Monday, April 5, 2021

Meet the Artist: Maestro Viswa Subbaraman

Maestro Viswa Subbaraman 

Internationally acclaimed American conductor, Viswa Subbaraman makes his Seattle Opera debut conducting Flight. The West Texas native recently served as the Artistic Director/Music Director of the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee. During his tenure at the Skylight, he has expanded the company’s repertoire and placed it at the forefront of the industry in producing contemporary opera and reimaging traditional works. Prior to Skylight, he was the Artistic Director/Founder of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company.

What most excites you about this upcoming production of Flight? What has the process been like?
Having the opportunity to create an opera film. We are not simply creating a stage production for camera. We’re envisioning this work as if you’d be seeing it at a movie theater rather than an opera house.

Subbaraman conducting members of the Seattle Symphony during a recording of Flight at Benaroya Hall. 

You studied both biology and music in college. How does science lend itself to artistry?
Yes, I was pre-med. I also have an MBA, where I learned about economics—essentially, how people choose to spend money. I think that these different areas of interest are helpful, because they lend to having a more varied knowledge of the human experiences. As musicians, we’re tasked with trying to communicate stories about what it means to be human, so having a varied level of knowledge comes in handy. The more you know about society, the more honest your storytelling becomes.

Why does Flight resonate for right now?
This opera is completely relevant. Around the world, we are dealing with what it means to be “the other,” to be a member of society who is not accepted. We see this phenomenon play out through the character of the couples, Bill and Tina, plus the Minskman and Minskwoman—and of course, the Refugee. He’s never really allowed to belong to the broader community. Without giving anything away, I love the brilliant twist that the Refugee gives in the end.

As the Refugee in Flight, Randall Scotting shows what it means to be treated like "the other." Philip Newton photo

In a recent Seattle Opera podcast, you talked about the gorgeous music of The Pearl Fishers, as well as the “othering” of People of Color in opera.

Historic works like Pearl Fishers may have inadvertently caused “othering.” But Flight is a story that is directly speaking to what it’s like to feel “othered,” right?

Yes. We have a very interesting way of ostracizing people as a society. Sometimes it’s as overt as burning crosses on lawns. But often, the way we show someone that they’re “not one of us” is much more subtle. I think BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) are often treated like they possess some sort of magic or knowledge that exists for others’ benefit. The “magical Negro” for example, like in The Legend of Bagger Vance, is a trope where Black people come in to help solve your problems.

In this era of doing more righteous art—more operas of Black stories and PoC stories—I’ve been thinking a lot about how opera represents (or fails to represent) diverse stories. At worse, these operas can feel like the commodification of pain and trauma. The audience doesn't see the joyful side, the uplifting side.

One thing I would love to see in the opera world, for example, is a La traviata that’s created and starred in by People of Color. Industry leaders think of minority performers for new or edgier works. But we can also do Brahams, Beethoven, and Mozart.

Maestro Viswa Subbaraman 

In the opera world today, it seems like artists and creatives of color are sometimes fearful of being candid about the racism they face. What thoughts do you have on that?

Well, the reality is you often do get penalized for speaking out. And we want to be able to work.

I have been outspoken, and as a result, I’m physically and mentally tired. As a brown person, there are places where I do not feel safe working. Even within a safe environment, talking about racism can be extremely tiring. There is no way to wave a magic wand and for BIPOC to know that they are welcome or valued within your company. Trust has to be built. And real change can only come if the leaders, the casting directors, the board, values it. I’ve enjoyed numerous discussions with Christina Scheppelmann about this. We have to really look at our power dynamics. We need to be able to have candid conversations. I think it’s an issue we all have to constantly confront in ourselves as well. No matter how well we think we’re doing, it’s a constant journey. There are a lot of things I could have done better over my career as well. It’s a journey of constant betterment and understanding.

And speaking of emotional toll, we need to be able to have candid conversations about mental health. We work in a cut-throat, rejection-filled industry. For me, personally, I struggle with depression and work with a therapist. We need to take care of ourselves and have support in talking about our struggles.

Why are you passionate about your work in opera despite the bias and inequities that exist?
There’s nothing like being on the podium. There is nothing better. And if we don’t do it, then the people who say we shouldn’t be in opera—they win. If we’re going to create change, we need to fight for it.

My dad moved here in 1972, and his generation did a lot to pave the way, and it’s really their generation that earned us “model minority” status. In some fields, racism against Indians is minimal. Indian Americans are doctors, or engineers. Many of these model-minority pursuits have been normalized. But being an Indian artist or musician, that’s different.

On April 26, 2019, The South Asian Symphony Orchestra gave its debut performance at the NCPA, Mumbai. Viswa Subbaraman, the conductor and Tharanga Goonetilleke, the soprano, with over 70 musicians from more than 5 countries in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora came together for this concert. The founder-trustees of the foundation – Nirupama Rao and her husband, Sudhakar Rao share a vision of transcending borders and building bridges through music. Also gracing the debut concert of the orchestra were the Vice President of India and the Governor of Maharashtra. Photo credit

What have you been reflecting on during the pandemic? What will you take with you from this time?
It’s funny how grateful one is to be able to go to work again. This is my first gig in 18 months. Being able to hear music again is huge. It’s the grandeur, the joy of living, and of life, that you experience in opera that’s unlike any other field. I didn’t realize just how much I missed being away from it all.

What’s one of your proudest artistic accomplishments? What’s an artistic goal that you have not yet met?

I conducted an inaugural concert with a pan-South-Asian orchestra, made possible by Ambassador Nirupama Rao. The group was made up of musicians with levels of musicianship that were all over the map, many of the members had disparate access to instruments (I was asked to bring violin strings with me!). The experience generated a sense of community. I’ve conducted orchestras with far more skill and experience, but nothing was that awe-inspiring. That orchestra was amazing. We had members of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra in the group, and they are so dedicated that for their own rehearsals, they start at 7:30 a.m. with some of them having to leave their homes at 4:30 or 5 a.m. just to make it. We has members of the Girls Orchestra of Afghanistan who face so many challenges to even make music. One of the horn players is a Sri Lankan person from Chicago who said, “I’ve never played in an orchestra with so many who looked like me.”

In terms of artistic goals, there’re so many. I still want to do my Beethoven No. 9 and my Shostakovich No. 5. I still haven’t conducted a Don Giovanni. There are many projects I still haven’t had the chance to do. I want to work more in Europe. (In this industry, I kind of feel like a European basketball player who wants to play in the NBA).

Any final thoughts?
Being in Seattle has been a blast. It’s nice to see a diversity of performers in this production of Flight.

Maestro Subbaraman during the video capture for Flight at The Museum of Flight. Photo by Christina Scheppelmann  

Flight premieres on Seattle Opera’s website at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 23 and can be viewed until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, April 25. Tickets are available online at or by calling 206.389.7676 or 800.426.1619. For questions about streaming, view our Streaming FAQs. This opera is rated PG-13 for sexual violence. Read content advisories.

No comments:

Post a Comment