Finding Her Operatic Voice: Angela Yam

Angel Yam's carrer is a 'very expensive hobby,'
but it's paid off in magnitudes

In the most self-assured way, Angela flashed a mischievous smile my way and proclaimed, “Oh, I am a very bright person.” 

Out of all my friends and acquaintances, there has never been a truer statement. Her kind smile and warmth generally radiate bright energy, but her wit and thoughtfulness become readily apparent as you begin to talk to her.

Angela Yam and I met in college and navigated a tricky college music program where it felt like performers were never the priority. I watched in awe and admiration as she pivoted from piano to violin before stumbling upon voice, and immediately began excelling. She then moved on to a graduate degree from Sacramento State and recently completed a graduate diploma from the New England Conservatory of Music.

For the uninitiated, opera is a theatrical art form centered around singing that began in the 16th century.

Though she admits her burgeoning operatic career to be a “very expensive hobby”, her remarkable progress says otherwise. Recent highlights include Johanna in Sweeney Todd with Opera Saratoga, joining Fargo-Moorhead Opera as a 2022 Gate City Bank Young Artist, and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park with Opera Modesto. (for more details, look here!) When you are not an opera singer yourself, however, there always are lingering questions; what do you do to become an opera singer? What even is opera? 

For the uninitiated, opera is a theatrical art form centered around singing that began in the 16th century. It is built around a very physically involved technique meant to utilize the resonance and musculature of the human body to be typically sung without any amplification, besides the acoustics of a music hall.

The bulk of operas performed today still focus on the 18th and 19th-century repertoire; large theatrical works typically focused on the classic story: boy meets girl, they fall in love, and a tragedy befalls the girl. The dramatic storytelling at its essence is easy enough to understand, but how do you get to be on those stages?

Yam neatly lays out several paths ahead of her; getting yet another pseudo degree from an institution (which she would use strictly for the industry connections), joining a young artists program with an opera company (akin to a very fancy internship), or the grind of gigging (what she’s currently up to.).

The gigging is not for the faint of heart; last fall, she sent out roughly 75 applications, received callbacks from about 35, and received 3 gigs. In between, she’s singing at churches and joining other music ensembles that pique her interest. Several agents have seen her and hinted that she should begin looking for representation, which she is carefully considering, and hoping to use gigs to find the right one.

Our conversation then shifts to more “nerdy” talk; she muses that though she can provide the spuriously high notes for those considered a coloratura, her voice is best suited for more typical soprano situations. Hilariously, she has gotten several gigs that were specifically searching for coloratura work, sung at barely a whisper. She shows up to the audition, explaining that her only option is molto fortissimo, demonstrates it for them, and they agree to put their artistic differences aside. 

This all culminates in the inevitable discussion; what is your dream role/dream job in opera? Yam astutely answers, “To play interesting characters or characters in an interesting way.” She retells her very interesting experience playing Clorinda, one of the evil stepsisters in Rossini’s Cinderella. Despite her stepsister counterpart being an athletic being, the director insisted that Angela’s character be portrayed as the active, yoga-loving one. It was an opportunity for her to both develop cardiovascular health and explore a more physical acting experience while singing. It is commonplace these days for opera productions to recontextualize works in a different political or temporal background, despite occasional protests from the older guard. Angela is a big proponent of this; how else can opera, often prophesied as a dying art, remain current and generate interest from younger audiences?

Yam’s other musical exploits also explore this conundrum by being part of a modern musical ensemble Nightingale Vocal Ensemble. She gets the opportunity to create new music with this group and she describes the piece that she is working on as, “A first-of-its-kind staged choral opera, ADRIFT tells a love story through the words of queer New Englander Emily Dickinson.

Featuring entirely new musical settings by Nightingale resident composers, and under the direction of Angela Yam, this hour-long theatrical experience brings to life a carefully curated selection from Dickinson’s nearly 2,000 poems. The members of Nightingale Vocal Ensemble will use all of their compositional, vocal, and dramatic capabilities to celebrate—and expand—the unique capacity for an ensemble to tell a story.” It is clear that the opportunity to pour herself into ventures like this fully fulfills her as she gets to focus on the pursuit of art. 

Opera as a career is a tricky, tenuous balance of art and commerce, especially if you stand up for yourself and refuse to engage with nonsense. From being cast to play refugees based on her appearance, or suggested repertoire seemingly because of her Asian heritage, Yam has had to firmly stand her ground, often at the risk of a bad recommendation from a faculty member or risking displeasing an employer. One of the best examples of this is from several years ago. During production, a hair and makeup person told her she would not be a good fit for a role because “she couldn’t be blonde”.

Nonsense aside, Angela seemed to take this as a challenge. One look at her tresses these days, and you will note how starkly blonde they are. I couldn’t help but ask, “did you do this to spite them?”

“Maybe a little bit,” she declares with a wink. 

// You can find updates about Angela Yam on her website, Instagram, and Facebook.

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