Day 6

Meet the upstart company working to disrupt the 'whitewashed' opera industry

Toronto-based Amplified Opera is the Canadian Opera Company's newly named "disruptor-in-residence". The group aims to bring performers from “equity-seeking” groups to opera stages — and they’re bringing that message to the COC.

Toronto-based Amplified Opera is the Canadian Opera Company's newly named 'disruptor-in-residence'

Soprano Teiya Kasahara is a co-founder of Amplified Opera, a group that is working to diversify the opera industry for both performers and audiences. (Michael Barker/Submitted by Teiya Kasahara)

Originally published on Feb. 19, 2021.

The Canadian Opera Company's new "disruptor-in-residence" is ready to burn it all down — metaphorically speaking, of course — as part of the organization's effort to make opera more diverse.

Soprano Teiya Kasahara, a genderqueer, non-binary Nikkei-Canadian, is a co-founder of Toronto-based Amplified Opera. That group, launched in 2019, aims to bring performers from "equity-seeking" groups to opera stages — and they're bringing that message to the COC in Toronto.

Too often, the artform is dominated by white performers, says Kasahara, who uses the pronoun they.

"At a young age, I was very excited about this medium, about what it could hold for me as a singer and what physically would happen to my body when I'm singing and to feel that," they told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"I was very focused on technique — on perfecting the craft of singing — and I really didn't realize how whitewashed … the art form is, and that I had to maintain that type of status quo that is there in the industry in order to succeed."

Kasahara in a workshop performance of The Queen in Me, as a part of the AMPLIFY Concert Series presented by Amplified Opera in October 2019. (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/Amplified Opera)

With the two-year disruptor-in-residence program, the COC aims to tackle the lack of diversity in opera head on, while providing support and resources to help Amplified Opera become a "fully fledged" opera company.

"It's really about creating space for these conversations and cooking up some delicious and meaningful artistic projects together along the way," Nina Draganić, director of the Canadian Opera Company Academy, told Day 6.

"We're really excited to be able to work with them artistically and administratively to challenge some of the assumptions and ways of working in the industry and find ways of making it a better and more inclusive space."

Re-thinking the opera industry

Kasahara's new role with the COC is a homecoming of sorts. As a young artist, they worked freelance for the Toronto company. 

Now, as Amplified Opera begins its ground-breaking residency, already conversations about the future of opera have already been positive, said Kasahara.

The group is looking at ways to disrupt long-held ways of thinking about how an opera house should be run — "How we've run a rehearsal room, how we've created new projects, how we cast people, how we do everything," said Kasahara.

"It's really exciting to be on this journey together with a big institution that wants to learn from us and that we can also learn from them."

The partnership continues work Amplified Opera has been forging with its novel productions.

Opera houses don't typically feature amplifying equipment, like microphones, instead relying on the strength of a performer's voice and the building's acoustics to carry the sound. The play on words speaks to Amplified Opera's mission.

"We chose that word amplified to speak to the equity-seeking groups that are out there," Kasahara said. "The types of artists, the types of people, even audience members who don't see themselves in this art form, or in this industry, and who are often overlooked [and] sometimes stereotyped in very racist or sexist tropes."

The Queen in Me

Included among the work Amplified Opera has developed to close that gap is The Queen in Me.

Created and performed by Kasahara, the opera offers a spin on one of theatre's most famous roles, the Queen of the Night, a "fallen woman" from The Magic Flute. In Kasahara's interpretation, the queen refuses to sing her iconic aria, instead demanding agency in a bid to take back her power.

"[The Magic Flute] was the first opera I ever saw when I was 15 years old," they said. "I had been thinking, 'Oh, maybe one day I could sing this role,' and then I ended up having a voice that was capable of doing that."

That unique ability typecast Kasahara into similar roles — ones that audiences might consider to be "evil," they said. As a result, Kasahara began exploring characters — their motivations, wants and desires — more deeply.

With The Queen in Me, Kasahara hopes to prove women-identified or gender diverse-identified people shouldn't be pigeonholed into certain roles.

"I want people to know that we are more complex and multifaceted than just being like an opera singer."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.


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