Melody Chang Heaton. Courtesy photo.

In 2021, Nina Yoshida Nelsen was inspired by the Stop AAPI Hate and Black Lives Matter movements, and by the exemplary work of her colleagues in the Black Opera Alliance, and this led her to co-found the Asian Opera Alliance in order to represent Asian Pacific artists in opera.  Now, to continue the organization’s work, AOA’s Vice President Melody Chang Heaton has also been named Executive Director.

Heaton is gratified by AOA’s support. “Our executive committee discussed the future of AOA and how to move forward from the success we’ve had already and one consensus was that we needed to have one central person who was versed in non-profit management to manage the daily details of our ongoing projects,” Heaton said. “I’m honored that my friends and colleagues trust me in this position.”

Nelsen and other AOA leaders, Heaton says, saw a need to advocate for artists in the midst of anti-Asian racism stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. “She pulled together Asian singers, composers, and administrators to start this advocacy group,” Heaton recounted.  “Ultimately, the goal of advocacy is to work ourselves out of advocating so supporting other groups with similar goals is paramount to reaching broader equity in opera.” 

But there is much work to do.  “When companies present operas like Madame Butterfly or Turandot, they often pigeonhole Asian singers in these stereotype-driven roles written by European composers,” Heaton said. “We want Asian singers to be invited not just for the Cio-Cio Sans, Suzukis, and Turandots, but for non-stereotype driven roles as well.”

In response, Heaton is ready.  “My plans for the first year include solidifying three cornerstones of any non-profit arts organization: fundraising, marketing and brand recognition, and programming,” she said.  “We’re here to facilitate positive conversations about what equity looks like in a western art form such as opera.”

Heaton comes to this work as a mezzo soprano with a passion for opera.  “I fell in love with opera during my first semester at Washington State University when I auditioned for the Opera Workshop,” she remembered. “I ended up singing in a few scenes from La Cenerentola and by the end of the semester, I had switched my major to Voice.”

Originally planning to become an engineer, Heaton changed her entire career plan.  “I love the entire art form of opera,” she enthused.  “I am a huge music history nerd and I love how opera is the convergence of the best of all types of art, elegant costumes, incredible musicianship, beautiful set and lighting design, and occasionally dancers.” 

Heaton also wanted to delve into the magic of opera. “It’s incredible that humans can sing over an orchestra without amplification,” she said. “Opera truly is a celebration of excellent art and I knew I had to be part of it as soon as I stepped foot in WSU’s Opera Workshop.” 

Now, leading AOA, Heaton works to see others succeed.  “Challenges I see ahead are no more abundant than challenges we’ve faced in the past couple of years, systemic racism, pre-existing biases, and under-representation of Asians in our industry,” she said.  “Some may question us because they are ingrained in their biases, but we believe what we do will lead to greater equity for all.” 

AOA has already begun to influence the opera landscape.  “We have started our free masterclass series for our community members to learn from experts in our industry,” Heaton reported. “Our first masterclass was with Priti Gandhi from Portland Opera discussing casting and pivoting from being a performer to administration.”

The Alliance will also look at Asian Pacific representation in educational settings.  “While it is important to understand the demographic makeup of casts at our large opera companies, equity begins the moment students decide they want to pursue a career in our industry,” Heaton asserted. “We want to examine inequities present in the entire system and find ways we can advocate for Asians at all levels of our industry.”

Members of AOA are also available to consult with individual opera companies.  “I’m hoping we will soon be able to pay our lecturers, consultants, and researchers for their time and dedication, but as of right now, everyone is generously volunteering their time,” Heaton said. “We cannot do this work without the support of others and donations to our cause.” 

Heaton hopes the community will respond and get involved. “We have also participated in Facebook Live conversations with the Black Opera Alliance, discussing the intricacies, similarities, and differences of all the challenges our identities face in the industry,” she said.  “Our board members and community members are all directly impacted by the advocacy we do in our industry.”  

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