Critics nationwide have described Priti Gandhi’s voice as brilliant, warm, sweet, luscious, and dazzling. The award-winning opera singer recently returned from Mexico City where she had stepped into a lead role in a concert version of Mozart’s rarely performed opera Ascanio in Alba. She is based at the San Diego Opera, but also performs throughout the United States and in Europe.
I interviewed Priti Gandhi via e-mail.
How did the Mexico City gig go?
I loved it! But it was also very stressful. I was stepping in for a well-known American mezzo-soprano on only 10 days notice. It’s a very long role with four arias, two trios, and many pages of sung recitative [a section in which words are sung with the rhythm of natural speech, with little or no orchestral accompaniment]. This was a role that would normally have taken me weeks to perfect. Also, the people I was singing with were well-known singers and they were so fantastic and all I could think was hey, what am I doing here? But it ended up going great. We got great reviews and I am so sorry the experience is over.
What are your three favorite roles that you’ve played?
Cinderella, Cinderella, and Cinderella! Or Cenerentola, as she is called in Italian. Rossini is my favorite composer to sing, because the way he wrote coloratura [musical ornamentation such as trills and fast runs up and down a scale] fits my voice perfectly, and his opera La Cenerentola is the greatest joy I’ve had on the stage so far.
What do you love about the role of Rossini’s Cinderella?
Many things. First, the way she’s written sits perfectly in my voice. Funny thing is, many singers find her a great challenge, especially due to the treacherous coloratura. But for some reason, my voice loves it. So it’s fulfilling, technically, to sing her well. Second, I love her as a character. Rossini’s Cinderella is feisty, yet loving. She is smart and savvy, stands up for herself, and doesn’t lose hope and faith in the universe when life knocks her down. She is the essence of forgiveness and unconditional love and perseverance, and what better spiritual lesson can there be in life? When I sing her, I always hope that some of her spirit might rub off on me. Third, what little girl hasn’t dreamed of being Cinderella? As Cinderella, I get to wear gorgeous costumes and fall in love.
Did you start singing at an early age?
No, I’m a really late bloomer. Growing up, I didn’t sing any more than any other typical child.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Bombay, but in my early years we moved to Rhode Island, then Arizona, then finally San Diego when I was 3 and we never left, so San Diego is definitely home.
And when did you start singing?
During college at UCSD (I was a telecommunications major), I was singing in the Concert Choir for fun, and a friend of mine dared me to audition for a solo in Handel’s Messiah. I figured I had nothing to lose, why not. After my audition, the director of the choir said I had a nice voice, but there was so much to singing that he couldn’t explain to me in one session … Why didn’t I try taking some voice lessons, and maybe they’d consider giving me a solo the next year? That sounded like a great idea to me. I was burned out on writing papers and thought that voice lessons would be fun, something just for me. I missed having music in my life and my heart wasn’t in my piano playing anymore.
How did you choose a voice teacher?
The smart way: I got a list of voice teachers from the music department, and then I pointed randomly at one and called her! To this day I think that someone must have been guiding my hand. I ended up picking an amazing singer and teacher, Laurie Romero. I started taking private lessons with her once a week. I told her I just wanted to learn to sing for fun, so she started to teach me scales, vocal exercises, and fun pieces from musical theatre, pop songs … light stuff. And the scales! I never knew I could sing so high! She would take me up, and keep going up … and somehow I could do it! It is a strange thing to discover that you know how to do something so foreign.
After about two months of lessons, Laurie looked at me one day and said, “You have an operatic voice, did you know that?” You know my first reaction was to laugh! I thought she was nuts. I told her I didn’t know a thing about opera and she must have been mistaken. She just smiled and handed me an aria. “Just try this and tell me how it feels. I’ll help you with the Italian.” I am sure I sounded pretty awful, by operatic standards, when I sang that first time … but that didn’t matter. How it made me feel … something inside me woke up that day when I sang that aria, almost like a light inside me had turned on … I didn’t know it was possible to feel that way. I felt so … happy. That’s the day my life changed. Really, in my mind, my life is “before opera” and “after opera.” Almost like two different people, two different lives.
When did you start thinking that opera could be a career?
Just a few months after I started taking voice lessons with Laurie. It was my senior year of college. I went to the career center on campus and asked them—completely sincerely—if I could speak to someone about a career in opera. They looked at me as if I were an alien! But when I persisted, they gave me the phone number of Ian Campbell, the general director of the San Diego Opera.
They (and, fortunately, I) had no idea that you don’t just call the general director of the San Diego Opera.
I did not know who Ian was or anything about the San Diego Opera, but I called the number and got him on the phone. I told him I was a student who had just started voice lessons, didn’t know anything about it, and was looking for advice on starting an opera career. Could he talk to me?
Most general directors would never take such a call. But incredibly, Ian said yes and we made an appointment. When we met, he explained the operatic life, the sacrifices, the auditions, the years of being broke, the lack of job security, the nomadic existence. It all sounded pretty good to me, ha! And then he said he’d like to hear me sing at the mainstage auditions in a couple of weeks, just so he could hear my voice and tell me honestly whether or not I had an instrument worth pursuing. I jumped at the chance.
How did the audition go?
I’d only taken lessons for a few months, so it was not anything brilliant. But he told me that I had talent and that if I worked really hard at developing a vocal technique over the next few years, I might be ready for their opera chorus in a couple of years. I took his advice to heart, and decided to keep working at it.
A year after that meeting, the San Diego Opera offered me a contract to be part of their chorus.
I worked the 9-5 during the day, sang in the evenings at rehearsals, took voice lessons on weekends, did performances (chorus) on the mainstage, and studied in my spare time. I spent as much time at the opera offices as I could, asked questions, sat in on rehearsals, looked at music in their music library. Finally they kind of adopted me, since they couldn’t get rid of me! Two years later, I took the plunge. I quit the day job, and told my parents that I was serious now, and wanted to become an opera singer, and could they help me with voice lessons for the next few years?
How did your parents react?
I come from a family of science-thinkers. My sister’s a veterinarian, and my brother is in his second year of medical school. My father is an engineer and my mother is a math instructor.
Of course they thought I was insane.
But after a lot of back and forth, my parents said, okay, we’ll help you for two years, and if after that, you haven’t made something of yourself, we want you to go back to school and get your master’s degree. I agreed. My parents and I have had many arguments over the years about the operatic life. But now I look back and realize what a leap of faith it must have been for them to agree to help me. Really, it’s amazing that they agreed to help me pursue this. How many parents would do that? In retrospect, I admire them so much and am humbled at how frightening it must have been for them, to agree to their crazy daughter’s even crazier request.
What do they think of your career now?
They flew to Paris last year to see me sing in the Paris Ring Cycle, and sat through five hours of Wagner! If that’s not support then I don’t know what is.
Do you wish that you’d gotten an earlier start on this career?
For a long time I did, but not anymore. My career has unfolded (or, I should say, is unfolding) organically, through a series of serendipitous events linked by a lot of hard work, and I think that my early naiveté actually helped me.
Since I knew so little about opera, I wasn’t afraid, because I didn’t know what to be afraid of.
I had no idea, when I started taking voice lessons, that most opera singers get their start by getting master’s and doctorate degrees in vocal performance. And that there was an entire background of years of study in music history, languages, music theory, vocal techniques, etc., behind those careers. I just studied on my own. I learned conversational French and Italian, and now I’ve sung in eight languages. I took lots of voice lessons, and read as much about opera as I could. I asked lots of questions and looked at everything with wide and inquisitive eyes, and had a real trust that all would be taken care of, if I just worked hard. It’s amazing, how the further you get into a career or knowledge of a field, the more fearful you get. There is something beautiful about the beginner’s ignorance.
How did your career grow from those early years at the San Diego Opera?
One of the most important things was when the San Diego Opera accepted me into its Young Artists touring ensemble. I toured with the group for two years. That was huge. It taught me a great deal of what I know about the business. Ian and the San Diego Opera really took care of me and made sure I learned a lot. I learned how important preparation was, and about stagecraft, and how to interact with conductors and directors.
The San Diego Opera also made me an Artist-in-Residence for two years. I would visit elementary schools to talk with the kids about what it meant to be a
How did you get your first non-chorus mainstage role?
One day, Ian called me in and said that he wanted me to prepare some excerpts from The Magic Flute and audition for one of the secondary roles. And I got the part! My career started a slow snowball after that, and after I acquired my first agent, I started doing national auditions and getting roles in other cities.
What stage is your career at now?
It’s been six or seven years now that I’ve been singing on mainstage. I’m fortunate to still have Ian as my mentor. I’ve come far, but I still have a long way to go. There are so many roles I still want to sing, like Rosina from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and the young boy Octavian from Strauss’sDer Rosenkavalier. There’s so much vocal progress to make, and I’m still in a place where every year, I worry whether I will get enough gigs to pay my bills. Every year is a blank calendar to fill, and that’s hard, to carry that background static of stress with you, wherever you go. I am far from a place of career stability. But I am closer than I was a couple of years ago. Yoga and meditation are the only ways I stay sane. Thank goodness for those things that keep us balanced. Oh, and salsa dancing!
Do you have a pre-show ritual?
The yoga and meditation are a non-negotiable part of my life. I do them every day, including performance days.
On performance day, I sleep late, eat a big breakfast, read and journal, and write some emails. Then I either go for a walk or to a yoga class, then stretch for a while. I look at my music for the evening, just running through it in my head, go over the text, and then get my bag ready for the evening. Just a snack for lunch, because I like to sing on an empty stomach.
Then I’ll warm up my voice really well. I’ll do exercises that put the focus of my voice up in the resonance spaces. (Because we don’t use microphones, we learn through years of voice lessons how to focus the voice so that it will project in a 3,000-seat opera house.) Then I’ll sing some regular scales, then move into coloratura exercises (singing really fast up and down scales), and then sustained singing on single notes. And then I’ll start exploring dynamics (volume
control). And always I have to be sure that it’s feeling easy, without any breaks, and smooth. It must have what we call “ping” … that quality that helps it cut through a large orchestra. Then I sometimes sing a few passages from the opera, but not always.
Then I meditate for half-an-hour. I don’t talk much on show days; I save it for the stage.
I get to my dressing room really early and relax. I read some more, something inspirational, take one more look at the music, and maybe call my folks in San Diego to say hi, I’m at the theatre, and they tell me to break a leg (or “Break all their legs” as my mom likes to say). Then it’s time for makeup and costume and I warm up a bit more, not too much, in the last 15 minutes before I have to be on stage.
I have a Sarasvati mantra that I like to say before I go on stage. My mom gave it to me a long time ago and it always helps to ground me. Helps me to remember why I sing and that I always want to be sincere in my performances.
Sometimes a cast will have a little group “go team!” kind of thing we’ll do together before a show. Not all the time, it depends on the cast. But I always love it when we do! It helps to make the show that evening a really cohesive and wonderful storytelling experience.
And then the show begins.
Finally, I must have at least one piece of chocolate during the show. Totally a comfort thing.
And thankfully, if there’s one thing you can always find backstage at an opera house, it’s chocolate.
To learn more about Priti Gandhi, visit www.pritigandhi.com
Ranjit Souri (firstname.lastname@example.org) manages a theatre school and teaches writing classes in Chicago.