and now he has left us.
Brian was always warm and generous to me, and occasionally he shared some of his personal challenges. Though the spotlight of an international career is glamorous, it also can be merciless. The countertenor voice had been viewed as an effeminate or pale imitation of truly “operatic” voices, and Brian was a pioneer in asserting its full-blooded legitimacy on the opera stage. He was bi-cultural, with an identity that was part American and part Japanese. As a singer of Asian heritage, his ascent in the opera world was another rarity. Brian was also openly and proudly gay, and had no reservations about sharing his sensibilities with those around him. This may not seem all that remarkable in 2016 America. In the 1990s, however, the gay community was still haunted by the spectre of HIV/AIDS, and many acclaimed artists were still in the closet. (As I write this, I also recall seeing Brian in the operatic version of Angels in America by Peter Eötvös, in Los Angeles.) Brian could be strong and fierce, but he was also sensitive and deeply vulnerable. This was especially true during the gradual dissolution of his marriage to Keith Fisher. Through it all, Brian lived a passionate life as a celebrity artist, maverick, and bon vivant. He had many friends who cared for him, and many colleagues who respected him. Alas, he was not destined for a ripe old age.
As some readers may appreciate it, I have included a link here to a tribute essay at San Francisco Classical Voice. And a colleague of Brian’s has made a short YouTube video tribute, which is a fine introduction to his singing and artistry. (This photo by Ken Howard is from the San Diego Opera’s Giulio Cesare in 2006.)
More than once, Brian told me to keep singing for as long as I could, and never to apologize for doing so. Sometimes, we do not truly appreciate the simple gifts we receive until the givers are no longer with us. Mille grazie, domo arigato, thank you Brian!