Midway through the one-person show The Queen in Me, Toronto-based soprano Teiya Kasahara begins an epic takedown of the opera industry. It’s full of sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia, goes the reproach. It objectifies its women, the fictional characters and the real-life singers who play them. In a word, opera is problematic.
This is no generalized reprimand of a very old art form. Kasahara’s The Queen in Me is the story of the singer’s troubled time on the ground as a queer, Japanese-Canadian, masculine soprano with non-binary they/them pronouns. To tell it, Kasahara channels the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; for more than two centuries, the fictional Queen has been vilified and reduced to spitting out high notes. A fellow objectified person of opera.
The Queen in Me, set to have its full world-premiere in 2020 (specific details remain forthcoming), is no benign fusion of opera, satire, and autobiography. It’s an after-the-fact unpacking of how Kasahara was nearly othered clear out of the opera industry. And, it’s a damning inside scoop on Canadian opera’s exclusivity problem.
“In opera,” says Kasahara, “we don’t divorce the singer from the characters they’re playing, or the voice type they inhabit.” It’s certainly an odd thing, to expect a singer to act the same way onstage and off, especially when we consider the old industry adage prima la voce (“the voice comes first”). It’s also a big problem for someone like Kasahara, whose high and agile soprano is so well-suited to opera’s most hyper-feminized characters – bubbly ingenues and hysterical queens alike.
For a while, Kasahara played a good game. They graduated from a great school (the University of British Columbia), mastered bread-and-butter roles such as the Queen of the Night, and started their career in 2007 as a young artist with the country’s biggest house, the Canadian Opera Company. They were driven, multilingual and with a world-class voice – on paper, a textbook opera singer.
“It’s mainly agencies that have looked at Teiya and said, ‘Well, you don’t fit the mould,’ ” says Maria Vetere, Kasahara’s current voice teacher. “And that’s Canadian agencies; not American agencies, and not European, at all.”
Kasahara found themselves a minority even among the relatively LGBTQ-friendly opera world. Ironically, Kasahara’s well-trained voice was the only thing about them that the Canadian industry accepted, but it still didn’t outweigh the rest. Prima la voce, indeed.
“At a certain point, I couldn’t live with myself anymore,” Kasahara says. “I needed to either kill opera or suck it up and say, ‘This is what you’re going to be.’ ”
In the end, Kasahara did neither. Instead, they added to their artistic plate. They started working more in Toronto’s theatre scene, eventually building relationships with Theatre Gargantua and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. They started doing taiko drumming with Toronto’s Raging Asian Women Taiko Drummers, as a creative palate-cleanser as much as a connection to their Japanese heritage.
They started a voice studio, called the Vocal Dojo, where they can be the sort of holistic, student-led teacher they wish they’d had earlier on. And they started Amplified Opera, a company with a mandate to give stage time to artists of all ilks: people of colour, queer artists and artists with disabilities.
All this, to make more professional room for artists who don’t easily fit any kind of industry mold. It’s a stubbornly productive response to being left out of Canada’s opera world. Kasahara never wanted to wash their hands of opera, anyway. “That 360-degree enveloping capacity, it’s out of this world,” Kasahara says. “Being able to do that, to hone that craft and let it come through you, I don’t know how to describe it. It feels amazing, and I don’t want to give that up just because the industry is problematic.”
What a great power move for Kasahara, to pack up everything that matters about opera – the music, the voice, the expressive possibilities – and bring it to more fertile ground. It’s no mystery that once they freed themselves from the opera industry and found creative circles who were excited about what they offer, Kasahara’s artistic scope ballooned and audiences leaned in.
But what does this all say about navigating Canada’s opera landscape? Kasahara represents a missed opportunity, an artist with extraordinary things to say, but until recently with few places to say them. Kasahara has always had the goods for a career in opera, and now they’re doing the kind of work that Canadian opera producers should want in on. But first, those producers have to listen. “Here is an artist that is asking to be seen, asking to be heard and valued,” Vetere says. “So, our country has to get behind that and show support.”
Kasahara and the Queen of the Night eventually halt their collective admonishment of the opera industry, their rage overshadowed by a love for the art form. “She’s showing up to the party anyway, uninvited!” the Queen chirps gleefully, before breaking triumphantly into that famous aria of hers. Kasahara sings a note-perfect Der Hölle rache, popping out high Fs while ripping themselves out of their regal gown and pulling on a crisp white button-down and black suspenders -- the thrilling twist ending we should have seen coming.
It’s these final seconds of The Queen in Me that make the point so loudly: Opera is more interesting than objectification, and Teiya Kasahara is one of a kind.
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