If you spend any amount of time speaking to opera singer Kerriann Otaño, you will come away fully aware of the joy and zest she has for life. She is a woman loaded with passion, speaking with an energy second to none, and is ready for the mission she faces – making opera accessible to a new, younger and more diverse generation.
Otaño is sharing her massive talents with the South Bay Area, singing the role of Senta in Opera San Jose’s production of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” a romantic story of love and redemption, which premiered in 1843. A native of Long Island, New York, where she still resides, she is thrilled to be singing the show with the company where her fiancé, tenor Dane Suarez, is a resident. She is also taking crazy advantage of the Bay Area’s amazing weather, which her two dogs Frankie and Lup are loving because of all the walks they are getting.
The 30-year-old Otaño is certainly familiar with the reputation of the lack of diversity opera is believed to have. As a Puerto Rican woman who did not feel she looked like a traditional opera singer, it was seeing a production of George Bizet’s “Carmen” that challenged those beliefs, which confirmed her career path.
“Growing up, I saw a lot of musical theatre, and I always knew that dance was a big part of it, which is not a strong suit of mine,” said Otaño. “So when I saw the lead performer in ‘Carmen’ that looks like me, with big ol’ curly hair, I saw an elegance in the way she moved. It didn’t come from flashy dance moves, but it came from her voice.
“That really stuck with me, and I knew this is where I fit.”
And fit into opera she has. Upon graduating with her bachelor’s degree from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and a master’s degree from Mannes College The New School for Music, she has worked diligently on establishing her career throughout the country. She has sung on stages extensively in Texas, Chicago, Florida, New York and Washington, among others. She was also a 2016 National Semi-Finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a recent graduate of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera.
As an artist of color in a world whose audiences are predominantly white, Otaño has been pleasantly surprised by a large influx of companies nationwide who are looking to diversify its ranks in its audiences, performers and content.
“I’ve been fortunate to work at so many companies with a vision for the future, phenomenal contemporary singers who have big ideas and are so passionate about opera and the future of opera,” said Otaño. “We’ve had these aha moments that are so amazing and so special and seeing someone who looks like me on stage is huge.
“We are telling real American stories, and we are always asking what we can do to make people love it the way we love it.”
As Otaño has traveled throughout the country, even landing in spots which may not be traditionally considered spaces with large populations of people and artists of color, she has been pleasantly surprised. And that continues to give her hope for the future of opera, a future that cannot sustain itself by depending solely on the older and the wealthy.
“There is such a large Latino community in opera, telling many Hispanic stories,” said Otaño. “We often think of opera as a very white art form historically, but for our generation of composers and singers, we are so multicultural.
“A lot of companies now have many people of color and are telling stories that reflect America. Even when I was in Memphis, there was a huge population of African-American and Hispanic people, and artists on stage are reflecting the community beautifully. When I first started out, I didn’t see that, and now I am part of the next movement of opera in America, with people telling stories that really reflect them typically.”
Otaño is thrilled by the doors and inclusion that now exists in opera, and still knows that plenty of work must be done, teaching plenty of audience members that the “Flying Dutchman” is not just an item on the In-n-Out Burger secret menu.
With this new wave of energy, she is excited about audiences getting an opportunity to experience the thrill of their first opera.
“I don’t want to change the format of shows and disappoint the staunch fans, because it’s exciting for an audience to feel the way it felt for audiences in France the first time they saw (Giacomo Puccini’s) “La Boheme,” or an audience seeing something like “Hamilton” for the first time.
“We are seeing real people telling real stories and showing what opera really is. It is a successful way to bring in a new audience with fresh eyes and fresh ears.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Opera San Jose presents “The Flying Dutchman”
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner
Directed by Brad Dalton
Conducted by Joseph Marcheso
The California Theatre
345 S. First Street, San Jose, CA
Through Feb. 25th
Tickets range from $55 – $175
For tickets, call (408) 437-4450 or visit www.operasj.org