‘We Want to Belong:’ Director Matthew Ozawa on Opera, Identity, and Embracing Risk

‘We Want to Belong:’ Director Matthew Ozawa on Opera, Identity, and Embracing Risk

Matthew Ozawa

He knows it’s cheesy. But when acclaimed director Matthew Ozawa thinks about why he sticks with opera, he thinks of a moment during during his first year working in stage management at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Ozawa was juggling a few productions that season: Richard Strauss’s dark fairy-tale Die Frau Ohne Schatten and John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, to name a couple. But the one he was most skeptical about was that old Puccini warhorse La Bohème.

And little wonder. It was an opera burdened by its reputation, loved and reviled in equal measure as a maudlin little crowdpleaser, performed ad nauseam all around the world.

Ozawa was prepared to be underwhelmed. But then one day, during rehearsals, he was standing on stage to help with cues when something fell onto his copy of the score. It was a snowflake. Then came another. And another.

Ozawa tilted his head back. He peered through the branches of the prop tree and into the vaulting darkness above. Rationally, he knew there were levers up there. Prop crews. Bags of fake snow, slowly emptying. But in the dark, he could see none of that.

“I just was looking up and I saw an endless sky. I didn’t see anything up there. It was just snowing on me. It just was so magical,” he recalls. “It literally felt like it was snowing in the theater.”

Ozawa—who recently directed 2021’s drive-in production of The Barber of Seville, which marked San Francisco Opera’s return to live music—loves to tell stories. And he loves music. His family likes to recount how he was mesmerized by a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring when he was only three. Opera seemed to be a natural marriage of both passions.

But there’s a more complicated reason he stays with opera. Ozawa is one of the few prominent Asian American directors in the opera industry today. There’s a sense of responsibility, of duty.

The Pasadena-born director is fourth-generation Japanese American: His family knows the legacy of racism and discrimination in the United States. And he understands opera’s role in buttressing that racism.

His father was born a premature in Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated for the duration of World War II. They were perceived to be a threat, based on nothing more than their race and ancestry.

Ozawa believes that anti-Asian violence cannot be divorced from the pervasive use of yellowface in theatrical performances like opera, particularly during the 19th century. The stereotypical portrayals of Asian characters have continued into the this century too, with revivals of operas like Turandot and Madama Butterfly.

“The reason I continue to walk forward is because things will never change if there are no pioneers to say that this is not acceptable and we need to change the face of opera,” Ozawa says. “I do really believe that the more voices and perspectives there are at the table, the more this art form is going to thrive far into the future.”

Still, it’s never been easy. “I know, for myself and many of my peers, we don’t want to be pigeonholed into only doing rep that’s about Asians,” he says. In a new interview, he speaks out about the pressures of his advocacy work—and the advice he gives to all young artists seeking a career in opera.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I imagine it's quite tiring to always have to address identity, as an activist, as an advocate, and just frankly, as an Asian-American man.

MATTHEW OZAWA: It is a little exhausting, but it's one of those things. I go through waves of being exhausted, being one of the only Asian-American opera directors in the country and being that advocate and telling my story, while also making sure that I myself stay sane with all of the work.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve talked in previous interviews about being three years old and watching The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. I just have to ask: What do you remember from being three years old? What does a three-year-old get from Stravinsky?

OZAWA: That is a story from my parents. I don't necessarily remember sitting there. But what's interesting is that The Rite of Spring has actually been one of my favorite pieces of music for pretty much my entire life. I have this really crazy dream that I'm going to end up choreographing a stage version of it at some point in my career, even though it has no singing.

I've always been a true lover of rhythm, the percussiveness of it, the sort of storytelling that is found within Stravinsky's ballet works. Those have always been something that I've carried with me, in addition to the fact that I think that The Rite of Spring, like Stravinsky's Les Noces, has a lot of unusual instrumental tambours and textures.

For me, after living in Singapore for five years and watching so much Peking opera and Japanese Noh theater and Balinese gamelan performances, there's something about the tambour and texture of, for example, Les Noces. It’s all percussion and four pianos. That really reminds me of musical idioms from other cultures.

You don't get a whole lot of idioms from other cultures that often. But I am deeply passionate about exploring how opera can actually expand to include the idioms of other ethnicities and cultures.

Too often composers feel the need to shift their musical background to make their work feel like a Western form. And so we see a lot of contemporary composers and new works feeling operatic but not necessarily being fully true to the idioms that they were raised with. What does it mean to fuse your idioms with Western notation, with Western music? Do you have to do that in order to write an opera?

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What does that pressure look like, to shift your musical background to adapt to opera?

OZAWA: Where do I start with this? When I'm looking at my own experience, I've now been in the industry for 18 years. Early on, I never saw any other Asians in the theaters or rehearsal rooms I was a part of. Really, I had no role model of color. I was constantly surrounded by Caucasians.

In witnessing and experiencing countless productions, like Butterfly and Pearl Fishers and Turandot—where I was surrounded by the negative stereotyping of Asians and of course surrounded by my own colleagues who would laugh at the impersonations of singers donning yellow face, shuffling around the stage, bowing, and elongating their eyes—those kinds of perceptions and impersonations really hit me in a very deep way.

It took me many years to understand what I was experiencing. Because of course, in any world, we want to belong. We want to belong to a company. We want to belong to what we most are passionate about. And I think I really wanted to belong in opera. I wanted to belong in the rooms and theaters that I was operating in.

I think there was a period where I was sort of ashamed of my skin color. I did feel very silenced in the face of our industry’s and country’s blatant racism towards Asians and other minority groups. Of course there are always comments about me being Asian and being a model minority. Or people will practice their Japanese on me or bow randomly. That kind of permeates the business.

And I will say that, for most of my career, wanting to fit in and wanting to progress meant that I really couldn't use my voice as an activist. And I couldn't really voice my true concerns or highlight the forms of racism that were occurring, for fear of not being hired back again.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: It sounds like the financial aspect is something that is presented as a barrier to confronting and innovating and basically retiring old productions.

OZAWA: When companies say they don't have money, I always say, “Well, I can make something from nothing.” It's not that we need millions. I think there's ways of seeing things in new light. The nature of theater is that it's about storytelling and engaging the audience and having the audience have some kind of ownership in the storytelling experience.

I am kind of known as a minimalist director—although you would not believe that from Barber [San Francisco Opera’s 2021 The Barber of Seville], where I think I've added more props than I've used my entire career, in every show combined.

But usually I'm very minimalist and I firmly believe that you can use a chair hundreds of different ways. You can use a prop hundreds of different ways and manipulate it. It's kind of like being a magician. You can tell a story with nothing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What are the barriers you're hearing from other artists that are preventing them from rising up the ranks?

OZAWA: It is just not an easy road for any director. Regardless of color, it is not an easy road because American opera tends to hire and bring in directors and teams from Europe. I think that there's not enough curation and fostering of American directors within the country. That's slowly changing, but companies tend to be really interested in whatever's flashy at the moment, right? They're scared of taking chances.

So when they are thinking about an opera that they want to do, they tend to look at what productions exist. And what productions exist that are innovative are abroad because they have government resources there. There are finances and willingness to explore in really profound ways in Europe that doesn't exist in America because everyone's worried about taking a risk and then not seeing a fruitful return on the investment.

So the nature of being a director—an American director in the U.S.—is really complicated. A lot of American directors get stuck remounting existing shows for other directors or taking existing sets and costumes and putting on new staging.

There's a Catch-22 of companies not wanting to give opportunity if they haven't seen your work, but if you're not given any opportunity, then you have no work to show.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Because whiteness is so pervasive in American society and often not identified as such, does it impede aspiring minority directors from being valued simply as artists, in the same way that white directors might be? Their decisions are artistic decisions, but “other-ed” people might be seen exclusively through the lens of the demographics they fit into.

OZAWA: I think that is what I battled with most of my career: seeing Caucasian colleagues, just being able to make their art. I was feeling constantly like I was just trying to get anything and fit in to be able to move forward, let alone make my art. I didn’t want to make anything that was going to further showcase the fact that I'm different. And that really impeded me for many, many, many years.

I will say that I left opera for a period. I did leave opera because I realized that I was never going to move forward. As an artist, I knew that I would be asked to continue to take existing sets or do a Bohème over and over again. But I am more than that.

And so I left opera for a period of time. I started a company that is an incubator for collaborative art and artists. I was interested in working with artists from all different mediums. I wanted to work with artists from all different cultures. I still do. I directed for Houston Ballet and I directed for Eighth Blackbird and I directed for the MCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art.

I just decided that, for me, it was about making art. I was really, really exhausted of trying to be seen.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: That must have been a terrifying decision to be like, “I'm quitting this industry and going to start my own incubator, going to forge a path on my own.” How did you have the financial security? How did you have the emotional security? What kept you afloat?

OZAWA: I feel that I have a really strong network. Everyone has been supportive of whatever, wherever I've headed. That is not always the case for folks. So I know I'm really, really fortunate.

I talk about the three P’s: project, pay, and people. Early on, you’re probably not going to find all three in every project that you do. So you may do a project only for the pay. You may do a project where you're passionate about the work, or you may do a project because the people are really great, but you're not getting paid well, and you're not super interested.

But as you grow in your time as an artist, you want to start to find more jobs with two P’s or three P’s until eventually you're building a good base of work that you really care about. And doing work you really care about ultimately creates the fullest extent of you as an artist.

I think a lot of people get stuck doing stuff that is not their full artistry because it pays well. And then many, many artists leave the industry, disillusioned or feeling like they couldn't make it. So my recommendation always is: The minute you feel you're getting stuck, shift gears. Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. And I know that is so crazy, but you have to free yourself from the shackles.

PandemicBackstage at 2021's The Barber of Seville by Kristen Loken

I think that I'm a little unusual because I do it a lot. So it's not that I just left the industry once. I was a professor at the University of Michigan and I probably could have been there for life. I jumped ship last year. Right when the pandemic was hitting, I was leaving to go back into freelancing, only to then lose all nine new productions I had lined up and suddenly have no work.

And that was totally terrifying last summer to see, one by one, all my gigs disappear. And to know that I had just left this stable job. But because I've done it multiple times, I know that I'm always going to be okay.

There’s no one right path towards having a career, and no one's path is the same. There are always going to be weird, circuitous routes that get you to where you are most fulfilled. And that is what you're ultimately searching for as an artist.

For more information about director Matthew Ozawa, please visit his website or follow him on social media.

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