Interview: Maya Kherani of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Brings a Complex Terrance McNally Character to Life

The soprano shines in a glorious new production of the chamber opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer now streaming through January 31st

By: Dec. 29, 2020
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Interview: Maya Kherani of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Brings a Complex Terrance McNally Character to Life
Soprano Maya Kherani
(photo by Vero Kherian)

There's no other way to put it - Opera San José hits it out of the park with its immensely moving new virtual production of Three Decembers, the chamber opera by Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer, based on an unpublished play by Terrance McNally. Due to popular demand, streaming access has been extended through January 31, 2021. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit I watched Three Decembers a few days ago and just cannot get it out of my head - the beauty of the music and the performances, the complexity of the relationships, the elegant creativity of the direction by Tara Branham, and ultimately the relevance of the story. I mean, when was the last time you saw an opera that made you re-examine your own family relationships and see them in a new light?

In this case, it's a family of three - diva Maddie, played by world-renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and her two adult children Bea and Charlie, played by Opera San José Resident Artists Maya Kherani and Efraín Solís. In a swift 90 minutes, the three journey from a place of disconnect to a place of understanding and ultimately healing. All three singers give masterful performances, sensitively acted and gorgeously sung. And what grounds the story is how credible the three are as a family. It is meant as no faint praise of Ms. Graham that both Ms. Kherani and Mr. Solís match her artistry and nuance. A case in point is a scene where Bea and Charlie take a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge while trying to recall any specific memories of their long-deceased father. It is so beautifully played, and their chemistry is so palpable, that I actually found myself momentarily wondering if the two were siblings in real life, even though I had already interviewed both singers(!) and obviously knew that was not the case. Not to mention that Mr. Solís is Latino and Ms. Kherani is of Asian descent. It just goes to show how effective great art can be at bridging cultural divides.

I spoke with Ms. Kherani shortly after she had completed filming Three Decembers. Known for her effervescent performances and gleaming high notes in classic soprano roles, playing Bea gave her a chance to show her range and acting chops in creating a more grounded, contemporary character. Among other things, we discussed the rigorous filming process amid the challenges of making opera during Covid, her surprising path to becoming an opera singer, the imperative to open up the opera world to more people of color, and her enduring love of musical theater. She is a pleasure to talk to, easily chatty and down to earth, upbeat even as she maintains a clear eye on the need for change in her beloved artform. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How would you describe Three Decembers and the role that you play?

It's a really beautiful and touching piece. It deals with the AIDS crisis and family dynamics and is very relevant to what we're dealing with today during the pandemic. My role is Bea, the daughter of Maddie [and brother of Charlie]. She's a really complex character because she's wanted her mother's approval from a young age and there's always been tension between the two of them because she's more like Maddie than she wants to believe. She goes through this journey of wanting to be the glue that keeps her family together, but of course things don't always work out the way you want them to so she has to deal with the fallout of that. It takes her until really the end of the opera, which is 20 years later, to find that sort of healing place. And Bea and Charlie's relationship as brother and sister is very strong and genuine and something Bea is very protective of, especially in trying to protect him from what she feels are injustices from Maddie and from the world. But it's funny because Charlie ends up protecting Bea more than anything by the end of the opera. There's just a lot of family relationship drama that I think that we can all relate to.

Interview: Maya Kherani of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Brings a Complex Terrance McNally Character to Life
(L to R) Susan Graham, Efraín Solís and Maya Kherani confront each other
in Opera San José's production of Three Decembers
(photo by David Allen)

What was the filming process was like for you as an opera singer?

It was challenging, I have to be honest. Opera San José did the best it could to make it feasible for us, with all the Covid protocols and testing we had to undergo. And we all wanted to do that because we wanted to be able to do the production and feel safe doing it. The three of us singers were unmasked during production, but everybody else was masked and behind plexiglass. It was fully staged so we were interacting and sharing the same space. We weren't socially distanced and sort of operated like a household during the time we were filming. So that was one layer.

The other layer is that I don't think the other two singers have done a lot of film productions either, but this was my first time being in an opera that was designed and directed for film. I've been in productions that are staged and then filmed for an archival purpose or whatever, but this is the first time that we had, you know, four cameras catching us at all angles and closeups. We had to do takes where we had to do reaction shots and sort of lip synch to ourselves, which was a really different experience. It was a huge learning experience for everyone involved - for us singers, for the production team, for the director, and even the conductor, because he was behind the plexiglass and we sort of had to catch his eye while playing toward the cameras.

So it was a challenge, but it was interesting. I felt like I had to change my acting in a way to make things a lot more real and authentic. That's something you strive for onstage, too, but we're used to playing for the back of the house of you know 2,000 seats, and now you've got a camera two feet away from your face. Our director Tara [Branham] was amazing at guiding us to make sure everything was natural and subtle and authentic. And we could do multiple takes and every take was different because we weren't constrained to traffic patterns on the stage, or stage lighting. In some ways, there are advantages for a piece like this, which is so relatable and colloquial in style. It translates really well to that closeup film medium in a way that I would think would be difficult for a Wagner opera. Not that it can't be done, but I think this piece works exceptionally well for film.

When you were on set, were you singing full out like you would in a big opera house?

Yes, we were. We did it with a 2-piano arrangement that was created specifically for this production because we couldn't have orchestra members, it would have been too many people in the room. We sang full out. That's how we're trained to perform and so they adjusted the sound levels and the mikes. We didn't have body mikes; the mikes were all ambient in the room to capture the acoustic of a live performance.

The awesome Susan Graham plays your mother, Maddie. What was it like to work with her? Did you learn anything in particular from that experience?

Susan was amazing! She is so down-to-earth and so supportive. She really became kind of our "production mom." It was really inspiring to get to work with her and learn from her. She's great at finding the humor in everything, and her positivity was a huge part of this production. I mean, she has seen and done so much in her career and her attitude about new challenges and the adjustments of the circumstances that we had to make, she was just such a good sport about it. And it was fabulous to play off of her, too, because her reactions and her actions are so real and authentic. They really do come from inside her. By the end of the production, we did feel like a family, the three of us, and that was really special.

Interview: Maya Kherani of THREE DECEMBERS at Opera San Jose Brings a Complex Terrance McNally Character to Life
Susan Graham and Maya Kherani as mother and daughter Maddie and Bea
in Opera San José's production of Three Decembers
(photo by David Allen)

You're currently a Resident Artist with Opera San José. What does that entail exactly?

So this year is a little different, of course -

Yeah, I would imagine!

San José has this resident program where they engage artists for an entire season and use them in their core productions. This year, there are six singers, a director and a conductor. Me and Efraín were involved in Three Decembers, but this year everyone is doing more one-off projects. We do pop-up concerts on people's driveways right now, outdoor concerts, and we're also involved in these filmed projects. Each resident this year gets to propose, and with the help of Opera San José, produce a project of their artistic choosing. Some people are doing recitals that are going to be filmed. I'm local, but I think six out of the eight residents are from out of town. We've all been living together in company housing and sort of operating as a pod. We all get tested for Covid and quarantine to make sure we can be safely around each other so we can actually put on projects and productions and concerts as a kind of a core team. That's been really great this year because I think we all had the entire calendar cancelled, all of our engagements all over the place. So it's been nice to just get to create and work with artists and make music, and it's given us a chance to stay employed. I'm just so hugely thankful for that, especially this year.

Deciding to pursue a career in opera isn't exactly following the path of least resistance. Do you recall a specific moment when you realized this could become a reality for you?

Actually, for me it was quite late. I studied mechanical engineering in undergrad. I sang in choir all through my childhood and even in college, and sort of on a whim played a small role in my college's production of Marriage of Figaro. I only auditioned because my choir director encouraged me to. I had never seen an opera, I didn't know anything. After I sang that role, I just got totally hooked and so I finished my engineering degree and then I went to San Francisco Conservatory for my Master's in Voice because I really wanted to explore what that was like. It was a huge career change for me, and it was not something I ever expected to happen in my life. I always enjoyed singing, but never thought it would be a career, and my experience at the Conservatory really did shape my perspective. I got to sing my first lead roles and I just fell in love with the marriage of theater and music. I guess the opera bug bit me and then no looking back after that, so my engineering days are long behind me.

That's quite an unusual story. I always hear about opera singers who grew up listening to Met broadcasts or had a family member who loved opera and encouraged them as a child or whatever.

Right, yeah! No, my family had never seen an opera. My parents, I think, the first one they saw was the one that I was in. My parents are immigrants from India, so it was all very new to them, and I kind of just lucked into this career in a way. I'm so thankful because I love it. I just think the music is so powerful. And I always was a theater kid growing up, and so to get to do both, to really play characters onstage while singing and getting to experience this incredible music, I think that's what hooked me. But yeah, I definitely didn't think that I was ever going to be an opera singer. [laughs]

I haven't yet had the pleasure of hearing you sing live, but I've seen several or your videos, and you have such thrilling, gorgeous high notes -

Oh, thank you!

-so when you reach the climax of an aria and really start soaring into the upper part of your range, how much are you concentrating on technique in that moment, and how much are you able to just surrender to the music and the emotion of the scene?

I don't tend to think about technique too much when I'm performing. On those high notes, I just try to think about the text and my intention and stay in the moment. But, that said, that is only possible because of the muscle memory I've built up really, really, really thinking about my technique and working very diligently on making those high notes easy and sustainable and fun to sing. Of course, there are moments if something goes wrong onstage or if you're a little under the weather, then yeah, I'm going to be thinking about technique more than I want to, but the goal is to be able to build all that technique into muscle memory so that I can just sort of surrender to that moment.

It seems like the Covid pandemic has presented everybody with their own specific challenges. One of your basic skills as an opera singer is an ability to produce a huge sound, and that's not something you can easily just practice, say, in your kitchen at home. How do you keep those muscles from atrophying?

I really have been practicing at home. It's funny because my husband works for a Silicon Valley tech company and he's been working from home since March, and I think all of his colleagues are now used to the background noise of me practicing during their Zoom calls. [laughs] I have to be honest, the first few weeks when everything shut down and was getting cancelled, it was really hard to find my voice and get the motivation to practice, but I set myself a schedule and a routine, and forced myself, especially at the beginning, to just keep up with my exercises and learn new repertoire, and I think that really got me through.

But it's true, if you don't get the chance to perform or if you're not in rehearsal, it's hard to keep it up. It's a muscle like anything else and you do get out of practice. When we got into Three Decembers rehearsals and had these 8-hour days, it was an adjustment for all of us at first. We were like "Oh! We forgot what it feels like to be in rehearsal all day." [laughs] Building back that stamina is so important. I've tried to keep it up as best as I can during this time, and I have to negotiate my practice times and lesson times with my husband so it's not too loud in the background. I'm lucky, I live in a house so I'm not bothering the neighbors, but I know there are a lot of other singers who've been dealing with that. They're like, "You know, we have to work from home, too, and neighbors have to get used to that."

The events of this past year have underscored the imperative to make the arts more inclusive and welcoming to a diverse audience. As a person of color, what do you think the opera world could be doing right now to make things better on that front?

I think the opera world has a lot of work to do when it comes to inclusivity and diversity and I think it really starts at the top. Well, it's both... I [also] think there's a pipeline problem because there's a lot obstacles to pursuing this career. I mean, it's such a specialized artform and it takes the privilege of being able to have voice lessons and a good choir program at school, or to be able to afford to go to a conservatory. Yeah, there are scholarships, but they're few and far between, so I think there could be more done for encouraging and mentoring younger singers, and providing training for free or at a discount to try to open up these barriers.

The other thing is at sort of the top of the industry - so general directors and board members. I think we need to push for more women and people of color in those roles because that affects casting, that affects career trajectories. I'm so grateful to be part of Opera San José, and Khori Dastoor has been an incredible General Director and I think a model for other companies. You know, Three Decembers, it's a mom and her two kids, and all three of us are different ethnicities, and they were totally fine about that. We were still able to tell this really compelling story in a believable way, despite not looking the same. I think that kind of pushing the boundaries is really, really important and it comes from people at the top making that a priority.

It's the bottom of the funnel and the top of the funnel; we have to keep pushing on both fronts to improve diversity in opera. Especially because everyone thinks that opera is such a, you know, stuffy and elitist artform, and in some ways it is. I think the more we can do to democratize access to it and break down these preconceived notions about what opera is and who is allowed to enjoy it, the better that we can open up the audiences. Getting it on film or streaming and all the stuff that's happening right now, maybe that's good for the artform because it's increasing access to it. The jury's out, but I guess we'll see...

And maybe if some kid of color somewhere out there sees you in Three Decembers that might spark something for them.

Yeah, exactly. That's the hope. It would mean the world to me if someone did get inspired by that.

Since this interview is for BroadwayWorld, I just have to ask if you would be up for taking on a musical theater role at some point. For instance, I think you could make a terrific Clara Johnson in Light in the Piazza or Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Yeah, I love musical theater, and I would absolutely love to play those roles. And now opera houses are producing more classic musical theater than they used to, which I think is great. Especially because opera singers are trained for unamplified singing, and a lot of those classic pieces were also produced that way. Even though Light in the Piazza is more modern, it still kind of requires classical training. And Opera San José is supposed to do West Side Story in 2021 as the last production of the season.

My foray into the performing world happened through musical theater. I was such a musical theater nerd in middle school and high school. I just was obsessed with Broadway and love it still. I've been in Sweeney Todd, Sound of Music, Man of LaMancha - so much fun. I absolutely love doing that repertoire. I also love the more modern repertoire, but I don't think my voice and my training really suits it, like I don't really have a great belt. [laughs]

What role did you play in Sweeney Todd?

I played Johanna, and they did not put me in a blonde wig, thank God! [laughs] That's an opera if there ever was a musical that was almost an opera. Oh, I love that show. Sondheim's genius!