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.
Rick Shiomi is a founding member and currently a Co-Artistic Director of Full Circle Theater, where he directed Caught by Christopher Chen in 2019, for which he received the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Favorite Director Award, and his new play, Fire In The New World, is slated for production in fall 2022. He was also a co-founder of Theater Mu, and its artistic director from 1993 to 2013. He has been involved in Asian American theater for over thirty-five years as a playwright, director and artistic director; for his work in Minnesota received the McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Award in 2015, Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 and Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision in 2007. Mr. Shiomi will also be directing MN Opera’s upcoming production of The Song Poet.
1. In what ways has your AAPI identity impacted your career journey in opera?
I actually have only two directing credits related to opera and those are two productions of The Mikado. The first was a Theater Mu and Skylark Opera collaboration in 2013. In fact, I ended up creating a new version of the operetta’s script and casting, set in Edwardian England rather than Japan with revised dialogue and lyrics. That in itself reflects the problematic history of AAPI people being portrayed in western opera/musicals (Madame Butterfly, King And I, Turandot and Miss Saigon). The second was a production in 2019 by the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company. I kept the setting in Edwardian England but cast it with their usual artists. And that for me was a lovely reflection of Gilbert and Sullivan being revealed as the social satirists of their era.
But in terms of directing musicals, I have directed several with what I consider an AAPI perspective, such as casting the King And I with AAPI performers playing the leads, Into The Woods set in Asia and using a cast of performers of color for a production of A Little Night Music. So being AAPI has totally impacted my career in musical theater and opera so far. And I directed the David Hwang revision of Flower Drum Song, which again reflects the need to revise the portrayal of AAPI people in these older musicals.
2. Did you have any AAPI role models or mentors when you were starting your career? What qualities did you admire about them?
In opera I didn’t have any mentors or role models and that may well be part of the problem for AAPI artists interested in that art form. However, in musical theater I did have some vague notions of productions such as the original film version of Flower Drum Song. But the biggest impact upon my development in terms of mentors and role models in theater belongs to AAPI theater artists such as Philip Gotanda, David Hwang, Marc Hayashi, Lane Nishikawa, Mako, Wakako Yamauchi, Nobu McCarthy, Raul Aranas, John Lone and Frank Chin.
I got into theater as a playwright in the 1980’s and the funny story is that Philip Gotanda, advised me to check with the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco if I wanted to turn one of my short stories into a play. I did that and the story became the play Yellow Fever, which turned into a hit, won awards, received rave reviews in The New York Times and The New Yorker, and was produced across North America and in Japan.
Ultimately, I got into directing and being an artistic director with my work at Theater Mu and now Full Circle Theater. In terms of directing, I learned from Lane Nishikawa, Raul Aranas and others. And as an artistic director, I learned many lessons (good and bad) in leadership from watching organizations like the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, East West Players in Los Angeles, and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York.
3. What changes would you like to see in the opera industry, specifically in relation to the AAPI community?
To begin with there is the difficult task of dealing with traditional operas like Madame Butterfly and Turandot. I am not sure how to approach this other than initially looking at casting and directorial interpretation. In the case of The Mikado, I was able to revise the book and lyrics because the material had recently entered the public domain and, in fact, I have my own version copyrighted with the Library of Congress.
By putting AAPI artists in such roles as directors and performers, the opera industry can bring AAPI experiences and perspectives into key roles in productions involving material covering AAPI people. Again, the example of my directing The Mikado led me to revise the operetta and create a totally reverse casting framework by setting the play in Edwardian England and using AAPI performers to play the English characters. (This reversal in not as revolutionary as it may appear as some commentators have thought that the original play was meant as a commentary on English society and politics and that the transfer to Japan was simply a way to cover their critique.)
But there also needs to be the creation of new operas like The Song Poet to bring real stories of AAPI people to the stage. The opera industry could be commissioning many new operas based upon existing AAPI plays and stories. The opera industry could be developing many new AAPI opera directors and performers. But this has to be done through a proactive strategy rather than a passive waiting for the stars to align.
To learn more about Mr. Shiomi, you can follow him on Facebook and check out Full Circle Theater’s webpage. He will also be participating in our upcoming panel discussion with Theater Mu, Asian Representation in Opera, which will be broadcast on Youtube Live on Thursday, May 27 at 7pm CDT. Learn more about the panel here and enjoy two clips of Mr. Shiomi’s work below.