How an Asian American Opera Singer Found Her Voice Amid a Reckoning with Race

7 minute read

For the mezzo-soprano opera singer Nina Yoshida Nelsen, a reckoning has been long overdue. Following the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, Nelsen, a fourth-generation Japanese American, had a moment of clarity that was precipitated by the outpouring of support that she and other singers of Asian descent had received in the wake of the tragedy. As opera companies showed their support on social media, posting photos of Nelsen and other artists of Asian descent from past performances, she noticed a pattern in the images: though the group of singers was diverse, varying from fifth-generation, multiracial Asian Americans to artists living across Asia and traveling to the U.S. for work, the majority of them were shown playing only Asian characters.

Nelsen considered her own career: over the course of more than a decade, she had performed in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly more than 150 times, but had been cast in non-Asian roles just three times. This realization both shocked and sobered her, prompting her to speak with other Asian performers in the industry, finding that many had had similar experiences of being pigeonholed in stereotypical roles (which often dealt in offensive caricatures) or being seen as the “other” and passed up for non-Asian lead roles.

Nelsen—the subject of a new TIME documentary, Beyond Butterfly, by TIME senior producer and filmmaker Diane Tsai—decided to not only seek new management but also advocate for her community by co-founding the Asian Opera Alliance in the summer of 2021. Taking inspiration from the work of the Black Opera Alliance, the organization aims to provide support for the Asian community and people of color working in the industry, advocating for racial equity. “It’s time to make change,” Nelsen says in the film. “We should not be embarrassed of our identity. We should not be worried that all we’re ever going to sing is Asian roles.”

The issues of racism and sexism have long presented a major problem for classical opera, a historically white and European art form, whose canon still relies heavily on operas that are revered despite being rife with racist tropes and exotic stereotypes. Madama Butterfly, which centers on story of Butterfly, a 15-year-old Japanese geisha who is sexually exploited, deceived, and then abandoned by an American naval officer to a tragic end, has been the most produced opera in the U.S. since 2000, according to Opera America. Operabase reported that it was the sixth most-performed opera in the world from 2008 to 2013.

Read More: How a Long History of Intertwined Racism and Misogyny Leaves Asian Women in America Vulnerable to Violence

For artists like Nelsen, however, there’s a bittersweet tension involved in taking part in productions like Madama Butterfly, an opera that is centered around an Asian character, but also rooted firmly in the Western gaze. The opera, born out of a white man’s fantasy of the Orient and the other, has long been critiqued for its reinforcement of persistent racist and sexist stereotypes of Asian women that cast them as submissive and sexually subservient, tropes that have proven to have dangerous real-life consequences.

The content of the opera aside, while Madama Butterfly has had a long history of yellowface (where non-Asian, usually white, performers play Asian characters using makeup and often relying on racist caricature), it’s also been one of the few operas that has consistently provided opportunities for Asian singers to take center stage as leads. As opera companies have grappled with how problematic classic operas reinforce harmful racial stereotypes in light of events like Black Lives Matter protests and the Atlanta shootings, some have considered doing away with performing the pieces all together—something that Nelsen firmly believes is not the answer, especially since it could undermine the very minimal, if flawed, representation that singers of Asian descent have in the industry.

“My first reaction was, ‘Well, that’s great that you’re trying to protect me,’” Nelsen says in the documentary. “But you’re also taking work away from me as someone who’s only offered Asian roles. And you’re also creating erasure of my face on a stage. So are we actually doing good by canceling this? Or are we creating more harm?”

Nelsen believes that a better solution would start with making structural change within the industry; by consulting with and hiring Asian artists and creatives for roles both on and off stage to ensure that there are identity-conscious hires at every level of production from directors and casting to costuming and set. The issue of pigeonholing artists in Asian roles could be resolved if they were given the same consideration for other parts, she argues.

“If you are hiring us for Madama Butterfly, then hire us for non-Asian identifying roles,” she tells Tsai. “We just want to see diversity on our stages. If you come to an opera and you only see white singers telling these stories, that’s not what our world looks like. If our stages don’t look like that, then we’re doing our world our disservice.”

Nelsen also finds hope in new productions, like the contemporary opera An American Dream, for which she was part of the original cast. The opera, about a Japanese American family sent to an incarceration camp during World War II, is personal to her. While workshopping the project ahead of its 2015 premiere, the composer and librettist wrote an aria for her based on an interview with Nelsen’s grandmother, who was the same age as the main character, Setsuko, when she was sent to a camp. For Nelsen, this was the first time she had heard stories about her grandmother’s incarceration, since many Japanese Americans have shied away from discussing this painful history. Her grandmother’s story, now immortalized in song, is one that Nelsen is committed to telling as the oldest living person in her family.

This year, amid the lingering effects of the pandemic and the formation of the Asian Opera Alliance, Nelsen had one of the best singing seasons of her career. She booked eight new roles, five of which were not Asian-specific, and a number of concerts. While she appeared in An American Dream and again in Madama Butterfly, she was also part of the premiere of The Rift, a new opera by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang, the latter of whom is known for M. Butterfly, a play that cleverly inverts Madama Butterfly to address issues of orientalism, gender, and race. But Nelsen hasn’t lost sight of the larger need for change in her industry; it’s not lost on her that even after last season’s show of support and her much more diverse bookings, so far, she’s back to solely Asian-identified roles next season. She knows there’s so much more work to be done.

“This industry was not created for me,” she tells Tsai. “As a singer of color, an Asian American singer, there have not been tons of people who have come before me, but I can make sure there are a lot who come behind me. It’s my responsibility and privilege to be able to do that.”

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