Q&A with Aria Umezawa

A woman in a blue shirt points to something in the distance for a male coworker to see

By: Jennifer Colgan

Are you excited about our spring production of Puccini’s Turandot? This production is one of great renown in the repertoire and a favorite among opera aficionados.

Tickets are going quickly for Turandot! Get yours today for performances at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House from May 6 – 14 starting at $39>>

The incredible director Aria Umezawa is taking on this classic tale. Learn more about her background and her experience with Turandot.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you become a director?

A woman in a blue shirt directs a group of people
Director Aria Umezawa in rehearsals for Turandot
Source: Jamie Kraus/Opera Colorado

I saw my first opera when I was eight years old and was immediately hooked! I decided then and there I was going to work in opera, and because I was so young, I assumed that meant I had to be an opera singer.

Flash forward almost a decade: I was a vocal performance major at the Schulich School of Music (McGill University). As soon as I stepped on stage for the first time to perform as a soloist, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I had stage fright, and the idea of making a career out of performing was a terrifying prospect. So, I took a year off from my studies to figure out what exactly I wanted to do.

When I thought about what appealed to me about opera it all came down to the scope of imagination and creation, and the opportunity to collaborate with people. From there, I determined that I was probably on the wrong side of the production table as a singer and decided to pursue directing instead.

Tell us about your history with Turandot. When did you first see it? What is your favorite moment?

That opera that I saw at age eight—the opera that convinced my younger self to pursue a career in opera—that was Turandot. I remember Liù’s death scene vividly. Or rather, I remember how hard I was crying. I remember thinking that if I could spend my life making other people feel the way I felt in that moment, that would be a life well spent.

Much of your work focuses on reimagining the creation and presentation of opera. How will your work at Opera Colorado reflect your commitment to these issues?

A man sings as two others stand behind him
Cast members of Turandot in rehearsals
Source: Jamie Kraus/Opera Colorado

There is a real irony in how my relationship with Turandot has changed since I first saw it. By the time I began my post-secondary studies, I had experienced exoticization because of my ethnicity. For example, people would often tell me I reminded them of an anime character or would draw uncomfortable comparisons between me and Geishas. And so, orientalist operas like Turandot, Madama Butterfly, and Pearl Fishers started to take on a different dimension.

While I inherited the sets and costumes for Turandot (which were created for other productions), and am therefore committed to an aesthetic, we are making important choices—particularly with the makeup—to minimize the yellowface on stage, but we can’t completely avoid the orientalist lens through which this piece is being told.

Learn more about how we are addressing some of these challenges with The Riddle of Turandot>>

What we can do is give voice to the concerns of the community whose culture is supposedly represented in this work. My hope is that we can encourage the audience to consider the impact that presenting this work has on people who have experienced racism and discrimination. Turandot may be a significant work in the operatic canon, but not everyone can appreciate its beauty when it perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Chinese culture.

What are you most looking forward to, both regarding Turandot and your time in Colorado?

A row of people sit in front of a screen which reads "The Riddle of Turandot: A Community Discussion"
The Riddle of Turandot: A Community Discussion Panel

I have already had the chance to meet some inspiring Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community Leaders through Opera Colorado’s recent panel discussion. I really hope to continue to build connections with people in Denver and get to know a bit more about this really cool and vibrant town.

Learn more about this community discussion, featuring panelists from the AAPI community, which explored Turandot further>>

Also, as someone who loves hiking and mountains, I can’t wait to hit some trails!

What do you like doing outside of work?

I love cooking, walking along the Don Valley in Toronto, and going to the theatre and art galleries. And I absolutely love bar trivia, but I’m really competitive. I generally try to go with people who won’t judge me for being super intense about it.

It is a delight to have Aria with us for this production of Turandot. Make sure to see the final produc on stage at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House from May 6 – 14. Get tickets today>>

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