AAPI Voices: Corissa Bussian
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.
Corissa Bussian, soprano is a Korean adoptee from the Milwaukee area. She has sung in the chorus of Minnesota Opera for about 8 seasons and also performs around the Twin Cities with other local companies and ensembles including An Opera Theatre, Lakes Area Music Festival, OOPS MN, and Theater Mu. Corissa was most recently seen as Mimi in Theater Latté Da’s La bohème, performing in the last preview right before the COVID-19 quarantine shut down. She received her Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from DePaul University and holds a Masters in vocal performance and opera studies from The Shepherd School of Music, Rice University. Corissa is currently on the faculty of K&S Conservatory teaching voice and during COVID she has been adjusting to online teaching, learning to troubleshoot recordings, knocking off those house and yard projects. Corissa misses her MNOP family and is optimistically looking forward to when she can return!
1. In what ways has your AAPI identity impacted your career journey in opera?
I do not recall any drastic moments where I felt like I positively shined or was indirectly discriminated against for being Korean-American. But over the years, there were times that I would see the young artists cast after I had been rejected and questioned why a certain soprano was hired when I was very familiar with her technique or artistry. I just assumed I was not as good. But then after seeing no diversity in the singers who had been hired, of course, I had to wonder if it had to do with not “looking the right way.” Something that did happen and still continues to occur today because of my American name is it’s assumed that I will walk in as a Caucasian singer. Or get mistaken for the other singer, pianist, production team member with a Southeast Asian name. This occurred noticeably more often in Germany when auditioning; the agents or panel were always surprised that I was not a German soprano (my maiden name is Leonard). But when they saw I was American and had trained there, it seemed they took me more seriously. I was not then aware of the stigma of “poor Eastern technique” for singers from Southeast Asian countries, which seems like an outdated thought with so many high level international singers coming from Asia.
2. Did you have any AAPI role models or mentors when you were starting your career? What qualities did you admire about them?
Since I was very new to the operatic world, I had only really heard about the more international singers like Sumi Jo and Kathleen Kim. I still listen to Sumi Jo all the time and continue to think she has one of the most pure, beautiful colors. I was also singing a lot of arias in her fach, so I would use her recordings as references often. When I was an undergraduate at DePaul University, there were two wonderful South Korean sopranos in the graduate program. Not only were they the kindest women, but I could not believe what kind of power and unique sound they could produce. They both were role models showing extremely hard work, focus and professionalism. One soprano had also recently had a large abdominal operation and was truly working towards gaining back the control of her support. So her fight and strength definitely inspired me to keep going, no matter what hurdles life can throw at you.
3. What changes would you like to see in the opera industry, specifically in relation to the AAPI community?
There are so many talented AAPI artists! I have been happy to see more AAPI stories being told and produced, but those tend to focus on origin stories with full and solely AAPI casts. I would love to see more diversity on the stage no matter what the western opera is. There are so many heroines where the women’s stories are about being held back or not being able to love who they want to or struggling to have their voice heard. We are already diving into eras and characters we may not have anything in common with (I’ve never been a 18th century woman with wealth, a title, and love troubles that bring me to my death), so why can’t we also look different than singers who have traditionally been cast?
When it comes to the classical vocal training before the stage, oftentimes we get a general or basic stage make-up class or instruction or a “women in the chorus put this same color eye shadow on.” No one ever addresses the fact that AAPI faces have slightly different proportions and many times on stage what reads with other ethnicities, is not going help our eyes be seen. I had to do my own research and inquiries to even find a make-up artist who could give me techniques. This may seem like a tiny detail in everything else we are battling, but it is a genuine aspect that I feel gets often overlooked.
To learn more about Ms. Bussian, you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook, and check out this clip of her singing Strauss’ “Guten Morgen, ‘s ist Sankt Valentinstag” with former MN Opera Resident Artist, Andrew Sun, on piano.