Alumni Profile: Aria Umezawa

Aria Umezawa builds her career on thinking outside the box and making choices for change.
Image by Michael Barker Photography.

Aria Umezawa (BMus’15) is a director/consultant focused on changing the culture of opera and opera creation. Since 2019, Aria has been on the coaching staff at Opera McGill as their Opera Innovation Consultant, where she works with the master’s students to produce their own opera projects. She’s completed an Adler Fellowship with San Francisco Opera (SFO) — the first stage director to be awarded the fellowship in fifteen years. Aria is the co-founder of Amplified Opera, an organization that places equity-seeking artists at the centre of public discourse. She is also the co-founder of the independent opera company, Opera 5, and served as artistic director until 2017. Selected directing credits include: (La) voix humaine (Against the Grain Theatre), Christmas With SOL3 MIO (San Francisco Opera); Hamlet (West Edge Opera); and an immersive interpretation of Die Fledermaus (Opera 5).

Always curious to know more about the work she does, we asked Aria a few questions over email.

Woman (Aria Umezawa) on stage in front of a screen speaking to an audience at San Francisco Opera Lab Pop-Up event in 2017
Image by Kristen Loken.

Much of your work revolves around innovation and social impact. What drives you to want to do that?

Both innovation and social impact are about placing people, in all their complexities, at the centre of whatever I’m doing. While I was at San Francisco Opera, I learned an innovation process called Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to design that starts with empathizing with the people you are trying to serve. It was such an eye-opener because it felt like I finally had words to describe what I had been trying to do for my entire career. I want to listen to people, to understand their perspectives and where they’re coming from, and then make sense of a broad range of experiences. I draw a lot of inspiration from hearing about others’ perspectives.

I think innovation and social impact go hand-in-hand because they’re about advocating for people and their needs. They both encourage us to broaden the scope of our understanding, lean into discomfort, and look for solutions to complicated problems. In the context of creating art, it’s about figuring out a way to allow people to bring their whole selves to every process. At the end of the day, I believe our world is made better when everyone has the space to be creative in their own unique way. I’m working towards a world where that is not only possible but integral to the way our society functions.

You developed "Safe to Run: Bystander Intervention Training for the Rehearsal Room" with Opera McGill in 2018 and have run the workshop at opera companies across North America. Can you explain a bit about the workshop? What propelled its creation? 

When the #MeToo movement started picking up steam, I watched what was happening in the film and television industry, and figured it was just a matter of time before it hit the opera industry. It felt inevitable. The question I asked myself was what could I, as a relatively young stage director, do to help?  

I started by talking to my colleagues, administrators, donors, and anyone who would give me a moment. My main takeaway from those talks was that the problem was real. Almost everyone knew of or had experienced an instance of harassment themselves. 

The other key insight was that people didn’t know what to do about it. On the one hand, everyone agreed that harassment was not something they wanted in their workplace, but they also wanted to make great art, and many of the people I spoke to had convinced themselves that creating art and harassment were somehow linked. One question that kept coming up in one form or another was, “How can we make great art if we mandate a process?” 

What this indicated to me was that people didn’t have enough tools to address the problem. So I began looking at different styles of anti-harassment training and different ways of holding space and started to tailor an approach that might work for the opera industry. I’m deeply grateful that Patrick Hansen and the students at Opera McGill were willing to let me test drive the first couple of iterations of the workshop with them. It is a workshop that has adapted over the past couple of years in response to the feedback and questions I was getting. But it all started at McGill.   

Safe to Run is a combination of bystander intervention training, social justice facilitation techniques – specifically drawing from the concept of Brave Spaces, and my lived experience as a stage director working in the opera industry. It’s designed to create a sense of shared responsibility for the type of space we hold in our rehearsal rooms and give witnesses of harassment the permission and tools they need to effectively intervene when they see inappropriate behaviour.  

My hope is that the workshop helps spark conversation, and ultimately facilitates the type of culture change necessary to ensure that everyone can safely bring their whole selves to every rehearsal process.  

You started your undergraduate degree at Schulich in Vocal Performance, at what point did you realize you might be more interested in working behind the scenes?   

I knew pretty soon out of the gate that I wasn’t meant to be an opera singer. I was aware of how competitive the industry is, and I looked at my classmates and thought, “I just don’t want this as badly as some of these people seem to.” It was a bit jarring, because I had convinced myself at age eight that I wanted to be an opera singer, and now that I had a sense of what that might look like (at the tender age of seventeen), I knew it wasn’t for me. 

This realization caused a significant amount of tension between me and my voice teacher, who didn’t understand why I would pursue a degree in vocal performance if I didn’t want to be an opera singer. So after the second year of my degree, I took a year off and went back to Toronto to figure things out. I came to the conclusion that the things I love about opera have a lot to do with collaboration and creation, and less about performing. This led me to the thought that maybe I would like to be a stage director so I could facilitate the creative process with others. That’s how I concluded that I was probably better suited to being behind the scenes. 

You’re at the heart of Canada's blossoming indie opera scene in Toronto. How does working with smaller companies like Amplified Opera and Opera 5 compare to working with larger ones like San Francisco Opera? What can each learn from the other? Any advice for someone looking to make their own waves in opera?  

The difference boils down to creative autonomy.  

At the indie-level, the artists creating the work have control over what they are making. I mean this both in terms of what they program, but also in terms of how they interpret the works they choose to perform – be it virtual reality opera, or reframing canonical works to make political commentary, or finding completely new soundscapes with collaborators outside of the opera world. It’s like taking a colouring book and just doing whatever comes to your head, taking the lines as helpful suggestions. Indie artists are finding contemporary resonance for opera and have been successful in building small but dedicated audiences for the type of art that they would like to create.  

Places like San Francisco Opera have built their multi-million-dollar organizations on a specific type of opera. Their audiences have an expectation for what the operatic form is and are let down when they don’t see it. SFO has been incredibly successful at building an audience for the type of opera that they create because they are one of the best at what they do. People are willing to fork over millions of dollars to see their kind of opera, which does not leave a ton of room for radical interpretation. Being successful at those types of companies is dependent on your ability to interpret opera in the way that their audience wants. You can colour with any crayon you’d like, as long as you stay inside the lines.  

The problem is neither is truly sustainable. With few exceptions, the indie companies are not growing audiences to a level that can support them organizationally, and the larger companies are watching the number of people willing to pay millions of dollars to see their brand of opera dwindle.  

Opera (and truly many of the forms of music taught at the Schulich School of Music) is at the precipice of evolution. The indie opera companies are re-defining what opera is and what can be called opera and seeing some success in finding new audiences, and the larger companies know a lot about growing audiences and have the resources to create art for large stages. If both groups put their heads together, we’d find an exciting path forward. 

. . . and already working on what comes next, Amplified Opera was just named the Canadian Opera Company’s Disrupter-in-Residence

"We are looking forward to this unique residency with the Canadian Opera Company which will allow us to work together in a way that is slow and deliberate. By building a foundation of trust, we will navigate the difficult and challenging conversations that will be integral to interrupting the status quo and forging new, generative paths forward.” -- Amplified Opera Co-founders: Aria Umezawa, Marion Newman, Asitha Tennekoon, & Teiya Kasahara 笠原貞野 

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