‘I’m Proud to be Asian:’ Soprano Shigemi Matsumoto on Her Life in Opera

Shigemi Matsumoto

But in the United States, where Matsumoto was born, it was also a time of reckoning. The Civil Rights movement had cast a light on the enduring discrimination and inequality that divided America. Matsumoto herself had grown up in the shadow of such injustice, the child of parents who were interned in camps during World War II—all because they had Japanese heritage.

And yet, speaking on a spring day in 2022, Matsumoto is upbeat. Her dark hair swept back in a ponytail and a smile radiating across her face, she explains that her parents gave her the tools to climb the opera world—and become one of its bright stars. They taught her to hold her head up high.

“I never thought of myself as anything but a girl, whether I’m Japanese or not,” she explained via Zoom call on a recent afternoon. “But I’m proud to be Asian. I’m proud to be Japanese.”

Matsumoto’s story started with a dream—and an orphanage. Her mother and father, Suki and Moriichi Matsumoto, were immigrants from Japan. They had settled in Los Angeles and started up a business on East 1st Street, one of the main arteries in the city’s historic Japantown.

“They were among the very first business owners of that area that began to be the nucleus of the Japanese American community,” Matsumoto says proudly.

But World War II upended the fragile lives they had built for themselves. Racist fears fueled paranoia that Japanese and Japanese American residents on the West Coast would sabotage the American war effort. So in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the military to remove them from the coast.

People like Matsumoto’s parents were forced to abandon their homes and their livelihoods. “Their homes were taken. They had nothing to come back to,” Matsumoto explained.

Her parents were taken to the Poston Internment Camp, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Life in the camp could be brutal, with intense heat in the summers and blistering cold in the winters. A tuberculosis ward had to be built to treat a growing number of tuberculosis infections.

“Mom and dad never wanted to talk about it,” Matsumoto says. Her father—a man who carried himself with grace and dignity—was determined to move forward. “It never came up. The loss was so great. But then, he did tell me that, if it weren't for World War II, he would have been a wealthy man.”

And yet, despite the hardships, her father credited those circumstances with bringing his family together. After their release from the Poston camp, the Matsumotos did not return to California. They thought Colorado would be a more friendly environment for Asians like them.

There, they set up a beauty salon and tried to rebuild their lives. They developed a loyal following—including from members of the Coors family, the dynasty behind the Coors Brewing Company.

“On a winter’s day, when people would come in to have their hair done at the salon, there were like 12 mink coats hanging up, because they were very wealthy people,” Matsumoto says with a laugh.

But Matsumoto’s parents longed for a child. Unable to conceive, they opted for adoption.

“They were told that there was a child who was coming available, and my mother had a dream that it was me,” she says, her voice quivering with emotion. “And when they went to look at the orphanage, the nurse there said, ‘This girl never smiles.’”

That girl was Matsumoto. Born in Denver, she had been placed for adoption at three months old. Her parents would later tell her that, as they approached her crib, she stood up and smiled. They would be a family from that day forward.

Her father would give her the name “Shigemi,” a word for “growing beauty.” Eventually, the family would move back to California, where Matsumoto ultimately spent her formative years. Her mother, an elegant, sophisticated lady, insisted that Matsumoto grow up to be cultivated: She took piano lessons, ballet lessons, and even acrobatics.

Matsumoto would only find out years later that her mother funded some of her lessons by selling her own kimonos and jewelry.

“At the beauty salon, they didn’t make that much money,” Matsumoto explains. Just as her grandmother had put her aunts through college by selling chickens in Fresno, her mother was likewise making sacrifices to ensure Matsumoto had the best possible life.

But one day, her mother came home from the beauty salon to discover Matsumoto at her window. She had taken the screen down from the window and was singing into the garden. It was a revelation.

“Shortly thereafter, she decided to give me singing lessons and pay for singing lessons from somebody from church,” Matsumoto says.

Matsumoto continued her voice lessons throughout her teenage years. But in college, she figured studying music would seem “simple.” So instead she enrolled as a history major at California State University at Northridge.

“I didn’t like it,” she remembers. “It was boring to me. I love history—but not as a student.”

Her studies took a turn one night at a faculty dinner. A member of a sorority, Matsumoto was part of the evening’s entertainment. She played the piano and singing a Johnny Mathis song—which caught the attention of a professor.

“I think they could use you in the opera,” he advised her. She decided to switch majors.

In the university’s opera department, all the skills she’d built over a lifetime started to come together: her dance training, her facility on the piano, the power of her singing voice. “I felt I was home.”

Under the mentorship of professor David Scott, Matsumoto started to build a repertory of roles. The very first scene she performed was a duet from The Barber of Seville. Her very first opera was La Bohème.

It was through Scott’s tutelage that Matsumoto started singing in opera tournaments, many of which doubled as auditions for young artist programs. And, as it happened, San Francisco Opera had recently founded its own.

The Merola Opera Program was founded in 1957 by then-General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, a towering figure in the history of American opera. An Austrian-born Holocaust survivor, Adler had a fiery reputation for demanding perfection—and he notably had an eye for talent.

During his tenure, more than 300 artists would come to San Francisco Opera to make their American debuts, from Leontyne Price to Mario del Monaco. And it was under his watch that young artists would compete in the San Francisco Opera Auditions, a competition to find opera’s emerging talent.

Matsumoto first encountered him when the competition came to Los Angeles in its 15th year. Adler was a judge. “He looked different than anyone I had ever met,” Matsumoto says, recalling his polished demeanor and formal attire.

“He was not a tall gentleman, but he had great poise and structure and strength. His strength is from here,” Matsumoto explains, gesturing to her head.

“He would be standing there with these very tall Wagnerian singers. He never looked up back then. He looked straight ahead, and they were looking down and bent over to accommodate his height. He had a formidable presence. I mean, he was one of the most powerful men I have ever seen.”

Matsumoto advanced from the regional level of the competition to the finals, held at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. She was one of only 12 finalists. It was 1968, and Matsumoto was only 22 years old.

Her performance would the last of the evening. Singing an aria from Gaetano Donizetti’s comedy Don Pasquale, Matsumoto shook the audience. Newspapers would report that she was the “most wildly applauded” of all the singers that night. Her face would be printed in the Wednesday broadsheet next to the headline, “A Popular Auditions Winner.”

It was the start of a years-long relationship with San Francisco Opera, one that would span seven years and dozens of productions.

Matsumoto made her debut with the Company in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, where she played a valkyrie, a mythical woman warrior. From there, she progressed to even larger roles: She sang the bird-woman Papagena in The Magic Flute, the jilted Micaëla in Carmen, and the rebellious Rosina in The Barber of Seville.

Her starring roles put her side by side with some of opera’s biggest names. Matsumoto was struck by the kindness of trailblazing soprano Leontyne Price when they sang a 1971 double bill of Il Tabarro and Carmina Burana. Price, she recalls, was “absolutely a beautiful human being—and elegant beyond belief, dressed to the nines at rehearsals all the time.”

Then, there was a young clean-shaven Luciano Pavarotti, the Italian who would later rocket to fame as one of the Three Tenors. They co-starred in 1969’s Donizetti comedy The Elixir of Love.

“He was just making his real big debuts throughout the world. So he was kind of guarded and protective of himself,” Matsumoto says. “He didn't speak English very much. So he stayed with maestro [Giuseppe] Patanè and within his circle of Italian friends.”

Many years later, their paths crossed again. Matsumoto approached him. “Do you remember me?” she asked in Italian. Pavarotti responded in the affirmative: “Si, io mi ricordo.”

Not only did Matsumoto headline San Francisco Opera’s mainstage productions, but she also went on tour with its affiliate companies. At the time, there were programs like Brown Bag Opera, which took performances to the streets of San Francisco, and the Western Opera Theater, which toured the world with traveling productions.

Matsumoto’s journeys with the Western Opera Theater took her from the far north of the United States to the south. She sang in Alaskan cities like Anchorage, Sitka, and Juneau, then flew south to perform in Many Farms, Arizona, part of the Navajo Nation.

Her voice rang out from vineyards to bank buildings—anywhere General Director Adler imagined opera could go.

But being on the road came with its challenges. Bussing from one location to the next, Matsumoto and her fellow performers often were worn out from travel. Their dressing rooms were improvised in whatever was available—gymnasiums, for instance.

One night, Matsumoto was playing the flirtatious heroine Musetta in a touring production of La Bohème. And in the rush to set up the show, Matsumoto had forgotten to change out of her street shoes.

Act II rolled around, and the characters were all assembled on stage for a scene in a Parisian café. It was Musetta’s moment in the spotlight: She had to trick her wealthy admirer Alcindoro into leaving the café by complaining her heels were too tight.

The pivotal moment had come. Matsumoto had finished her aria “Quando me'n vo,” and it was time to dispatch Alcindoro. She lifted her skirt.

“And instead of a beautiful red high-heeled shoe, there were my brown loafers,” she says with a laugh. “It was shocking.”

But for all her successes, Matsumoto’s heritage was sometimes a point of fascination. At a press conference, she remembers a question posed to General Director Adler: “Ms. Matsumoto is Japanese. Would you feel comfortable putting her into a role where she’s not Asian or Japanese?”

Adler responded without hesitation: “Absolutely. There is no boundary. As long as her voice is qualified to do that, she will be cast.”

Matsumoto recalls that Adler put talent above any other consideration. “Mr. Adler, he viewed opera as an open gate,” she says. “I was never seen as anything but a singer, not an Asian singer.”

That mindset allowed Matsumoto to be cast in a range of roles. For Boris Godunov, she was the Russian daughter to Finnish bass Martti Talvela. For Jenůfa, she was given a blonde wig and asked to play a Czech bride-to-be.

“Mr. Adler did not see colors. He just put us together with the right people,” Matsumoto says. She remembers the twinkle in his eye when Matsumoto’s mother presented him with a Japanese happi coat she’d sewn, in gratitude for his mentorship. “He laughed and giggled, and he was nice to all of us.”

Nowadays, it’s Matsumoto who is the mentor. Teaching has taken her to classrooms at the University of Southern California and her alma mater, California State University at Northridge. Recently, she decided to retire from her role at Bob Cole Conservatory, where she taught for 35 years.

Looking back on a performing-arts career that spanned well over five decades, Matsumoto feels a sense of pride. Her parents had great dreams for her: Her mother imagined her becoming a singer, and her father thought she would teach.

The way she sees it, she’s fulfilled both of those dreams. And it all came through a passion for opera.