Tharanga Goonetilleke as Soprano on World Stage

Darshanie Ratnawalli, in Island, 7 October 2017 with a different title

My perception was that Tharanga Goonetilleke, the lyric soprano from Sri Lanka did not beat huge odds in becoming an international star in western classical music. Consider the facts. Scrutinize particularly the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka (SOSL) Concerto Competition winners in the 1990s. In 1994, SOSL, the oldest continuously performing symphony orchestra in South Asia commenced the bi-annual Concerto Competition to showcase young talent. Sixteen year old Tanya Ekanayaka won in Piano jointly with Soundarie David and Gayathri Attiken.

Both Tanya and Soundarie went on to win international acclaim with Tanya approaching closest to international diva status as a composer and pianist. In 1996, 16 year old soprano Kishani Jayasinghe won the second Concerto Competition and in the fullness of time metamorphosed into an international operatic diva. In 1998, it was 16 year old Tharanga Goonetilleke’s turn to win the third Concerto Competition as a soprano and continue the now established pattern by propelling herself into operatic diva-hood. It was this rather obvious pattern, which informed my perception that Sri Lanka was prolific in choral and instrumental talent in classical Western music and individuals from this platform being propelled into international stardom was a fairly probable outcome rather than a fluke involving huge odds.

Tharanga soon put me right on this. She is looking at it from a broader South Asian perspective, instead of a Sri Lankan insider perspective, which perhaps is inevitable considering that she is now married to an Indian and enjoying permanent residency in USA.

“I have travelled to all corners of the world to sing. But I have never come across a single South Asian on stage with me. It’s not that there are none, but they are too few. In that logic, if I had not beaten huge odds, I suspect there should be plenty more of us, don’t you think?”

Perhaps this has to do with how much of a fluke Sri Lanka is in South Asia in some areas and how atypically South Asian Sri Lanka is in some aspects. It’s not something everyone understands. For example consider the following intro with which USA’s National Public Radio host Scott Simone commenced an interview with Tharanga;

“Kids in America can dream of becoming an opera singer and performing around the world. The odds are long, but talent, hard work, the right breaks – all of that could make it happen. But what if you grew up in Sri Lanka, off the coast of India?”

The implicit perception seems to be that Sri Lanka is some sort of jungle off the coast of India instead of a South Asian hub or a bastion of Western classical music where a segment of the population begins their music studies at ages five and six and takes their Trinity College of Music, London and Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams, as seriously as their GCE O/Ls and A/Ls and where a symphony orchestra founded in 1958 could continue flourishing unbroken into its 60th year.

Tharanga Goonetilleke was very much exposed to this dynamic musical buzz both at home – her mother was a piano teacher – and at Ladies’ College – whose reputation for Western Music excellence Tharanga enhanced by winning Trinity College of Music examination prizes in singing for three consecutive years, which earned for the fifteen year Ladies’ student the Yamaha Trophy in 1997. She told me how her Western music studies stopped being a hobby and a social capital acquiring extracurricular activity and turned into a professional career path and a trajectory into international stardom.

“Ms. Christine Perera was my first voice teacher in Sri Lanka. I first met her when I joined the Ladies’ college choir where she was the director.

“At the age of 16 I won the Concerto Competition organized by the SOSL. It was part of the winners’ award to get to perform with the orchestra. That was my SOSL debut. After that SOSL invited me to sing with them on several occasions, one of which was the Christmas concert in year 2000. I was one of two soloists in that concert. The other was Dr. Douglas Weeks who was making his appearance in Sri Lanka while touring South Asia as a concert pianist. He is up to date on the faculty of Converse College where he teaches piano while pursuing his solo performing career.

“Dr. Weeks heard me sing during rehearsals and talked to me about the possibilities of pursuing a music degree in the USA. While it was an intriguing idea, I let him know that singing was my hobby and that I had other plans for myself, preferably in the medical science field. However, Dr. Weeks went on to speak to my parents, some teachers of mine, etc. trying to get us all to understand that it is important that I get a formal training in operatic singing overseas. Eventually he left Sri Lanka, back to the USA, but continued to encourage me to take his idea seriously. Eventually, my parents and I agreed that we should give it a chance. Upon Dr. Week’s recommendation, Converse College afforded me a full tuition scholarship. All I had to do was simply turn up on campus. Converse also gave me the option of continuing my studies in Biology while studying music, just in case I wanted to fall back on my former plans.

“Eventually, I ended up with a Bachelor of Music with a minor in Biology.”

About shattering stereotypes

Operas are audio visual productions composed for the most part in Europe, inspired and shaped by European racial types and cultural stereotypes. Does this lead sometimes to casting decisions that seek to remain faithful to the original racial conceptualization of the character? It’s all very well for Allan Kozinn of New York Times (22 April 2010) to say, “Tharanga Goonetilleke, a soprano from Sri Lanka, brought an appealingly rich tone — and, more important, a sense of innocence, conflict and, in her final scene, radiance — to her characterization of Blanche.” But is there discomfort at times at auditions at the prospect of a South Asian looking Blanche? In other words, is there discrimination?

Not out and out discrimination, according to Tharanga. But sometimes in auditions she has had surprised reactions when her auditors see her for the first time and have to confront their own mental stereotypes. She has been told at times, “There is this Bollywood musical, perhaps you’d like to try out for that.” But once they have heard her singing, they would never retain these old stereotypes they grew up with. In a way, Tharanga’s whole music career has been about breaking molds and shattering stereotypes.

When she became the first Sri Lankan female to be accepted to the Juilliard School in New York, was that a shattering of a stereotype or a milestone? Perhaps both. This is how it happened.

“During my third year at Converse, I took part in the Metropolitan Opera Council auditions, in which I was one of the winners for the state of South Carolina. Little did I know that the judges were from the faculty of the Juilliard School. They encouraged me to apply to Juilliard if I liked to do a Masters upon graduating from Converse; which is exactly what I did. After being accepted to Juilliard I did a three-year Masters and a two- year post Masters (Artist Diploma).

“Juilliard is an incredible place. It is small but it buzzes with gifted musicians, actors and dancers in every corner of the building. Being located in Lincoln Centre, it is surrounded by the best artists in the whole world. Most importantly, the faculty cares about each of us and we are individually nurtured and mentored during and after our education.

“A music degree in operatic studies is not all about singing. We undergo training to sing in at least four languages. There is the study of music history and theory, composing, stage craft, vocal literature, movement and dance, acting etc.”

I tell her to describe the pathway from college to lead singer in operas. First audition? First part? First professional engagement in the US? Was that while she was still at college or at Julliard?

“While I was still a college student, doors opened for professional gigs. I didn’t always audition. Many times someone would hear me in a college performance and hire me to do a recital or a part in a show etc. I can’t recall my first audition, but I do have one audition that was probably the most memorable. It was my New York City opera audition. The audition was actually in the opera house and I couldn’t believe that I was standing on that stage; where all the artists of the past that I admire have once stood. I had nothing to lose. My heart was full with gratitude for that moment and I sang with every fibre of my being. It was magical. I got the part.”

About shattering glass

On the radio, a soprano hits the highest notes. A fragile glass bubble shatters and releases a poison gas, which kills… the plot of an Agatha Christie short story, I enjoyed. Has Tharanga shattered glass? “I have not intentionally shattered glass. But it has happened when I am practicing. Yes, if any sound matches the vibrating frequency of glass it is simple physics that the glass would crack or shatter.”

Can she still sing normal songs in the normal way? “Yes because a trained opera voice is very flexible. But anyone who’d invite me to sing an ordinary song would do so because they want that operatic twist in that ordinary song. So it’s unlikely that people would approach me to sing a popular song in the usual way.”

It’s not as if Tharanga had to overcome a disadvantaged childhood, abusive parents or a rebellious, self-destructive personality. She was a fairly pampered and conformist child. Does she agree?

“I didn’t particularly have an agenda as a kid. I actually really enjoyed doing all my studies. Music was really a thing on the side that I happened to enjoy very much. When I studied other subjects, I genuinely was interested in them. But I could tell that it is because I was not doing badly in school that my parents were comfortable in my doing as many extracurricular activities as I did, including music – choir, piano, school dramas etc.

“From the very beginning, I challenged myself to find balance. That was not easy and is something I still work on – how to balance being a musician, a mother, a daughter, a citizen of the world, a friend etc. All these roles need nurturing and care which can only be achieved with proper management of time.”

Tharanga Goonetilleke has been invited to sing at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka on 19 October 2017 at the Ladies’ College Auditorium.

Let her pay tribute to SOSL in her own words; “The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka gave me the platform to be the performer I was when I was a teenager, which opened up opportunities for me thereafter. I have sung as a soloist with them on various occasions since then and continue to do so. The orchestra is celebrating its 60th year this year and the number of artists that have been discovered and brought to the classical music loving audiences of Sri Lanka are many. Sri Lanka should be proud to home to one of the oldest orchestras in the region.”

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