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In Conversation With Siddhartha Misra

Ranjani Saigal

 Click here to listen to Misra

Son of Bijoy and Subarna Misra of Lincoln, MA, Siddhartha Misra is currently pursuing a master's degree in opera at Temple University, where he recently performed Spalanzani and Pitichinaccio in Les Contes d'Hoffman.  Siddhartha has frequently performed at Center City Opera Theater, including Tybalt in Roméo et Juliette and Malcolm in Macbeth.  Prior to his work in the Philadelphia area, he completed the degrees in voice performance and political science at Northwestern University, where he performed Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi and Bardolfo in Falstaff.  Siddhartha received critical acclaim in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune for "brilliant comic timing" and "heartfelt" performances as Cacambo in Candide at Light Opera Works.  His summer festival credits include the Lake George Opera, the Pine Mountain Music Festival and, most recently, the Tanglewood Music Center, where he worked with esteemed musicians such as Phyllis Curtin, William Bolcom and James Levine.  He feels particularly at home in the music of Donizetti and Mozart and his repertoire includes Ernesto in Don Pasquale, Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore, and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.

Your career choice is very unusual for a South Asian. When did you begin to get serious about singing?

My musical training began as a young child when my mother enrolled me at the Longy school of music to study violin. Though I enjoyed music I would not consider myself particularly drawn to it as a child. Practice sessions were hard and my mother used all the right bribes to get me to practice. When I entered middle school I began singing as part of the school choir. When I sang, people noticed it and often I would be given solo parts. I thought I may be on to something there. I asked my mother to enroll me in voice lessons. From the outset, I considered singing professionally and wanted to explore if I had serious potential.

I attended Milton Academy for high school. People continued to be very complimentary about my singing in high school so I chose to pursuit it more seriously.

Did your choice of an undergraduate major in music make your parents nervous?

My father did not really know what to make of the idea. My mother was supportive and felt that I had taken the initiative to pursue this path on my own. Personally, I did not know where my singing would take me. Fortunately I was good at academic subjects as well and decided to pursue a B.M. in voice performance and a B.A. in political science at Northwestern University. My goal has always been to perform music and I studied politics to see what it could bring to my career and my art but I don’t see myself being happy as a politician, lawyer or a consultant.

You did not stop at an undergraduate degree but moved on to enroll in a graduate program. Do you feel more settled in a career in music?

I have a long way to go to feel settled. Each step has been a crossroads and I’ve frequently come close to being forced out of continuing this career path. After success as an undergraduate. I expected to get into a top-level graduate program and was disappointed when I could not get into Curtis and Juilliard. However, the opera director at Temple had worked with me before and invited me to audition for Temple’s opera program. So again, I could continue my musical career.

I continue to get interesting jobs and my singing gets praise from many. The future depends on opportunities that come my way. A career in Opera means a lot of sacrifice and luck and future decisions will also depend on what I am willing to give to pursue this path.

Can you explain what you mean by sacrifice?

A career in singing can put a lot of strain on family life. It requires a lot of travel. I am in a serious relationship right now with a woman who is also a singer. Both of us are auditioning in different cities and our careers may need us to stay in different cities. Raising a family under such circumstances would be very difficult. One has to make difficult choices and there’s no one to give you the right answer.

Art needs mentors to keep up the motivation. Who are your mentors?

My mentors have been the teachers who have believed in my potential.  I still struggle to sing as well as I would like, but there are a few people in the business who think I have a lot of potential to succeed as a singer, which is what inspires me to continue working.  If they did not believe in me, I probably would have given up.

Do you believe that being a South Asian is a handicap for a tenor?

I think my ethnicity is a novelty more than a hindrance.  In opera, as with other performing arts, the audience always wants to see the new thing, whatever is fresh.  I don't think my actual skin tone makes much difference, as there have already been well-established singers from several regions and I could be mistaken for Central American or Middle Eastern.  On the other hand, my voice is a distinct product of my genes and I think that provides for an interesting sound.  In essence, my ethnicity can only draw attention, which would make me interesting to watch.

Are there other South Asians who have made a mark in the world of Opera?

I don't directly know any other South Asian professional opera singers.  There were a couple with whom I went to college and a couple others who I have come across on the Internet, but no one with a big career.  There's one tenor, Dinyar Vania, that I've seen on youtube who sings well but I don't know his specific ethnicity.

Why did you choose to pursue opera as opposed to Indian classical music? How does singing Indian music differ from Opera?

My upbringing was in the US, where I was exposed to Western classical music. That is why I felt drawn to it. I like Indian classical music but I lack in-depth understanding or training. From a lay perspective it seems that Indian music in some sense is like reciting poetry where the emphasis is more on the words than on the sound. You can perform Indian classical music with 5-6 people in a small room and give an intimate interpretation, whereas opera can have 100 people on stage, another 100 in the orchestra and a 4,000-seat theater, and your voice has to cut to the back of the house… in short, opera singers are applauded for their superhuman performance.

Any tips for youngsters wanting to pursue a career in music?

My voice teacher gave me a quote from the sculptor Henry Moore: “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.” This is how I feel about my music and why I chose to become a musician. Personally, I spent hours at a piano playing pieces simply because I liked them and I prefer rehearsal to performance, because my day is good if I’ve made good music. You can’t go into this career for fame, money or to follow in someone else’s footsteps, the stress will literally kill you.

What suggestions do you have for a novice who would like to learn more about Opera?

Find a singer that’s widely respected – Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, or others – and find a recording of them singing a recital or a group of arias. If you hear a piece that speaks to you, consider buying the opera from which the aria came. Then you may find other pieces or singers you like and your library will expand. If you want to learn more about the text, find a translated libretto (an opera script) from the library or bookstore. I’m obviously biased but I think this art form is accessible and can speak to a wide range of audiences if you can get past the language barriers and listen for the emotions and phrases the singer is trying to create.

Recently the world lost one of the most popular people from the world of Opera , Luciano Pavarotti. Any thoughts you would like to share?

There is very little I can add to what has already been said. As far as the method of singing in healthy, vibrant manner, I think Pavarotti is a model for any young singer.  Granted, tenors perhaps learn the most from his vocal technique, but most singers admire his diction, expressiveness and ease with which he sang.  One could go into his career choices but that's a separate topic that didn't die with him, others can market themselves into multi-million dollar cultural icons.  Yet his art and his voice have left us, with the only consolation that he left so many recordings to teach future generations about this art form.

Thanks so much for your time

Thank you

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