Story updated Wednesday, Apr. 20: Please scroll to end for update.
Japanese-American opera singer Brian Asawa died Monday at Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, CA after battling a long illness. He was 49.
Asawa, a graduate of San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler training programs who was well known to Bay Area audiences for his roles in productions of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress among others, possessed an unusual voice: he was a countertenor -- a singer who performs very high in the male vocal range.
Brian Asawa joined the Merola program in 1991 and continued on with the company the following year as an Adler Fellow. Both of these opportunities came at a time when few countertenors gained entry into high-profile training programs. (The more usual male voices are tenors, baritones and basses.)
In 1992, Asawa gained critical attention for his role with the San Francisco Opera as Oberon, King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He went on to perform various roles at opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera and Covent Garden. "Asawa was an electric performer, his fearless performing style supported by a voice of arresting beauty and expressivity," were words the classical music magazine Opera News once used to describe the singer in his prime. Asawa's final performance on the War Memorial Opera House stage was in the 2000-01 season in Handel's Semele.
“San Francisco Opera mourns the passing of Brian Asawa, a very talented and highly skilled countertenor,” said San Francisco Opera’s outgoing General Director David Gockley in a statement issued to staff and subsequently obtained by KQED. “He was a remarkable artist who commanded the stage with his beautiful voice and theatrical presence.”
Story update: The Merola Opera Program has set up a fund in Asawa's memory to support the opera stars of the future. The Brian Asawa Memorial Fund will benefit incoming Merola opera program students, especially countertenors.
“Brian Asawa was in the vanguard of the countertenor resurgence which continues to this day," said Jean Kellogg, executive director of the Merola program. "He will be greatly missed in the opera world, and by all of us at Merola in particular."