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Zeshan Bagewadi: A Young Indian American Takes Up Opera

Indian American Zeshan Bagewadi has experience singing in 11 languages and though opera is his main focus, he has trained in Hindustani classical music.

Zeshan Bagewadi is a 22-year-old Indian American tenor pursuing a Master’s degree in voice performance and literature from Northwestern University in Illinois. Already, he has performed at the Apollo Theater in New York, in Italy and the United Kingdom and has sung bhangra boliyan for Indian dance competitions in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Chicago. He has experience singing in 11 languages and speaks Italian, Urdu and Hindi. 

Though opera is his main focus, he has trained in Hindustani classical music under vocalist Nagarajarao Havaldar in Bangalore. He also works as a campus activist with the Inner City Muslim Network in Chicago, an organization that works for social justice and cultivates the arts in urban Muslim communities. In an interview with SPAN, he describes how his parents embraced his career path and the tough training required to be a top singer.

Why choose opera? Is your family musical?

My parents were not musically trained, but they sincerely appreciate music, and from a young age they encouraged my sisters and I to pursue it. For what it’s worth, my father is from the northern region of Karnataka, which is the birthplace of some of the greatest stalwarts in Hindustani music: Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, etc. My dad always enjoyed singing. So maybe there’s something in the water out there in northern Karnataka!

My [high school] choir instructor, Ross Heise, spoke with my parents and told them that I had a foreseeable future in opera and that I should get my bachelor’s degree in music performance. My parents were all for it. They were very supportive and encouraging, and I am eternally grateful to them for that.

Western classical music is a genre that has stood the test of time, and it will live on long after I’m gone. I believe that it’s my calling in life to do justice to the composer, to the very best of my ability. I know that may sound like some cheesy Hallmark card, but it’s genuinely how I feel.

How much training does one have to go through to be able to carry a significant role in an opera production?

First and foremost, you have to be musically sound. Second, you have to be dramatically sound. I like to compare the singer’s voice to a painter’s palette. The painter has a palette of different colors, and he uses them to paint the picture or create an effect. Similarly, the singer’s voice has different colors, and the singer must learn to use those different colors to bring out different human emotions: love, hatred, joy, sadness, fear, anger, etc.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I’m singing something sad and melancholy. When people cry, are they breathing properly? Probably not, right? They are more likely to stagger-breathe or even gasp. So then I go about finding how I can incorporate this aspect of sadness in my singing, while still singing the line properly. Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot of fun to do this. 

How are you perceived as an Indian singing opera? Are people surprised?

Oh, yes! People are definitely surprised...both Indians and non-Indians, but especially Indians. I can understand this, though. It’s because it is not the career path that desis would expect another desi to follow. The most common question I get from other desis is, “So did your parents support your decision?” Once I was even asked if they had kicked me out of the house. Well, the way my dad explained it to me was, “We have plenty of doctors. Do something different!” I’m considered by many to be a pioneer in this regard, because there aren’t any Muslim Indian opera singers in the field.

What influence does Indian classical music have on you? What are the differences in singing the two genres?

In 2007, I became a disciple of…a Hindustani vocalist from the Kirana Gharana,  Nagarajarao Havaldar. I went to Bangalore and studied with him, and for this, I received course credit from Northwestern’s School of Music. It was an unforgettable experience for me. I had been so used to singing Western music that was written hundreds of years ago, and learning it from a score, so it was completely different to learn Hindustani music, which is an aural tradition.

I’d say that the main difference in singing the two genres is the technique. In Hindustani music, the larynx is in a more natural, higher position, and in a concert setting the singer is almost always aided by amplification (microphones). This is in contrast to opera, where the throat is more opened and the larynx is in a lowered position. The result is a more full-bodied sound that can be heard through an orchestra, and there is seldom any amplification. 

Have you ever performed in India?

My guru had arranged for me to perform at an ashram in Bangalore. It was well attended and people were surprised that I had learned so much in such a short amount of time. I hope to perform in India again in the future...I would love to sing in a fully-staged opera there.... 

What surprised you the most when you started studying opera?

The sheer amount of coordination required to sing on stage. You have to build a solid singing technique. You have to know the music in and out. You’re playing a character. You’re in costume. You’re interacting with other characters on stage and telling a story. You have to be watching the conductor and be in sync with the orchestra. So many things you have to juggle when you’re up there!

But at the present time, for me, the most challenging aspect of all of this is solidifying my technique (i.e., breath support, placement of vowels, positioning of jaw and mouth, posture, etc.) Opera singing is no joke. If you sing with improper technique, or if you sing repertoire that is not right for you, you could ruin your voice faster than you think. 

Will I figure it out someday? Yes, inshallah. My voice is still very young, and it hasn’t fully matured, yet. And I can tell you that when I finally solidify my technique, it won’t stop there. The greatest opera singers of all time remained students for their entire lives. They continued to study and discover more about their voices, even when at the height of their careers, and I plan to do the same.


Sebastian John is an Indian journalist living in Washington, D.C.