Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When I graduated from the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I did not expect to create an opera festival in Nepal. That was not part of my “five-year plan” for launching my career. But in the summer of 2009, due to a very unusual chain of events, I found myself singing and teaching in Kathmandu!
Just a few months earlier, I had been struggling to survive in New York City. My master’s degree in opera was framed on the wall, but I was not getting enough “opera gigs” to pay the rent. So I took a day job with a non-profit organization called Hope Partnership Nepal.
While working for HPN, I learned that Nepal is a beautiful country that has been ravaged by civil war and political upheaval. Most Westerners are completely unaware of the dire situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world. But even in that environment, the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory (KJC) is providing a rigorous and high-quality music education in the heart of the Nepali capital!
At the same time, I discovered that a millionaire was awarding $10,000 grants for young people to design global projects in their own field of study that would promote world peace. So I applied for a Davis Project for Peace prize to bring opera to Nepal. The goal was to support young Nepali musicians with money, information, and inspiration. That’s how the Kathmandu Music for Peace Festival was born.
I traveled to Kathmandu with a friend from the Mozarteum, the Japanese pianist Ayako Watanabe. We offered a series of music workshops at KJC, as well as individual lessons. We presented a full-length opera recital for Embassy officials, organized a concert for the students, and made a documentary. Through additional funding from churches and other foundations, we were able to donate $10,000 worth of instruments and audio equipment to KJC. We also awarded several full-year scholarships to talented young musicians who would not otherwise have been able to continue their studies.
We received extraordinary press coverage, including articles in five local newspapers and a two-hour feature profile on Times FM radio. This boosted attendance at our events. I was concerned that opera might not appeal to Nepali audiences, but they were intrigued and appreciative! Everywhere we went, from concert halls to classrooms, we were met with enthusiastic applause and rave reviews.
Even students who were majoring in rock and jazz were excited to learn about opera. One day, I found myself teaching the history of western opera to a packed classroom; thirty students were seated on the floor, with ten more guests trying to peek in the doorway, including a cameraman from Kantipur TV! I had planned to use clips from several opera CDs, but when technology failed, I sang impromptu live arias to illustrate the different historical periods. They all cheered!
One unexpected highlight came when we visited an orphanage in Godavari. A humanitarian team from Hope Partnership Nepal was there to distribute clothes and winter jackets. I sang “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Summertime” for the children. Later, outside, the girls begged, “Sister, sister, sing us the dancing song again!” and I did as they twirled around!
Our closing ceremony was held under the stars in an ancient courtyard at Patan Museum. We brought musicians from different countries and vastly different musical traditions together on the same stage to present the first opera-Hindustani-jazz-rock-Broadway-pop-Lieder-folk-contemporary-fusion concert in Nepal’s history! And that’s what world peace sounds like.
Last year, I tried to return to Nepal with a larger team of musicians. We had the support of HPN and KJC. But sadly, we were not able to find any other sponsors. Fundraising has never been easy, but the recent economic crisis has made it even harder. It was very discouraging. Then recently, I received an invitation to do a similar project … in Botswana.
Life doesn’t always go according to plan. It’s so easy to get frustrated when we lose a contest or fail an audition. But don’t lose heart because you might find your next opportunity in the strangest place.
One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, puts it like this: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
If you want to be an opera star, do it in your own unique way. Pay attention to the details of your life — your day job, your hobbies, your friends – because that’s where you might find your next singing gig. And it could be absolutely amazing!