Art Talk with Minnesota Opera Chief Artistic Officer Priti Gandhi

By Rebecca Sutton
Head shot of a woman with long black hair

Priti Gandhi. Photo by Bauman Photography

Although Priti Gandhi performed as a full-time opera singer for almost 20 years, performing with companies such as the San Diego Opera, the Royal Opera House, and New York City Opera, there were certain roles for which she was not deemed an appropriate fit. “People looked at me and didn't have the imagination to imagine me in certain roles, because I have brown skin and black hair,” said Gandhi, who is of Indian descent.

Now, in her role as chief artistic officer at Minnesota Opera—a longtime Arts Endowment grantee—she is prodding the opera world to reimagine its art form. Through unexpected casting, new commissions that feature diverse voices and communities, and multicultural backstage artists, Gandhi and the team at Minnesota Opera—long known as a leader in diversity—are helping show what opera for a new generation can look like. We recently spoke with Gandhi by phone about her transition from performer to administrator, how creativity continues to infuse her career, and why diversity is important in the first place.

NEA: Did you grow up in an artistic family?

PRITI GANDHI: I did not grow up in an artistic family. I was born in Bombay, and I come from a family of engineers and doctors and math teachers. So I was a little bit of a—I like to say "brown sheep." But I grew up in San Diego since the age of three, and I studied journalism in college. I'd been playing piano since I was about six years old, but I did not listen to opera at all. It was a very traditional Indian household growing up—my siblings both became doctors. My only exposure to classical music was through my piano training. Thank goodness I had that, because I don't believe I'd be on the path that I am now without that background.

NEA: So how did you become interested in opera?

GANDHI: It was kind of an accident. A lot of people like to say that if you're meant to, art finds you. It sort of fell and hit me on the head, as it were. I was studying journalism, I had lots of writing classes at University of California San Diego, and I was sick and tired of writing papers. I wasn't practicing piano because I had too much studying going on, and I really missed having music in my life. So I decided I wanted to start taking voice lessons for fun. I'd always wanted to learn how to sing. It wasn't to study opera, because I didn't really know anything about opera at that point. I just wanted to learn how to sing, maybe sing some musical theater pieces, just something to do to keep music in my world again.

My teacher happened to be an opera singer, and a couple of months after I started taking lessons, she said, "You have an operatic voice. Did you know that?" I laughed at her. But she gave me an aria to sing, and said, "Just try this out, and I'll help you with the Italian." That was the first time I'd ever sung an opera aria. I'm sure it didn't sound very good after only a few months of lessons, but it did something to me inside. I had never felt so happy in my life. I didn't understand this feeling that it gave me. I felt so much joy in singing that music. I decided in that moment I have to find out more about this very strange art form. That's how it began. It was a total accident.

I called up San Diego Opera, and I told them I was thinking about becoming an opera singer, could someone tell me what to do? I didn't know that people just didn't do that. Naiveté is a beautiful thing sometimes. They sort of adopted me. I graduated from college, I worked at a radio station for two years, I continued to take voice lessons on the side, I got into the chorus at San Diego Opera and their young artist program. I hung out at the opera offices all the time, in the listening library, reading things, asking people questions. I made a huge pest of myself. And after a couple of years at the job at the radio station, I realized that I needed to quit and start pursuing opera full-time. So I did, and I moved back home and told my folks I wanted to be an opera singer, and we had a very lengthy argument. It went well considering where I am now, but it was not an easy argument. But when you don't have any fear, you don't know what to fear, and that can be a good thing. You open more doors because you're unafraid. If I'd known how difficult the road was going to be, I think it would've been really daunting. So sometimes not knowing what you're getting into is a really good thing.

NEA: How has your experience as a performer informed your approach now as an administrator?

GANDHI: It informs so many things throughout my day. When I got into administration in 2013, I'd been traveling for almost 20 years, I hadn't had medical insurance in about six, seven years, and jobs were still up and down. The 2008 recession really hit a lot of opera singers' careers hard. When the opportunity came to join the administrative team at San Diego Opera, I decided maybe it's time to settle down and see if I can make a difference on this side.

Moving to the administrative side, I started to realize how much more of an impact I could make. I can make sure to advocate for the singer on this side of the desk. So often in the opera career, the singer has been at the bottom of the power structure unless they're in the top 5 percent of celebrities. Most singers are just trying to make a living and make good art, and stay true to their gift. Maybe some days I won't make any moves, and maybe some days I'll push the needle a little. When we hire singers, we want to make the most compassionate, loving environment for the visiting artists so that they feel comfortable and are able to reach their highest artistic potential while they're with us. Things like that inform my job as an administrator every day. Then there are other things—looking at singers' fees, the way that we take care of them on the road, and remembering how challenging it was for a singer on so many levels. How can I make that better from this side, even just a little bit?

NEA: I think when most people think of creativity, they think of the artists themselves—the performers, the painters, the writers. They don't always think about how much creativity goes on behind the scenes. How do you view your current role as creative?

GANDHI: I think that for everyone involved in the arts, there's an artist inside of us in some way, especially for those of who've had a performing career. When I moved into administration, I realized it was important to continue to feed that part of myself so that I would be the healthiest and happiest person I could be on this side of the desk, and do my best job for the people here. Feeding that side of myself is a lot harder with the time constraints now, but I try to remember that as long as I feed my own creative side, it allows me to be creative at work.

When I'm thinking about interesting productions or when I'm thinking about programming, it's not just throwing opera titles up on a board. Not only do you have to think budgetarily, but you have to think about the mix and the repertoire and what we want to introduce our audiences to, and how this title is going to work in this season with these other titles, and is it a good enough mix that it's showing Minnesota Opera's artistic vision?

When you're listening to singers, you have to be open enough to continue to hear with fresh ears even if you hear 100 singers in three days. The creative aspect also comes into that, because you need to be able to imagine them in these roles and hear outside the audition room, and hear the potential for them in what you're thinking of them for. Also, we're always trying to come up with creative ideas administratively. How can we tackle a certain issue with the most possible efficiency? How do I keep my staff happy, and how do I keep the environment of the artistic department happy and creative? There are so many ways [creativity] comes into play, in ways that continue to surprise me.

NEA: One of the reasons you took this job with Minnesota Opera is because the company is making a really concerted effort to diversify. Can you tell me more about these efforts?

GANDHI: Minnesota Opera is one of the opera companies in the forefront of looking at diversity in the operatic industry. Opera has been known for so many years as a very white, European art form. Of course, we've had greats in the past that have managed to cross that barrier and make a huge impact on the industry: Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price—there are many amazing singers that have been able to do that. But on the general level, on the level that isn't just talking about the superstars—that hasn't really moved much. In the last ten years, opera companies have really been taking a look at [diversity], and asking: how do we move that needle?

Minnesota Opera is putting their money where their mouth is. We have a diversity charter that's just a couple of years old. We put our staff through different [diversity] workshops and individual coachings and department coachings. The board is also doing the work with the staff. This work is to help challenge our assumptions, look at our own self-awareness about where we are and what kind of work we want to do, and [think about] why is diversity important? Why is it important to look at diversity in our industry and know that this is something that we should tackle? It's not easy work. It can be messy from day to day, and we're not going to get it perfect every time. But at least this is a company that's looking at themselves and saying, "We want to see how we can make it better and more of an open environment for everybody."

Because in the end, we want opera to survive for many, many years, and we want to get young people to come to the opera. Young people come to the opera and they want to see their world on the stage; they want to see themselves reflected. If we can't do that, they're not going to come back. At the same time, we want to keep the standards of making the best opera, the most beautiful music, and the most affective art form that we can. It's a huge challenge.

NEA: How does programming fit into this?

GANDHI: [Within the company,] we have talked a lot about the new works program that we have here, and looking at future commissions. There's a lot of talk about how do we start telling stories of the community? How do we start creating new stories and new operas that reflect people who live here, relevant communities, that they’re not just stories from another age? One of the first ways we're doing that is we have commissioned Kao Kalia Yang, the writer of The Song Poet. She's from the Hmong community. We've commissioned her to create an opera [about The Song Poet] that we'll be presenting in conjunction with our education department in the 2021 season. This is a story about her and her father, who are Hmong refugees. It's exciting and scary, because you never know. All art is a risk. Is it going to turn out well? Are people going to love it? We don't know. But we won't know if we don't try.

NEA: You mentioned that part of Minnesota Opera’s work involves asking why diversity is important. I'm interested to hear your own answer about why you think it’s important that the opera field pursues diversity?

GANDHI: I think it's important across the board in life for us to be open and inclusive to people of all backgrounds and cultures. In opera, in particular, I think it's important because of what I said earlier in terms of wanting to bring in the next generation of audiences. If we want opera to survive, we need to diversify. We want to make sure that people are seeing opera as relevant and important to who they are now. That's one very important reason.

The second reason is looking at artistry and artists. Coming from my own experience, I know there were many roles I was locked out of because people looked at me and didn't have the imagination to imagine me in certain roles, because I have brown skin and black hair. Opera is the world of theater. There should be so much that we can do. There are many, many new works coming out now that have race-specific roles to help cover this need. I applaud that, because we want to make sure we're creating more works that are relevant to people of all backgrounds. At the same time, I look at all the classics and I think, "Okay, how do we open up all these classics and make sure that everyone feels welcome to audition for these roles?” Opera companies today are doing a much better job of that, and in most opera companies, you're going to see people of different backgrounds [onstage]. We want to continue to make sure that we've got open eyes about it, not just for the sake of lip service, but for the sake of understanding that it makes our art form stronger and better.

We also want to make sure that conductors, directors, and designers reflect that. When you get people of different backgrounds and different cultures coming together to create something, I think it makes something new and exciting. How will that inform this hundreds-of-years-old art form? How will it change when we start incorporating new cultures and new viewpoints?

NEA: So part of this problem is cyclical: if young people don't see themselves onstage, then they might not pursue opera. So what do you think that the field needs to be doing to grow the applicant pool?

GANDHI: I feel like I don't know the answer to that question yet. There's so much more discussion to be had around that. One of the ways is getting out there in the schools. We have a fantastic education department with so many amazing programs with teaching artists, and we get out there in the schools and we talk about opera and we present opera. We have kids create their own operas. That's one very real and direct way an opera company in particular can start to affect what we like to call the pipeline.

NEA: What are your hopes for your time at Minnesota Opera? What do you hope to accomplish?

GANDHI: I want to continue to make bold casting choices with my colleagues and bold programming choices at the same time. I want to continue to do the best job that we can by the classic works that everybody loves. I grew up singing all the classical, traditional works, and I have a deep love for them, and I want to continue to do right by those works, and cast them in ways that might be new and exciting and perhaps startling. I want to continue to show the beauty of opera to the next generation. I seem to be an exception to what I'm saying about how if you don't see people onstage like you, maybe you won't be interested in opera. But the act of singing opera just gave me such joy, and I would love to be able to transmit that love of this art form to other people. Opera is usually not amplified, and we're continuing to strive to keep it that way. It's about the power of the human voice, and the power of the human voice to tell a story. The way each performer tells that story is very different because of their own experiences, coloring their voice, and how they use it in singing the same aria. I feel like it has a lot of potential to heal our souls. There's so much in our world right now that threatens to shut us down. I feel like opera is the kind of art form that - if you experience it, it can open you back up again. It can make you see possibilities in life again. I know that sounds very grand, but I truly believe that.