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Brian Asawa, Acclaimed Japanese-American Opera Singer, Dies at Age 49

By Philip Trapp on Apr 21, 2016 06:02 PM EDT

Opera singer Brian Asawa died on Monday, aged 49. The Japanese-American countertenor, nephew of sculptor Ruth Asawa, was a celebrated performer with close ties to the San Francisco Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Asawa is among a procession of artists who have died this year, including Prince, David Bowie and Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey. Indeed, the classical world is still mourning recent deaths of composers like Tony Conrad and Peter Davies.

Asawa achieved a fruitful singing career, initially finding recognition as the first-ever entertainer to receive both the National Prize at the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions and the Adler Fellowship to San Francisco's Merola Opera Program.

The vocalist, described by Opera News as an "eclectic performer" known for his "fearless performing style," was born in Los Angeles and began singing from a young age, often with the congregation of his church. He studied piano at the University of Southern California prior to his operatic calling.

In a 2014 interview with The Opera Tattler, Asawa recalled his formative years under the tutelage of revered vocal instructors like John Hall and James Tyler:

"Regarding my early stages in opera, my first mentor was John Hall, the opera workshop director at UCLA. I performed in several productions there. At USC, I studied Baroque opera and performed arias with lutenist and early music specialist James Tyler and his Early Music Ensemble."

A renowned soloist of both Shakespearian works and pieces like Mozart's beloved opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, Asawa told interviewer Joel Kasow of the ceaseless endeavor in mastering his vocal capability:

"It's a lifelong process to stay on top of your technique and your engagements. Every time I do a new role, there are different difficulties and hurdles to overcome. In Mitridate, a lot of the role of Farnace lies in a very comfortable range, but then from time to time Mozart puts in these high notes that, for me, don't feel all that comfortable. ... The range is definitely a big challenge."

The singer died after a long illness. In remembrance, the Merola Opera Program has created the Brian Asawa Memorial Fund, which will assist other opera students.

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TagsBrian Asawa, San Francisco Opera, Metropolitan Opera