Living Lieder

Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan, der aber traf.

I owe a much belated debt of gratitude to my college vocal coach, Oksana.

When I was preparing for my senior year recital, I remember mentioning to my vocal coach  that I wanted to do Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) song cycle. It begins with the protagonist meeting the man she falls in love with; continues through their courtship, marriage, and children; and ends with her experiencing his death. I was devastated by her reply. “Absolutely not,” she said. “You don’t understand it enough yet.” Of course, I objected. I was dating Justin, who I would marry a few years later; I certainly understood love! I argued that point. “No,” she said. “You don’t understand the final song yet. You don’t know loss like that. You haven’t experienced anything like it.” I was miffed, of course; isn’t that what acting was about? In the end, I didn’t do the cycle.

All these years later, I understand her point.

Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann, den Todesschlaf.

Justin and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary on October 1, 2016. The next day, my mom was flying up for a long-postponed mother-daughter trip to Lake George. We would only be gone for four days. Tuesday came and went; Wednesday evening, after a day of horseback riding and exploring small cafes, I texted Justin to see how his day was. His answer came back, “Left work with a terrible headache. Just got up to eat dinner. Going back to bed now.” We both figured it was just a seasonal migraine. The next day, as mom and I got on the boat for the lake tour, I texted again. “Worse today,” he wrote. “Called out of work. Going to stay home and rest. Seeing double, really weird.

Es blicket die Verlass’ne vor sich hin, Die Welt ist leer.

By Friday morning,  I was racing home at 90 miles an hour to take him to the ER, where after 7 hours of waiting and tests, they admitted him when they confirmed an abnormality on his brain MRI. He was in the hospital for five days, getting what felt like endless amounts of tests. On Saturday, we were told it was probably Multiple Sclerosis, but a spinal tap would confirm. Sunday morning, I got up and got glamorous – I had a concert upstate later that day – and went to spend as much time as possible with him before I had to drive up. Thankfully, his mom had also arrived by then, and stayed with him. I got through the concert on a wing and a prayer – and I can tell you, have never sung a more heartfelt ‘Ah, non credea mirarti’ and ‘Ah fors’è lui’ – and rushed back. We were told two weeks later that the tests showed no MS – but months of pain followed, with no diagnosis and little to no improvement, in his sight or the pain.

Geliebet hab’ ich und gelebt, ich bin nicht lebend mehr.

Finally, we managed to get into the neuro-opthalmology clinic at Weill Cornell hospital; of course, this meant more tests. On April 20th, the confirmation came back that my husband had Multiple Sclerosis; the tests showed multiple new abnormalities in the brain scan.

Ich zieh’ mich in mein Inn’res still zurück, der Schleier fällt

Throughout this entire journey, I’ve found solace in music. For the first time in a long time, I’ve pulled out my lieder book; I’ve looked at arias in a new way. I opened my Schumann book not too long ago, and happened to turn to the Frauenliebe und Leben. I happily sang through the whole cycle, and then came that final piece, the one I didn’t have the space to sing before. I looked at it with fresh eyes, remembering the terror I felt as I watched Justin sleep in that hospital, not knowing what was wrong but knowing it was something very serious. I am not one given to bouts of tears; and yet, listening to this piece now, with the experience of knowing that fear and possible loss, I found myself choked up.

Da hab’ ich dich und mein verlornes Glück, Du meine Welt!

How powerful, then, is music! At the same time as it can cause us to cry with pain we try to suppress, it can heal. By making the singer – and through them, the audience – confront these deeper, usually hidden emotions, we come to terms with how to get through them. The part of me that always wants to present a strong face to the world didn’t want to admit I was scared of losing Justin all through those hours watching him in his hospital bed; the part of me that creates music demanded I accept the emotion. The road ahead may be long (and not always easy), but easy was never promised; and at least it is a road we will be on together.

Now you have caused me my first pain,
But it struck hard,
You sleep, you harsh and pitiless man,
The sleep of death.
The deserted one stares ahead,
The world is void.
I have loved and I have lived,
And now my life is done.
Silently I withdraw into myself,
The veil falls,
There I have you and my lost happiness,
You, my world!

(Translations by Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005)


To my dear friend Brian Asawa (Oct. 1, 1966- April 18,2016)

It has been a whole year since we lost you (far too soon). Your wit, smile, friendship, and talent are missed every day. Your late-night phone calls to inform me what role I MUST learn next always made me feel special, and how much you believed in me. You had an ability to make whoever you were talking to, whoever you were singing with, feel like the most important person to in the universe at that moment in time.

Beyond this, you had a talent that was beyond compare. My mother said that when she listened to us singing ‘Più amabile beltà’ from Giulio Cesare, she couldn’t tell where one of us stopped singing and the other began.

You were the first Japanese-American to win the Met Competition; headlining revivals of Handel and baroque pieces across the world; song cycles for you by Jake Heggie and Juliana Hall. Your accomplishments are too many to list.

I miss you. The entire opera world misses you.

Love, Kelli


For those of you reading this who may not have experienced Brian’s gift, please listen to this aria from Handel’s Rodelinda; Brian singing Handel was a wonder to behold.


Hello again, and happy Saturday!
I wrote the following essay/post waaaaaay back in January, when it was merely rumoured that the current administration would attempt to eliminate the NEA and the NEH. However, now that the budget has been officially proposed, I feel it is worth a share here as well; please feel free to share it on, as I believe this impacts both artists AND their audiences.

Today, the incoming administration released their budget proposal to cut the deficit and reduce spending. included in this proposal, almost as if it was a throwaway line onstage, is casually stated, “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities will be eliminated entirely.”
I’d like to have an honest discussion about what that means for performers such as myself.
Very few people in the world of classical music or opera are working as solo artists in the ‘name-recognition’ houses. By this, I mean houses such as The Met, La Scala, Covent Garden, et al. For the purpose of this explanation, I would like everyone to know that even the artists who are internationally famous/recognized are freelancers, working on a 1099 basis, which is a situation fraught with disaster unto itself.
For those of us who have not yet broken that beautiful crystal ceiling into the ‘big houses’, we rely on small local or regional opera companies, symphonies, and orchestras to keep ourselves afloat in the industry. Even singers who do perform at these houses can often be found working in between the ‘big house’ gigs at wonderful small companies nationwide and internationally.
Do you know what those small companies rely on to pay us?
Grants from the NEA. Even with grants from the NEA, the burden of fundraising from private donors to pay the artists is a huge task – without the NEA, it is nigh insurmountable. Without the NEA, many of these small companies will vanish, and the work they provided us along with them; that is even before you consider the loss of PBS, which in many cases is the first exposure young children get to the world of art and music, now that theatre and music programs are cut across the country to make way for sports.
When they vanish, so will the work. When the work vanishes, taking away our means of supporting ourselves as singers, so too vanishes the network of people that rely on performers and artists – coaches, stage directors, repetiteurs, voice teachers – because we simply cannot pay them.
All to save approximately .002% of the budget.
Music and the arts does a very important job; it teaches young minds to dream, to imagine, and to believe there is something better to work towards. In this modern world, I don’t think we can possibly afford to cut that from humanity’s collective budget.

All you ever wanted to know about opera….

Hi there! Most of you may know I’m the opera columnist at On Stage Blog, but I thought I’d give a little introduction and refresher for people who may be newer!


In May of 2016, On Stage editor-in-chief Chris Peterson asked if I’d like to write a column about the opera world for the site. On Stage has grown from a small review blog to a massively successful theatre blog; after only a few years of operation, they are already being asked to cover the Tony Awards from the red carpet! I loved the idea of introducing the world of opera to people who may not know as much about it, so the All You Ever Wanted to Know About Opera (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) column was born.


I continue to take questions, but thought it may be good to catch up anyone who hasn’t read them! So, without further ado, here are volumes 1 & 2!


All You Ever Wanted to Know About Opera (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) Part the First!


All You Ever Wanted to Know About Opera (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) Part the Second


Feel free to ask any questions you may have over at my Twitter page!