Operas by AAPI Composers You Should Know

By Keegan Morris |

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Whether through reimagining classic myths with traditional instruments, or weaving unique storytelling into a new narrative, Asian composers are creating a rich and diverse operatic landscape. And in recent years, more operas than ever have been created by musicians from AAPI backgrounds. Explore the unique ways that folks of Asian and AAPI heritage are interpreting adding dramatic art form through the following opera selections.

Ueta Solomona: Jephathah (1972)

Ueta Solomona was a watershed figure in Samoan music. Born to a musical family, his father was the most famous Samoan composer of his day. First through guidance from his father and then self-teaching, Ueta became familiar with many orchestral instruments. Following a Fulbright Scholarship to study music (with a focus on Western classical music), Ueta returned to his homeland, where he was named a governmental Music Specialist. He took an active role in guiding music curriculum in what was then West Samoa, including teaching music over the radio. In 1972, he created the first Samoan opera, Jephathath, and he simultaneously set about to institute the country’s first symphony orchestra.

Toshiro Mayuzumi: Kinkakuji (1976)

Avant-garde composer Toshiro Mayuzumi’s opera Kinkakuji adapts Yukio Mishima’s quintessential 1956 novel of the same name. The novel fictionalizes the devastating 1950 arson of the Golden Pavilion of the Kyoto’s 14th-century Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto by a young monk.

Kawabata Ryūshi: Kinkakuji Temple on Fire, 1950

Mayuzumi created the opera (to a German libretto) for the Deustche Oper Berlin in 1976. According to Japanese theater director Amon Miyamoto, the music combines “energetic, German-style music” with traditional Buddhist chants. The opera was performed in Japan in 1991 and in the US (with an English libretto) in 1995. In 2015, director Miyamoto revived the opera with two performances by the NHK Tokyo; in 2018, it received seven performances by the Opéra National du Rhin in France.

Act III of Kinkakuji

Tan Dun, composer & Paul Griffiths, librettist: Marco Polo (1995)

Two voices embody the title figure in composer Tan Dun’s 1996 work. Well known for his award-winning score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Tan’s debut opera offers a fantastic meta-exploration of Marco Polo. In the Chinese-born composer’s work, the pair of voices — playing separately Marco and Polo — accompany a two-fold journey, one spiritual, and one physical, in the explorer’s travels from Venice to China.

An excerpt from Marco Polo

Michael-Thomas Foumai: Oedipus (2008)

Born in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Dr. Michael-Thomas Foumai is the first composer-in-residence of the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra. In this two-act work, Foumai weaves a tale of fate and responsibility through a cornerstone Greek myth. Foumai also wrote the libretto and conducted the premiere performance of his rendition of Oedipus, which was held at the University of Hawaii.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808

Asako Hirabayashi, composer & librettist: Yukionna (2014)

For this opera, composer and harpsichordist Asako Hirabayashi combined Japanese and Western musical forms for this operatic depiction of a popular Japanese folklore character. The Snow Witch, Yukionna, is a spirit who is often depicted as the embodiment of winter. She has inspired tales for centuries, and this interpretation distills many of those stories while also taking inspiration from the composer’s own life story.

Bright Sheng: Dream of the Red Chamber (2016)

This operatic undertaking is an especially ambitious one. Bright Sheng set his sights on a canonical work of Chinese fiction, an epic 18th-century text. The novel is rendered in depth through dozens of nuanced major characters and hundreds more supporting characters. Sheng’s English-language work (he produced the libretto alongside David Henry Hwang), had its world premiere with the San Francisco Opera in 2016. An LA Times review of the premiere notes that “Chinese folk tunes get transformed into rapturously expressive new music, gorgeously colored.” San Francisco Opera revived the title in 2022.

Bright Sheng

Miya Masaoaka: A Line Becomes A Circle (2017)

Miya Masaoka’s 2017 work pulls from poetry by influential 19th-century poet Shiki Masaoka, a distant ancestor of the composer. The libretto is in both Japanese and English, just one way in which the free-form work combines Western and Japanese art traditions.

Kamala Sankaram, composer & Jerre Dye, librettist: Taking Up Serpents (2019)

The Deep South-set works portrays the journey of Kayla, the estranged daughter of a charismatic and forceful Pentecostal minister and snake handler. The work premiered in 2019 in Washington DC, and in 2021, Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye presented an expanded version of the work at Chicago Opera Theater. In a 2021 interview with WFMT, the composer explained that the work samples a variety of sound worlds to “musicalize what faith might sound like.”

Leilehua Lanzilotti: Lili’u (in development)

Kānaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiian) composer Leilehua Lanzilotti’s forthcoming opera Lili'u looks to a pivotal figure in Hawai’i’s history. Queen Lili’uokalani was the last sovereign of the Kingdom of Hawai’i; during her brief reign, she sought to restore native enfranchisement at the expense of American interests, which culminated in a coup and the islands’ eventual annexation. She was also an accomplished composer, who wrote "Aloha 'Oe" and other works.


Set during Lili'uokalani's 1895 imprisonment, the opera dramatizes her confinement and her secret attempts to preserve native music and culture. The libretto will be in both ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi and English and will feature the leading vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. The completion is expected in 2025 and is funded by a grant from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.