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Asians Are Represented in Classical Music. But Are They Seen?

As reports of anti-Asian hate crimes spread in the United States earlier this year, David Kim, a violist in the San Francisco Symphony, found himself despondent.

Kim, who is Korean American, was already disturbed by what he saw as widespread racism in classical music. He believed Asian string players were marginalized and treated “like cattle,” as he put it recently. “Like a herd of mechanical robots.”

And he felt his white colleagues in San Francisco, who make up 83% of the orchestra, did not share his urgency about building a culture more welcoming to Asian, Black, and Latino players.

Feeling isolated and angry, Kim, 40, began to question his career. In March he resigned as the sole musician of color on an orchestra committee focused on equity and inclusion. And after the ensemble resumed live performances in May, he took time off, feeling on several occasions too distraught to play.

“I felt invisible, even though I was speaking very loudly,” Kim said. “I lost my passion for music.”

By some measures, artists with roots in China, Japan, South Korea, and other countries are well represented in classical music. They win top prizes at competitions and make up a substantial share of orchestras and conservatories. Stars like Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Japanese American violinist Midori and the Chinese pianist Lang Lang are among the most sought-after performers in the world.

Yet the success of some Asian artists obscures the fact that many face routine racism and discrimination, according to interviews with more than 40 orchestra players, soloists, opera singers, composers, students, teachers, and administrators.

Asian artists encounter stereotypes that their music-making is soulless and mechanical. They are portrayed as exotic and treated as outsiders in a world with its main lineage from Europe. They are accused of besmirching cultural traditions that aren’t theirs and have become targets of online harassment and racial slurs.

While artists of Asian descent may be represented in classical music, many say they do not feel seen.

“You’re not always allowed to be the kind of artist you want to be,” said Nina Shekhar, 26, an Indian American composer who said her music is often wrongly characterized as having Indian attributes. “It feels very invalidating.”

The number of Asian soloists and orchestra musicians has swelled in recent decades, even as Black and Latino’s artists remain severely underrepresented. But in other parts of the industry, including opera, composition, conducting, arts administration, and the boards of leading cultural institutions, Asians are scarce. A lack of role models has exacerbated the problem, artists say, making success in these fields seem elusive.

“At times, you feel like an endangered species,” said Xian Zhang, the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Zhang is one of a small number of Asian female conductors leading major ensembles.

Zhang, who is Chinese American, said she has at times had difficulty persuading male musicians to take her seriously, including during appearances as a guest conductor in Europe. “They don’t quite know how to react seeing an Asian woman on the podium telling them what to do,” she said.

The recent rise in reports of anti-Asian hate has aroused calls for change. Musicians have formed advocacy groups and have called on cultural organizations to add Asian leaders and to more prominently feature Asian artists and composers.

But classical music has long been resistant to evolution. Deep-seated stereotypes about Asians continue to surface. In June, eminent violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman was widely denounced after he invoked racist stereotypes about Asians during a Juilliard master class. He later apologized.

Even some of the industry’s most successful artists say a climate of casual racism has affected their careers. Sumi Jo, 58, a renowned coloratura soprano from South Korea, described having several roles rescinded because stage directors thought she was not white enough.

“If you’re Asian and you want to be successful,” she said, “you must work 100 times harder, that’s for sure.”

Battling Stereotypes

Artists of Asian descent have long been the subject of racist tropes and slurs, dating back to at least the 1960s and ’70s when musicians immigrated to the United States from Japan, Korea, and other parts of East Asia to study and perform. A 1967 report in Time magazine, titled “Invasion From the Orient,” reflected the thinking of the era.

“The stringed instruments were physically ideal for the Orientals: Their nimble fingers, so proficient in delicate calligraphy and other crafts, adapted easily to the demands of the fingerboard,” the article said.

Over time, Asian artists gained a foothold in orchestras and on the concert circuit. By 2014, the last year for which data is available, musicians of Asian descent made up about 9% of large ensembles, according to the League of American Orchestras; in the United States, Asians represent about 6% of the population. In renowned groups like the New York Philharmonic, the number is even higher: Asians now account for a third of that orchestra. (In Europe, it’s often a different story: In the London Symphony Orchestra, for example, three of 82 players, or less than 4%, have Asian roots, while Asians make up more than 18% of London’s population.)

Yet racist portrayals of Asian artists have persisted. Some have been told by conductors that they look like computer engineers, not classical musicians. Others have been described by audition committees as too weak and youthful to be taken seriously. Still, others have been told their names are too foreign to pronounce or remember.

“You get written off as an automaton,” said Akiko Tarumoto, the assistant concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Tarumoto, 44, who is Japanese American, said that musicians of Asian descent in the Philharmonic are sometimes mistaken for each other, and in other ensembles, she had heard fellow musicians refer to new hires simply as “Chinese girls.”

Celebrated soloists have tried to turn the stereotypes on their heads. Lang Lang has said that his embrace of an exuberantly expressive style may have been in part a reaction to perceptions that Asians are cold and reserved.

Yuja Wang, another Chinese pianist, has tried, with mixed success, to satirize the stereotype of Asians as robots, which scholars attribute partly to misconceptions about the Suzuki method of teaching music. (It originated in Japan in the 1950s and was criticized in the West for producing homogeneous musicians, but remains in wide use, including among non-Asian students.) In 2019, Wang joined a comedy duo for a contentious concert at Carnegie Hall that was filled with crude jokes about her sex appeal and Chinese heritage.

Wang, 34, said in an interview that early in her career she faced stereotypes that she was technically adept but emotionally shallow. “I didn’t like how they just categorized us and pigeonholed us,” she said.

While she said she has rarely experienced overt racism, Wang said she has at times felt like an outsider in the industry, including when others mispronounce her name or do not appear to take her seriously.

Other prominent soloists have been reluctant to speak publicly about race. Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, and the star pianist Mitsuko Uchida declined to comment for this article.

Zubin Mehta, 85, an Indian-born conductor who is a towering figure in the field, said he had never experienced racism and did not believe the industry discriminated against Asians. He said he had “complete sympathy” for those who felt they were mistreated, but that he was not aware of serious problems.

Ray Chen, a Taiwanese Australian violinist who has built a wide following on social media, said that audience members have expressed surprise that he can play Mendelssohn and other composers, saying that music is not in his blood. While he believes there is less discrimination now, he said he struggled to get opportunities in Europe earlier in his career — in part, he felt, because of his Asian heritage.

“People get offended that you’re not adhering to the rules, the culture,” said Chen, 32. “This is something that’s so wrong with the classical music industry: the fear of something new.”

Female artists of Asian descent say they face additional obstacles, including stereotypes that they are exotic and obedient. Soyeon Kate Lee, 42, a Korean American pianist, said a conductor once described her in front of other orchestra leaders as “cheap and good” and suggested she perform a lap dance.

Xenophobic suggestions that Asians are taking away orchestra jobs or spots at conservatories are also common. Yuka Kadota, a violinist for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, said Asian musicians are seen as “some sort of invasive species, like carp or murder hornets.”

Kadota, 43, who is Japanese American, said she felt “self-conscious and slightly apologetic” during a recent performance of a Brahms string quintet because four of the five players were women of Asian descent.

“I don’t want people to think we’re taking over,” she said.

A Dearth of Asian Artists

Even as people of Asian descent make strides in orchestras, they remain underrepresented in many parts of the music industry, including conducting, composition and opera.

“I try to accept rejections as part of my reality,” said the conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and the incoming leader of Recreation — Grosses Orchester Graz in Austria.

Chen, 48, who is from Taiwan, said donors had canceled meetings and presenters had withdrawn performance opportunities after learning she was Asian. “I had to have a thick skin to come this far,” she said.

Arts organizations have in recent years vowed to feature works by a wider range of composers. But artists of Asian descent say that aside from concerts to celebrate holidays such as the Lunar New Year, they have largely been left out.

Works by Asian composers comprise about 2% of pieces planned by American orchestras in the 2021-22 season, according to an analysis of 88 orchestras by the Institute for Composer Diversity at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

The dearth of Asian artists is particularly striking in opera, which has long struggled with a lack of racial diversity. At the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in the United States, 14 of 233 singers announced for principal roles next season, or about 6%, are of Asian descent. Four appear in the same production: an abridged holiday version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Asians make up about 14% of New York City’s population.)

There are now a large number of Asians in important conservatory vocal programs; the Manhattan School of Music said that 47% of the students currently in its vocal arts department are of Asian descent. But they are not anywhere close to that well represented on opera stages.

Nicholas Phan, 42, a tenor of Chinese and Greek descent, said Asians tend to be seen as technically precise yet artistically vacuous. A teacher of Phan’s once told him he should adopt a non-Chinese surname so that competition judges and casting directors would not view him as “just another dumb Asian singer.”

When Asians win spots in opera productions, they are often typecast in roles such as Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly” or the titular princess in “Turandot.” Those classics have been criticized for racist portrayals of Asians — though the prominent soprano He Hui, who is Chinese, said she loved singing Butterfly, one of her signature parts.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, a mezzo-soprano, said that of more than 180 performances she had given in the past decade, only nine were in roles that are not considered stereotypically Asian.

“My success has been predicated on my tokenization,” said Nelsen, 41, who is half Japanese. She wrote a Facebook post in March calling on others to “stop seeing my color and the shape of my eyes as something different — something to ‘typecast.’”

Within a week, Nelsen said, she had three offers, none of them for stereotypical roles.

Pushing for Change

“It’s time for us to speak up and not be afraid,” said Sou-Chun Su, 53, a Taiwan-born violinist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 1990. It was difficult, he said, to get leaders of the orchestra interested in concerns raised by Asian players until six people of Asian descent were shot and killed in Atlanta in March, which prompted widespread outcry.

“It shouldn’t have taken something like that,” Su said. (In a statement, the orchestra said it was working to build a more inclusive culture, though it acknowledged “we have much more to do.”)

Hyeyung Yoon, a former member of the Chiara String Quartet, last year founded the Asian Musical Voices of America, an alliance of artists, because she felt performers of Asian descent had no forum to discuss issues of racism and identity. The group hosts monthly meetings on Zoom.

Yoon said cultural institutions often exclude Asians from discussions about bringing more diversity to classical music because they are assumed to be adequately represented. “The Asian experience is hardly present,” she said.

Some artists have taken to social media to challenge their employers. Miran Kim, a violinist of South Korean descent in the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra, recently wrote on Twitter about her “exhaustion and frustration” playing works with racist caricatures, such as “Madama Butterfly.” She also criticized the Met for selling a Butterfly-themed sleep mask described as evoking “exotic elegance” and mimicking “the alluring eyes of an Indian princess or Japanese Geisha girl.” (The mask was removed from the online store and the Met apologized.)

“We’re not included,” Kim, 31, said in an interview, referring to the lack of Asians in leadership positions. “We’re not part of the conversation.”

There have been some signs of progress. San Francisco Opera will next month welcome Eun Sun Kim, a South Korean conductor, as its music director, the first woman to hold such a post at a major American opera company.

Yet significant challenges remain. David Kim, the violist at the San Francisco Symphony who is questioning his career, said he has grown tired of clashing with colleagues over issues like the tone of public statements on racism. He also feels the orchestra does not do enough to feature composers of color.

Kim, who has played in the ensemble since 2009, said he is grappling with a sense of loss after realizing that his work as a classical musician no longer aligns with his values. “I’m not proud of being a part of an industry that is so self-unaware, that’s so entitled and has so little regard for social justice,” he said.

He says he believes the change will not come until classical music — “racism disguised as art,” he called it — reckons with its legacy of intolerance.

“On the surface, Asians are accepted in these realms of orchestras, ensembles and as soloists,” Kim said. “But are we really accepted?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Thomas Huliambari


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