'A tricky place to be': Navigating Canada’s classical music scene with Luka Kawabata

Before doing both his bachelor’s and master’s in opera performance at UBC, Luka Kawabata studied engineering at Queen’s University.

It was not until after completing his engineering degree that he decided to pursue a music education, but once he made that choice, he never looked back. Since the end of his graduate program, he has become a well-known voice in the Canadian classical music scene, particularly through his work with the Vancouver Opera Young Artists Program. He has done very little engineering, but seems happy enough without it.

Though Kawabata has paved a way for himself in classical music, receiving recognition is not common for Asian singers. The opera industry has not been kind to racialized performers, with very few gaining spots in major companies — Asian Opera Alliance’s breakdown of 2023-24 casting within United States opera companies illustrates just how drastic these deficits are.

“I've pointed out in very, very many rooms that I’m the only person of colour there,” said Kawabata.

“It's a tricky place to be because I don't want to analyze, necessarily, whether that's coincidence or not, whether people are being conscious of whether they have a practice of diverse casting or diverse hiring.”

In the cases that he did find himself working with other marginalized artists, however, he found “an unspoken understanding that people share. I know that someone has probably gone through a similar experience if they are a Queer person, or a person of colour, in a performing arts circle.”

It is in these bonds that marginalized artists find the support they need to survive in an industry which Kawabata compares to a “rollercoaster, with big highs, big lows and everything in between.”

It is also where they draw inspiration to produce art reflecting these facets of their identity.

The Hafu Project (hafu refers to those who are ethnically half Japanese) is Kawabata’s most recent endeavour, influenced by these observations.

It is a three-part digital series exploring Kawabata’s own story as a Nikkei-Canadian navigating Canada’s classical music scene — an industry that is not exactly known for its history of diversity and inclusivity. A fusion of interviews, monologues and song, the project is Kawabata’s way of “bridging the gap between the classical music world that [he has] been a part of, and [his] identity as a racialized person in opera.”

The project observes how anti-Japanese sentiments are deeply entrenched in Vancouver’s history, particularly in the first part titled “Paueru-gai パウエル街” (Powell Street), which features Kawabata wandering between the street’s landmarks, set to French art song.

Childhood 幼年,” the second video of the series, explores how Kawabata’s parents approached raising multicultural children in Canada. It incorporates music in Japanese and Swedish, the two primary languages of Kawabata’s heritage. All of the music in the upcoming third chapter will be in Japanese.

In June 2023, Kawabata will release the final portion of The Hafu Project.
In June 2023, Kawabata will release the final portion of The Hafu Project. Courtesy Luka Kawabata, photo by Mark Yammine

On this decision, Kawabata remarked that “without realizing it, each subsequent chapter of the Hafu Project ended up being my coming to terms with the fact that I could introduce Japanese music into the classical music community more actively.”

“It's important for people to hear other languages in order for people to think that there’s a place for that language within the classical community,” he said.

He noted that his opera training did not formally emphasize non-Western languages, with the exception of some student-led projects. Without regularly hearing a language, it becomes far more difficult for people to “appreciate it as much, or be interested in pursuing study,” which is a huge motivator for Kawabata's work.

The first two parts of the project, supported by mentors at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, as well as the Manitoba Opera Digital Emerging Artists Program team, are available for anyone to view online, free of charge and with multilingual subtitles. This is a step towards increasing accessibility to an art form that is associated with, as Kawabata put it, “a sense of power in its elitism.” He pointed out that in order to promote the preservation and continuation of opera, we must question certain social and financial barriers.

In June 2023, Kawabata will release the final portion of The Hafu Project. Following a presentation at the Opera America conference this May, he hopes to continue to expand the initiative, possibly through a stage adaptation or additional video chapters.

Though he has extensive performance experience, this is his first time taking complete hold of the creative reins as artistic director.

“This was kind of my first attempt at being a producer, starting from scratch, assembling a team, having a vision and then taking steps to execute that vision,” said Kawabata. He has always hoped to write and direct, but did not fully commit to a project until he had the concept and resources for this series.

Not only is direction a skill set that Kawabata is just beginning to develop, but telling your own story is a vulnerable experience for any artist, regardless of how much experience they might have. This time around, he is not playing a character: he is simply himself.

Leaning into his individuality is the foundation of Kawabata’s creative work, even if this involves making mistakes, which is not typically encouraged in the rigorous training expected of opera performers.

“Many classical singers and musicians especially feel that they need to have their i’s dotted and their t’s crossed, and everything has to be in line… but being human is what creates connection,” he said.

Putting care into differentiating yourself from other performers is crucial. He said that taking risks to pick up new skills, and a dance class (a horrifying idea for an uncoordinated singer like myself), is worth the effort.

“Being a producer, being a performer, being a director, being a writer, being a dancer — I am not a dancer, I will also add, but I took a ballet class once — these are all going to support your art collectively. They are not competing with each other."

"You can identify as multiple things and not feel like you are sacrificing your identity.”