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AAPI Artists Who Are Changing the Game

Posted on: May 14, 2024

May brings a myriad of things to look forward to and celebrate, one of which being Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. While we’re out enjoying the wonderful spring weather and looking forward to the summer, we want to take a moment to look back at just a few of the amazing AAPI figures we’ve been lucky enough to work with over the years. From groundbreaking performers to a Tony Award-winning costume designer, there’s been some truly amazing AAPI artists who have lent us their talent and deserve to be highlighted.  

Huang Ruo
Hailed by the New Yorker as “one of the world’s leading young composers,” Huang Ruo was born in 1976 on Hainan Island, off the southern coast of China. He began his composition journey when he was six years old when his father, also a composer, began teaching him piano and composition. His musical studies expanded when he entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the age of 12. Growing up after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Ruo was exposed to a wave of Western media that had been shut off from China for decades. This included the classical music of Bach, Mozart and Stravinsky as well as rock and roll, heavy metal and jazz. This would greatly influence his style which sees him mixing Western and Chinese styles of music to tell AAPI stories.  

His compositions are as diverse as his influences. He’s delved into a multitude of compositional works from orchestral music, chamber music, opera, theater and dance as well as experimental improvisation, folk rock and film. His operas include Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Paradise Interrupted and Book of Mountain and Seas, Ruo’s powerful take on Chinese mythology which we were lucky to present earlier this season. Ruo’s focus on telling AAPI stories is creating more and more diverse roles for AAPI performers while exposing opera fans to a wealth of stories they may not have discovered otherwise.  

Sean Panikkar
Tenor Sean Panikkar has been lauded by Opera News for his ability “to position himself as one of the stars of his generation… His voice is unassailable—firm, sturdy and clear, and he employs it with maximum dramatic versatility.” Born in Pennsylvania, Panikkar is the son of Sri Lankan immigrants. He began his vocal studies in high school under the Juilliard-trained soprano Li Ping Liu. After high school, he attended the University of Michigan, where he initially double majored in civil engineering and vocal performance before focusing solely on music. This led him to partake in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program in 2004 where he eventually was selected for the Adler Fellowship Program, SFO's resident artist program, in 2005 and 2006.  

Panikkar’s training and his devotion to the art form has led him to perform on some of the most prestigious stages and festivals in the world such as the Royal Albert Hall, Metropolitan Opera, Salzburg Festival (one of the biggest festivals for classical music), English National Opera and Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala. Couple this with a plethora of awards and competition wins, and it’s easy to see why Panikkar has become a standout singer of his generation. We had the pleasure of having Panikkar on our stage when he starred as Ghandi in Phillip Glass’ Satyagraha in 2018, to which he had to say “As the first brown person to sing Gandhi, it brought an extra level of emotion to some of the oppressive scenes that doesn’t necessarily come across quite as powerfully when a white singer is doing it.” 

Linda Cho
Breaking away from musicians for just a bit, we’d be remiss not to mention the exceptionally talented Linda Cho. Cho is a Korean-born Tony Award-winning costume designer whose brilliance provided the costumes for our productions of, most recently, The Dwarf, as well as The Broken Jug, The Birds and the spectacular The Ghosts of Versailles. Her Broadway designs include The Great Gatsby, the 2024 revival of Doubt, Anastasia and the show that won her the Tony, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The U.S. isn’t the only country lucky enough to experience her talent as she has extensively worked internationally with companies in Europe, Asia and South America. With costumes as luscious and striking as hers, it’s no wonder the rest of the world wants to see them too. Even when we close our eyes, we can see her striking and vibrant designs.  

Kent Nagano
Last, but in no way least, on our list is our former principal conductor and music director, Kent Nagano. Born in Berkeley, California, Nagano is a Japanese American conductor who studied music at University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University. Nagano showed immense talent early in his studies and career, which led him to becoming the music director for the Berkley Symphony in 1978. He would also become the music director for the Ojai Music Festival, Opera National de Lyon and here at LA Opera. He started off in LA Opera as a principal conductor in 2001, then became music director in 2003 and won major acclaim for his brilliant interpretations. While he enjoyed major success in LA, Nagano is not one to stay in one place too long and he stepped down as music director in 2006.  

His career has remained prosperous throughout the years as he was a regular guest at the Salzburg Festival and served as music director at Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Bavarian State Opera. He currently holds the music director position at Hamburg State Opera but will be concluding his tenure there after the 2024-25 season. Wherever Nagano chooses to go next, he’ll have no shortage of musical brilliance to bring to their table.