Brian Asawa–An Appreciation

(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.

75I 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.

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(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.

brian_asawa_headshot

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.

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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!

Guitarist Taro Wayama and tenor Gerald Seminatore perform for Noble House Concerts

We begin the New Year by introducing a new collaborator, guitarist Taro Wayama.

Taro is a Japanese born guitarist and composer. He is a winner of numerous competitions, such as the top prize in the 2003 Aron Green/American String Teachers Association Guitar Competition, and 2nd place in the Thailand International Guitar Competition. Taro has performed in Japan, Thailand, Canada, and the US. As a composer he received “Best Original Score” at the Los Angeles Movie Awards for an independent film, “Anne Jennings”. Taro holds Master’s and Bachelor of Music degrees from the University of Southern California, where his teachers included Pepe Romero and Scott Tennant.

Taro and tenor Gerald Seminatore will perform as part of the Noble House Concerts Classical Series. Selections will include songs by Benjamin Britten, John Dowland, and Morton Lauridsen. This concert also features Kozue Mutsumoto (koto), Jennifer Ingertila (flute), David LR (violin), and Thomas Foster (guitar), with repertoire TBA.

Saturday, January 24, 7:30 p.m. in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Suggested donation: $15 per person. Refreshments are served by the concert hosts.

To make a seating reservation and receive directions to the venue, contact Barbara Greenspan via Email at barb@noblehouseconcerts.com, or call (818) 780-5979.


SongFest at Colburn announces 2014 artist line-up

SongFest-Logo4SongFest, the annual festival of art song at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, has just announced its faculty line-up for Summer 2014. Festival artist/teachers will include soprano Lucy Shelton, baritones Sanford Sylvan and Rudolf Piernay, composer/pianist John Musto, and the inimitable pianist and collaborator Graham Johnson. The repertoire for SongFest concerts is always intriguing, provocative, and satisfying, and we are looking forward to it! More information at www.songfest.us

Mark Abel’s “Terrain of the Heart” now available

Mark Abel (born 1948) is an American composer of classical music. His work – cast primarily as a flexible rethinking of the art song tradition — is marked by straightforward tonal language, striking vocal writing, and an avoidance of overtly modern compositional techniques. Mark has described his idiom as a post-modern synthesis of classical and rock styles. To learn more about Mark’s music, click here to go to his website.

The trioDE3438Cover-300x297 of our own ARIEL PISTURINO, soprano Janet Chamberlin, and pianist Victoria Kirsch are featured on the just released “Terrain of the Heart,” a new recording of Abel’s songs on the Delos label. It is available for streaming or download; click here to go to the Delos website.

Congratulations to all involved with this project!

American Portraits: Andrew Garland

new-3c.s600x600Our friends Andrew Garland and Donna Loewy have been on tour again, with song recitals in Atlanta, Texas, and other locations. Andy is one of the most dynamic and theatrically gifted performers of art song in this country, and Donna is a peerless collaborator at the piano. They are in the vanguard of artists working to preserve art song as a living tradition in the 21st century.

Don’t know why this didn’t occur to us sooner–but here’s a plug for their recently released CD recording. “American Portraits” is a compendium of art songs by living American composers, and has been enthusiastically praised in many quarters. (ALL Amazon reviewers have rated it 5 stars.) Click here for an OPERA NEWS review. The Amazon link is here.

If you’d like an introduction to Andy and Donna’s artistry and sense of humor,
click here for a performance of Lori Laitman’s “Men with Small Heads.”