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Interview with Luka Kawabata, a Nikkei-Canadian baritone

Vancouver-based Nikkei-Canadian baritone Luka Kawabata is breaking stereotypes in the Opera World and we’re all for it. Luka will also be performing at explorASIAN’s Opening Ceremony on April 30th. VAHMS caught up with Luka to discuss diversity in opera, his unconventional path to music and creative influences. 

What was your first experience with opera?

The first opera that I ever attended was Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre when I was in elementary school.  My friend’s family had an extra ticket and invited me along and I wish that I could say it was a revolutionary experience – I fell asleep.  I remember some amazing singing and equally stunning set design, but in retrospect, I see this experience as a lesson in meeting people where they are.  It is perfectly valid that a twelve year old might not be interested or mentally prepared to sit through a three hour opera in Italian, even with an interest in music and theatre. Thinking back to this first experience with opera, it proves that you shouldn’t rule out an entire artform because you may not be in the right space to experience it in that moment – where would I be now if I thought that opera just “wasn’t for me”?  I’m always thinking of ways in which we can reframe music for people to develop their own personal connection, because that is what keeps people coming back to the theatre.  Ironically, I just made my debut in February with Edmonton Opera singing the role of Schaunard in ‘La Bohème’.  It’s a full circle moment!

When did you decide to pursue singing professionally, and how did your family react?

I had an indirect path towards music.  I took private lessons during high school because I always enjoyed singing, but somehow I never considered it as a long term option.  Prior to my music degrees at UBC, I completed a degree in engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  This was the first time in my life, unbeknownst to me, that I wasn’t actively connected with music.  In the latter half of my engineering degree, I decided that I would pursue music so I slowly transitioned between finishing my engineering courses and adding music courses.  I am very lucky to say that my family has always been very supportive – I’m sure that they enjoy having an excuse to go to a show every now and again.  That being said, the life of a musician is very hard to explain to those who aren’t in it, but I feel like that can be said of any specialized industry.  I jumped into a world of classical music without any academic history or theory knowledge.  I definitely was not a child prodigy, writing sonatas in their bedroom.  Although they don’t come from a musical background, I’m so thankful that my family has always been supportive of the industry and my goals as an artist.

What drew you to choose opera instead of more contemporary music? 

Classical music is very technical and for whatever reason, this drew me in.  It is an artform teeming with culture and history.  It’s been shaped and reshaped for centuries – now as musicians, we have the opportunity to create new interpretations of these works that have been passed down.  As a result of my training, I speak five languages conversationally (I’m hoping to grow that number) and I’ve sung in a dozen, including German, Polish, Japanese, Hoisan and Russian.  I’m a huge theatre nerd, so combining the elite and technical world of classical music with the emotion and culture of live performance made this a dream for me.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?  

My artistic intent is to lead, knowing that my identity will only strengthen my voice as an artist in order to enrich my art. I have learned to acknowledge that I have a unique perspective to share based on my identity and lived experience.  I work in an industry where there is a lot of room to grow as a community, but this also excites me to dream of where these paths could lead.  Am I starkly aware of who I am and how I differ from others in my industry? Yes, but my job is to interpret the works of other artists and provide my perspective.  I hope to collaborate with artists who are also interested in my perspective. These working relationships create the new and the unexpected even in a traditional industry.

As both Opera and classical music are seen as a Eurocentric genre, what has your experience being Nikkei-Canadian been in the Opera scene? 

When it comes to representation in the industry, I see my experience as a stepping stone towards a future where someone like me doesn’t have to consider whether their appearance or personality is ‘employable’.  This attitude comes with a lot of pep talks and blind courage to put myself out there despite obstacles.  The opera industry is waking up and changing.  Many people are taking steps to address these barriers and find alternate means of operating.  

In line with the mentality of many immigrants, I often challenge myself to put in double the expected workload and never make mistakes for fear of being excluded. Having done a lot of work this year in order to address my identity as an artist, I’ve learned that this expectation doesn’t serve my ability to create great art.  I try to check in with myself to acknowledge what is in my personal power to control.  I know my value and worth and I try to surround myself with people who share the same perspective.  My identity as Nikkei also allows me to differentiate myself from the crowd and once I stopped trying to fit a mold of the ‘ideal opera singer’, I discovered that my identity could become my greatest strength.

What are your thoughts on diversity and representation in Opera currently? 

I personally don’t envision a finish line in this regard.  I have visions for the future of opera, which involve telling more diverse stories, casting more diverse singers in all roles and making a conscious effort to create new stories in order to broaden the spectrum of what opera is.  There is progress being made, but unfortunately, equity isn’t a descriptor that is associated with our industry.  Racially-specific roles are often used in order to tokenize people of colour and to demonstrate an effort to support equity.  In reality, there needs to be a redefinition of the standard for what an opera singer can be.  We work in an industry where singers spend years of their life studying in order to harness their ability to be ‘employable’.  The barriers that are in place in order to even get to the point of education clearly demonstrate inequity.  My future of opera is where all voices are cast to sing any role that is vocally meant for the singer. Every artist brings something new to a role and this is what needs to be better appreciated.

What is your view on the performing arts landscape of Canada? Is there enough support? 

Unfortunately we live in a society where the arts are seen as non-essential.  This is a social and cultural issue as well as being affected by federal support.  Being on the west coast, in the opera world, is treated as being stuck in a corner of an impossibly large room.  Musicians are regularly expected to find their own way to auditions – a majority of which only travel to the east coast of the continent.  Opera companies across Canada are few and far between, generally including one per major city.  These companies rely highly on the local communities to fund their events.  For many reasons, opera is not seeing the same return that the industry experienced decades ago.  In good news, there are more and more indie opera companies popping up across the country and producing amazing work.  If I can encourage people to do anything, it’s to support the work that these companies are doing.  Indie companies are time and time again producing ground-breaking work that caters to the new frontiers of performance and what new audiences are looking for.

Are there particular musical styles or characters you’re more naturally drawn to?

I’ll start out by saying that I do love a villain.  In opera, roles are composed for specific voice types and therefore there are only certain roles that a certain singer is able to perform.  I enjoy performing a large range of characters, from comedy to the most dramatic, but I definitely seek complexity when I’m analyzing a character in an opera. Many operatic characters are written as either hyper-portrayals of traditional archetypes or a realistic portrayal of regular people.  Both cases have opportunities to explore the flaws and layers of the characters.  My favourite challenge is to define the relationships between characters and let those influence their actions and voice.

When you’re first approaching a role, are you more focused on what the composer intended or are you considering how to update the character for a modern audience?  

Interpretation of an opera is a collaboration between many artists.  As a singer, it’s my responsibility to be accurate with what the composer intended and interpret the role emotionally in order to connect with the audience.  Language and knowledge of the score are the bare bones of the artistic preparation process. There is so much information on character and emotion that is already written into the score. Once this is confident, you are permitted the opportunity to explore your personal thoughts on the character.  Depending on the director, they will provide a new vision that will influence how the performer can shape the role.  There are many kinds of audiences, not all of which are looking for a new interpretation.  The best that a performer can do is to provide an honest performance and hope that members of the audience connect with it.

What was your experience like working as a mentor for Opera InReach

Opera InReach is an amazing organization committed to increasing the awareness and accessibility of music education across Canada.  I’ve been lucky enough to work as a mentor and witness the reach that we have the power to enact.  Rather than wait for change to be made, it inspires me to work with my peers to create change ourselves in order to provide new opportunities for the next generation.

You have won several awards including the Vancouver Opera Guild Award, The Dal Richard Award in Opera, Congratulations! What’s your secret to success?  

That depends on your definition of success!! I pride myself on my preparation and professionalism, but the greatest gift that I’ve been embracing recently has been giving myself the permission to grow as an artist and explore different aspects of my artistry.  It’s important to persevere through times where you may doubt yourself.  I’ve had many!  I usually reflect on what makes me unique as a performer and use that as my armor.

What is a dream project you would like to take on? 

I always have new ideas popping into my head.  I’m mostly inspired by the work that I can create through collaboration with other artists – I want to push my artistic boundaries with the help of others!  I’m currently exploring my personal identity as a Nikkei-Canadian and looking to let that support my goal to build a community of Japanese musicians.  I am in the beginning phases of creating a new group of Japanese songs based on the experience of immigration to Canada.  I am looking to partner with artists across the country, record and tour these new works!

What are your upcoming plans and where can we see you perform next?

I’m currently working with Vancouver Opera on Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘HMS Pinafore.’ In May you can find me singing Rossini’s ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’ with Vancouver Bach Choir then I’m headed to the prairies to sing Escamillo in Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ with Saskatoon Opera. Of course, I have new digital projects on the go so keep your eyes peeled!

Where can people follow you and your work?

Instagram/Facebook – @lukakawabata

Check out Luka’s project Paueru-Gai パウエル街” which premiered in the fall. 

Artist Biography 

Nikkei-Canadian baritone, Luka Kawabata is a current participant in the Yulanda M Faris Young Artists’ Program with Vancouver Opera, having appeared as Dmitri in Wargo’s The Music Shop and as Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen: Up Close and Personal in the 2020-2021 Digital Season.  He is also a graduate of the Digital Emerging Artist Program with Manitoba Opera.  Luka has been a featured soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bard on the Beach and the Vancouver Opera/Pacific Opera Victoria’s school tour of The Flight of the Hummingbird

In the 2021-2022 season, Luka will make two company debuts as Schaunard in La Bohème (Edmonton Opera) and Escamillo in Carmen (Saskatoon Opera). He will appear as a soloist with the Vancouver Bach Choir in Rossini’s La Petite Messe Solennelle and understudy the roles of Alfio (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Captain Corcoran (HMS Pinafore) with Vancouver Opera.  Luka will be featured in the role of Bill Bobstay in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore with Vancouver Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Recent credits include the title role in Don Giovanni, Lieutenant Audebert in Silent Night, Dappertutto and Dr. Miracle in Les contes d’Hoffmann as well as Tadeusz in the Canadian Premiere of Pasazerka (The Passenger) with the UBC Opera Ensemble. He has performed roles with the Westben Arts Festival’s La Traviata as well as the European Music Academy’s La Bohème and Il Barbiere di Siviglia in the Czech Republic.

He has been the recipient of various awards, including the Toni and Hildegard Cavelti Foundation Fund from the Vancouver Opera Foundation, the Dal Richard Award in Opera, the Nancy Phipps Memorial Award in Opera, the Harry and Marjorie Slim Memorial Scholarship and the Vancouver Opera Guild Award.

Luka is a mentor for the BC chapter of Opera InReach’s community engagement programs and alumnus of the Banff Centre’s ‘Opera in the 21st Century’ program.  He holds a Master of Music in Opera Performance from the University of British Columbia under the instruction of Peter Barcza. 

Artist Headshot captions: 

Imposter – “Screenshot from ‘Imposter'” – Video Credit: Jordan Lee

Paueru-Gai – “Screenshot from ‘Paueru-Gai'” – Video Credit: Jordan Lee

Promos – Photo credit: Mark Yammine Photography

Silent Night – “Lieutenant Audebert in ‘Silent Night’ 2018” – Photo Credit: Tim Matheson