Brian Asawa (October 1, 1966 – April 18, 2016) was a Japanese American opera singer who sang as a countertenor. About Asawa, Opera News stated: "In his prime, Asawa was an electric performer, his fearless performing style supported by a voice of arresting beauty and expressivity."
Brian Asawa was born in Fullerton, California, and grew up in Los Angeles. He sang in the choir at a Methodist church with a Japanese congregation. He began his studies as a piano major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then changed his studies to voice, studying under tenor Harlan Hokin. After two semesters there he transferred to UCLA.
In 1989 he began a master's degree in early-music interpretation at the University of Southern California where he was a pupil of the American lutenist James Tyler. However, Asawa never finished this program as his performance career began to take off.
His career was launched in 1991 when he became the first countertenor to win both the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and an Adler Fellowship to the San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program. Of his performance at the Metropolitan Allan Kozinn wrote:
The most impressive of the winners was Brian Asawa, a countertenor with an unusually rich, rounded sound and the power to fill the house with no sacrifice in timbre or suppleness. Mr. Asawa's meltingly beautiful accounts of "Chiamo il mio ben cosi", from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and "Welcome, Wanderer," from Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, were subtly shaped and graced with a slight but fully expressive vibrato. There is not much call for countertenors at the Met. But the voice is flourishing in the early-music world, where singers of Mr. Asawa's musicality are needed.
He made his professional opera debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1991 in Hans Werner Henze's Das verratene Meer where he also sang the Shepherd in Tosca and Oberon in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1992. While at the SFO he continued voice studies with Jane Randolph. He also made his first opera appearance in New York City in 1992 at the Mozart Bicentennial celebration at Lincoln Center, singing the title role in Mozart's Ascanio in Alba with the Mostly Mozart Festival Chorus and the New York Chamber Symphony under conductor Ádám Fischer.
In 1993, Asawa was awarded a career grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation and made his debut at the Santa Fe Opera as Arsamene in Handel's Xerxes. In the New York Times in January 1994 Alex Ross wrote:[a]
In a remarkable recital ... Brian Asawa showed the kind of pure, effortless countertenor voice that comes along only once in a long while. It is hard to convey the uncanny effect of his full, fluid, lustrous tone, poised in the extreme upper register without the slightest strain.... His ventures into 20th-century music hold particular interest; although modern operatic roles for countertenors are few and far between ... a singer of this magnitude might cause all that to change.
Later that year, he became the first countertenor to win the Operalia International Opera Competition, and made debuts at the Metropolitan Opera as the Voice of Apollo in Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice and at Glimmerglass Opera as Ottone in Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. He was chosen Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year for the 1996–97 season.
Other career highlights included Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus at San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera; Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare at Metropolitan Opera, Bordeaux, Opera Australia, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, and Hamburg State Opera; Arsamene in Serse at Los Angeles, Cologne, Seattle, and Geneva; the title role in Admeto at Sydney, Montpellier and Halle; Baba The Turk in The Rake's Progress at San Francisco and for Swedish television; Fyodor in Boris Godunov at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Endimione in La Calisto in Brussels, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream at San Francisco, Houston, London Symphony Orchestra and Lyon; Ascanio in Ascanio in Alba at Lincoln Center; Farnace in Mitridate, re di Ponto at Opera National de Lyon and Paris Opera; Nero in L'incoronazione di Poppea in Sydney; Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice, La Speranza in L'Orfeo and L'Umana Fragilita/Anfinomo in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at Netherlands Opera; David in Handel's Saul and Belize in the opera Angels in America by Péter Eötvös at the Bavarian State Opera, and Sesto in Giulio Cesare at COC in Toronto.
Asawa not only performed in opera, but was interested in expanding the art song literature for countertenor, supporting living composers by commissioning, performing, and recording works by them. Perhaps best known is the song cycle "Encountertenor", commissioned from Jake Heggie and premiered at London's Wigmore Hall in 1995 (later recording it for the BMG/RCA label). Asawa also recorded a disc of songs by Ned Rorem with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on RCA. More recently, Asawa sang San Francisco composer Kurt Erickson's "Four Arab Love Songs" (a mini-cycle of medieval Arab poems from Spain’s Andalusia region dating from 900 to 1100 AD) on a premiere tour consisting of concerts in Long Beach, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, California and in Washington State. At the time of his death, Asawa was slated to premiere the song cycle "O Mistress Mine" (12 songs on texts from the plays of Shakespeare) written for him by Connecticut composer Juliana Hall at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
In May 2014, he performed a recital program with mezzo-soprano Diana Tash at the Festival de Mayo in Guadalajara, Mexico. In 2014, Asawa and Peter Somogyi established Asawa and Associates, an operatic artists' management agency.
Personal life and death
Asawa was openly gay and believed this had helped him to discover his voice type. "Heterosexual men don't feel comfortable singing in a treble register because it's not butch", he told an interviewer in 1998. "Gay men feel quite comfortable singing in their falsetto registers." He was married to Keith Fisher; the marriage ended in divorce.
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Asawa's discography includes four solo recital discs ranging from Dowland and Edmund Campion to Rachmaninoff and Ned Rorem. His opera recordings include Farnace in Mitridate for Decca, Arsamene in Serse for Conifer and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream for Philips with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.
He appeared on DVD in Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Monteverdi's "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" Opus Arte, Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" Kultur, as well as both a CD and DVD release of Handel's "Messiah" directed by Marc Minkowski. In 2014, Asawa and mezzo-soprano Diana Tash released an album of duets on the LML Music label that included works by Handel, Monteverdi, Purcell, A. Scarlatti and Marco da Gagliano.
- Later that year, reviewing a performance at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival conducted by Jane Glover, Kozinn wrote that the arias he sang "demand a direct emotionalism that is often beyond a countertenor's grasp. Mr. Asawa has no deficit in that regard, nor in questions of technique and coloristic subtlety. His voice is powerful and fully supported. He produced pianissimo high notes that floated easily through the large hall, and his more forceful ones showed no sign of strain. He used vibrato judiciously, and even the brightest edge of his palette has a velvety smoothness. All opera singing is manufactured, and the greatest singers are those who can create the illusion that it is not. Mr. Asawa's greatest asset, apart from sheer vocal beauty, is that both his tone and his expressive gestures sound entirely natural."
- "Brian Asawa, 49, Countertenor Who Found Acclaim on U.S. and International Stages, Has Died". Opera News. April 19, 2016. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- Hilferty, Robert (May 12, 1998). "Hitting the High Notes". The Advocate. p. 75. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- Kasow, Joel (April 19, 1999). "Interview with Brian Asawa". CultureKiosque. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- Kozinn, Allan (July 17, 1994). "Next Thing You Know, Countertenors Could Be Stars". New York Times. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- Kozinn, Allan (April 16, 1991). "Audition Winners' Concert Metropolitan Opera". New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2016.
- Holland, Bernard (August 24, 1992). "Hearing the Last of All of Mozart". New York Times. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- Kozinn, Allen (August 9, 1993). "Seekers of the Unusual Find It Twice at Santa Fe". New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2016.
Few countertenors produce a timbre as beautiful, as fully supported or as consistently well-projected as Mr. Asawa's, and his portrayal was as dramatically sensitive as it was firmly sung.
- Ross, Alex (January 19, 1994). "Purcell, Faure and Rorem, As Sung by a Countertenor". New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2016.
- Kozinn, Allan (July 25, 1994). "Pianist and Falsetto Surprise in Their Ways". New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2016.
- "Brian Asawa Premieres Erickson's Four Arab Love Songs". The Huffington Post. Retrieved July 9, 2016.
- "Hommage à Brian Asawa". Diapason Magazine. Retrieved July 9, 2016.
- "Norfolk Chamber Music Festival Celebrates 75 Years!". Litchfield Hills Connecticut. Retrieved July 9, 2016.
- "Brian Asawa, first in a wave of countertenors, dies". SFGate. April 19, 2016. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- "Asawa & Associates". Asawa & Associates. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
- Fox, Margalit (April 23, 2016). "Brian Asawa, Celebrated Countertenor and Pathbreaker at the Met, Dies at 49". New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2016.