What inspired you to pursue a musical career?
I was first struck by opera in the 7th grade, when my science teacher's sister, a lyric soprano, came to our choir rehearsal and sang "Mi chiamano Mimi" from La Boheme for us, and I remember thinking, "Hey! Did they base this off of RENT?!" Clearly, I was pretty naive when it came to opera, and hadn't really considered it as a career until much, much later. At Princeton, during my freshman year, I auditioned for The Marriage of Figaro on a whim, and thinking since I sang Alto in Glee Club, that I should sing a mezzo aria, "Smanie Implacabili"... which was quite misguided since I really am a high soprano. But at least David Kellett and Richard Tang Yuk heard something in me, and cast me as Barbarina. From that experience, I was hooked. Even though I was studying Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, I started taking lessons with Sarah Pelletier and started fulfilling the requirements for the Certificate in Musical Performance after my sophomore year. As a hard-core theatre kid in high school, I loved opera because it combined my love for storytelling on stage with the complexity of classical music, something I had always loved about choir. After Princeton, I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for my Masters in Vocal Performance, and I haven't looked back since. After a little over 5 years of singing professionally, I have now sung over 30 roles, and I credit my experiences at Princeton for giving me the initial bug!
What have been your most memorable musical experiences, in Glee Club and in your later career?
I will never, ever forget singing Bach's B Minor Mass (as an ALTO 2! Hah! I barely phonate down there); the structure, intricacy, and depth of that work has always stuck with me. I remember a get-together with some Glee-mates in a room in Spelman when we sang through the ENTIRE piece with the John Eliot Gardiner recording. I'm sure the neighbors weren't thrilled, but we had a blast! That connection to the music and my fellow choir nerds was something I'll never forget. More recently, I had the absolute joy of singing Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with West Bay Opera, and it was like I came full-circle. That role had always been a dream for me to sing ever since my sister-in-law (Faaria Kherani Volinski) sang it in our production at Princeton. From her ease and sprightliness in the role, I had always thought that Susanna would be so much fun to sing, and while I was right about that, I also discovered how smart, tenacious, and clever the character is. Also, it's the longest role in the soprano repertory, but it's just so well-written that I didn't even feel tired at the end. That Wolfgang - he was some genius!
Tell us about your greatest influences as a musician...
I didn't really grow up in a musical family, but my parents did always love western classical music. However, I was also exposed to Indian Classical Music (Carnatic) as a child, and even studied it for a while. Some of my most musically fulfilling experiences were in pieces that combined both of these idioms, like Jack Perla's River of Light, which I sang for Houston Grand Opera (HGOco). As far as my opera idols, I think Barbara Bonney's unforced technique and stylistic delivery is something to work towards constantly. I also love Joyce DiDonato's passion and fervor, and I strive to infuse my singing with that type of storytelling.
What was it like to transition from being a choral singer to being an operatic soloist?
Glee Club was something I hadn't originally thought of joining when I entered Princeton - I was going to do an a capella group. But then my RA at Mathey was Joe Zipkin (the Glee Club president at the time), and he convinced me to audition for PUGC. Boy, was I glad he did! Through Glee Club, I discovered my passion for opera, and not to mention my husband, Zaafir Kherani, who was a tenor in the choir! Choral singing is something I still love, but alas, the opera schedule doesn't allow for me to do both as often as I'd like. In middle and high school, I did sing in choir and worked with a teacher on solo repertoire, so I think I was already accustomed to the differences in the two vocal styles. Both settings require great technique, musicianship, a sensitive ear, and the willingness to create something beautiful with other people, so they're more alike than some may think!
What is your favorite role to perform?
Susanna! I think I have explained this enough in #2 :)
How do you prepare for a new role?
The first thing I do is listen to a recording. I know that's kind of a no-no for some people, but I like to get a feel for the whole piece in my ear before I start. Then I do my score prep: highlighting, tabbing, and word-for-word translation. Next I tackle the arias and make sure they are very comfortable in my voice - these are what I take to voice teachers if I have any technical stumbling blocks. I then learn the recitatives and ensembles, speaking in rhythm, and getting the cadence of the language right, especially if I'm not singing in English. Then, I repeat everything until it's memorized (usually before the first rehearsal). I have a little peacock notebook in which I write the words to tricky spots over and over. It sounds tedious, but I quite love the learning process. I think to be fulfilled in this career, you have to love the process as well as the final product on stage. Being an opera singer can be quite lonely, as much of the work is done by yourself at the piano, but I'm energized by delving into a new work or re-acquainting myself with something I have already performed. Then, when you actually get into the rehearsal room with your castmates and the conductor/director, you can just play and discover things you didn't expect!
What music or what specific performers/composers do you like to listen to?
For the last year, I have been obsessed with L'Arpeggiata's album of Monteverdi songs and ensembles, entitled "Teatro d'Amore". I have listened to that on repeat! There's a YouTube playlist of the group doing the album live, and all the baroque players / singers just jam! It's thrilling to hear and watch; I highly recommend it. Besides being addicted to Mozart, Bach, and Handel, I love singing new works and world premieres. It is so electrifying to be a part of creating something for the first time.
What’s your favorite Glee Club memory?
I think it has to be on our 2007 Hong Kong tour. The current Glee Club director, Richard Tang Yuk, saw me and my then (new-) boyfriend, Zaafir Kherani, sitting next to each other on the bus to the airport. He came over and said, "You know, I don't like it when my choir members date, because when you break up, you won't want to come to rehearsal anymore!" If you knew Richard, you would get why we just started cracking up. Well, 10 years later, Zaafir and I have been married for nearly 6 years, and it was Glee Club that brought us together. And we never missed a rehearsal!