AAPI Voices: Asako Hirabayashi

This May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! All month, we’ll be highlighting the incredible contributions of the AAPI artists in our community. Recently, we sat down with several AAPI members of the MN Opera family to talk about how their AAPI identities have impacted their opera careers and what they would like to see change in the opera industry with regard to AAPI representation.   

A harpsichordist and composer, Asako Hirabayashi‘s first recording, on the Albany Label, was entirely composed and played by her, was selected as one of the top ten albums of the year 2018 and was awarded the Gold Medal Award by the Global Music Awards. It was also selected as one of the five best classical CDs of 2010 by Minneapolis Star Tribune. The recording also received seven favorable reviews internationally. She has won numerous grants and awards including the 2009 McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians, 2016 McKnight Fellowship for Composers, several first prizes in Alienor International Harpsichord Composition Competition and NHK International Song Writing Competition in Japan, the 2012 Jerome Fund for New Music by American Composers Forum to write her first concert opera Yuki-onna (Snow Witch) which premiered in 2015. Asako’s second opera Hebi-onna (Snake Woman) won a 2019 Schubert Club Composer Award and Opera America’s Discovery Grant. She also won the MN Opera’s MNiatures 2021 grant: Tiny Operas and Big Ideas. Asako has appeared as a featured guest soloist in international festivals and concert series worldwide since her New York debut recital at Carnegie Hall. Her live performance of her own composition was featured in the United States’ most popular classical music program, Performance Today from 2018 to 2021. Asako holds a Doctoral degree in Harpsichord Performance from the Juilliard School and a master’s degree in composition from Aichi Art University in Japan  Her compositions have been performed in fourteen different countries.

1. In what ways has your AAPI identity impacted your career journey in opera? 

Born and raised in Japan, I cherished the rich arts, literature  and culture of Japan. For thousands of years, Japanese culture has emphasized courtesy, grace, and happiness of others above the personal self. Yet, I was often frustrated by Japan’s patriarchal society. Discrimination against women, people with disabilities, adoptees, Koreans and other non-Japanese nationalities has had a detrimental impact on my upbringing. We were taught that silence and endurance are considered virtues, which allowed Japanese society to prosper with little crime, few conflicts and general harmony. However, since moving to this country, I became aware  I have a view and a voice to go beyond what I was raised to believe.  It has been such a powerful realization, and I am driven to express this using my own words and music. My passion as a performer and composer is to connect to audiences and share essential emotions that arise in our life experiences. I believe music has a power to heal and resolve internal and external conflicts. I started to want to express myself not only through music in an abstract way, but also in more direct and concrete ways through theatrical works.


2. Did you have any AAPI role models or mentors when you were starting your career? What qualities did you admire about them?

My family, friends, teachers, publishers, and colleagues – all people around me have supported and inspired me to grow as a musician, particularly my mother.  My parents lived through the WWII in Japan and were socialists. They fought for democracy, freedom and against fascism. I am the only musician in my extended family, and I started to learn how to play the piano using a keyboard which was printed on paper. My mother came from a small fishing village with little education and definitely knew nothing about music. However, when I started to take piano, composition, theory and ensemble lessons at age 7, she bought a music theory book, taught herself about music and tutored me. Without her I would not be where I am today.  Also raising my two children, one with multiple disabilities and one who we adopted, taught me so many important perspectives I would never have learned without them. I admire and respect people who suffer, are oppressed and live in very difficult and unfair circumstances. They have inspired and taught me most. Their silent voice is the foundation of my music making.


3. What changes would you like to see in the opera industry, specifically in relation to the AAPI community? 

Our general image of opera has been Western classical music in European languages for an affluent, predominately white community. However, I have seen changes in the opera field recently. My second chamber opera, “Hebi-onna”(Snake Woman), was awarded Opera America’s Discovery Grant this year. I wrote the story, libretto and the music. It is in both English and Japanese and is about diversity, discrimination, segregation, unconditional love, benevolence and the coexistence of nature and human beings. It incorporates Japanese culture, language, and the Japanese instrument Shamisen. My story is to remind us the lessons to be gleaned from the natural world. Even animals know how to be grateful, repay their debts, and love their families. We humans can learn from their pure compassion and sacrifice. We find ourselves in a cruel world divided by greed and prejudice. Now is a good moment for us to reconnect with our authentic selves, with our natural roots of pure goodness. It also reminds us how important it is for human beings to coexist with nature. While the story ends in tragedy, as humans kill each other and destroy nature, nature does not take revenge, but nurtures us instead. The story concludes as ultimate healing for both sides. 

The modern world is connected via the Internet. I believe it is natural and easy to exchange, collaborate and intermingle different cultures in all kinds of arts. I am very grateful to be supported by Opera America and MN Opera and hope other opera organizations help open the gates to Asian cultures.


To learn more about Ms. Hirabayashi, please enjoy this performance of her opera Dear America, Beat Your Heart Defiantly, Naked and Open with Love, commissioned as part of MN Opera’s MNiatures below.

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