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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Hitting the High Notes
Priti Gandhi, ’94

by Anna Ritner


Priti Gandhi’s parents must have had a “moment” when they realized just how apt a name they had chosen for their oldest child.

The Sanskrit name Priti, meaning “unconditional love,” achieved a whole new level of meaning when their daughter informed them near the end of college that she would like to become an opera singer. It was certainly not what her traditional Indian parents had expected she would choose as her career.

Although Gandhi spent her first two years at UCSD studying broadcast journalism, she readily admits that she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Then, in her senior year, she opened the lid to the music box. In an attempt to escape the monotony of paper writing she began taking voice lessons, proving to college students everywhere that procrastination really does work.

“ When my voice teacher first told me I had an operatic voice, I laughed at her—I thought it was insane!” Gandhi declares with wide eyes, as if a tiny part of her may still not believe it. But her teacher handed her an aria and urged her to try it. “It was as if a light had turned on inside my chest,” she says. “I never knew I could feel that way.”

Although opera may have been love at first sight-reading for Gandhi, her parents did not initially swoon over the new tryst. Natives of Bombay, they had moved Priti and her two younger siblings to Encinitas when she was three. The fear of losing their own culture in the melting pot was a legitimate concern for them, she recalls, and opera was certainly not part of their culture. After all, she asks, “How many Indian opera singers are there in the country, honestly? Maybe four!” But for Gandhi, who considers her traditional spiritual practices to be an integral part of her success, the only “loss” she endured was her inhibition. “Growing up, people always told me ‘don’t talk so loud.’ Maybe it’s no wonder I wanted to be a singer so I could get up there and express myself!”

And that is exactly what she did, with zero experience and uninhibited curiosity. “I walked into the career center on campus and said ‘Hi, my name is Priti Gandhi and I’m thinking about becoming an opera singer, but I’m not really sure what’s involved.’”

Needless to say, neither were they.

Not having received a surplus of such inquiries, the career center promptly directed Gandhi to Ian Campbell, the general director of the San Diego Opera. The result was that Gandhi got a job working at the San Diego Opera’s ticketing office, and started hanging out backstage at rehearsals while she continued with her voice lessons.

Although she did not have the formal, conservatory education of many aspiring singers, Gandhi’s early experience in San Diego gave her a unique, practical edge. “I learned about the business side as well as the artistic side,” she says. “And I am so blessed to have had that.” After two years at the opera house she became part of the chorus as well as the young artist’s program, and then finally Campbell hired her for her first, main stage role and adopted her as an artist.

Gandhi’s first major break came in 1999, when she performed Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at Lyric Opera Cleveland. She says she remembers being very nervous, mostly because she had no idea what to expect. She was overwhelmed by the amount of music she had to master in a short period of time, and unnerved by the sheer number of singers surrounding her amid long and sometimes tedious rehearsals.

Yet throughout all the confusion she remained immensely excited. “I was like, they pay me to sing?” The folks at the career center must have forgotten to mention that.
Though she still calls San Diego her professional home, Gandhi, now 33, has performed nationally and worldwide with such noteworthy companies as Seattle Opera, Austin Lyric Opera and Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova. She’s also received numerous awards, as well as critical acclaim praising her as the next exceptional new voice on the opera circuit.

One of her favorite performance venues on that circuit is the impressive new Dayton Opera in Ohio with its magnificent acoustics. She also loves the smaller European houses, especially the Estates Theater in Prague and Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris. They tend to be smaller, and therefore acoustically superior, so they are healthier for a performer’s voice.

“When you’re singing in the bigger houses you have to make sure you’re making healthy choices and singing the right repertoire,” she says. In Gandhi’s case, this means sticking to her mezzo-soprano roots (the voice type below a soprano and above a contralto). The Rossini coloratura, in particular, is a specialty of Gandhi’s. “It was a dream come true,” she says of her first title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Lyric Opera San Diego in 2006, “because I was singing something that was so vocally right for me.”

Besides singing healthfully, Gandhi had to change her lifestyle, trading in late nights in smoky rooms for a good science-fiction book and a full eight hours of sleep. But it was a difficult adjustment. “There are days I wish I could take this voice box out and leave it at home so I could go enjoy myself,” she says. “But I constantly have to think about those things and it makes me the most boring person ever!”
Gandhi, who now lives in Santa Monica, balances a very non-boring schedule of voice lessons, auditions and performances, not to mention yoga classes. She is a certified yoga instructor who spends much of her time teaching opera apprentices what she believes to be an indispensable spiritual tool for wiping away what she calls the mud of life—all the pressures that inhibit people in creative fields. “Plus,” she adds with a smile, “I seem to be pretty good at it. I guess it’s another happy accident in my life.” She also stays balanced by maintaining a network of friends and family and kicking back with two or three nights of salsa dancing a week.
Since graduating from UCSD, Gandhi has returned to the La Jolla Symphony Chorus as a soloist, and she’s also sung with faculty members like Carol Plantamora and Philip Larson. “If you would have asked me back then if I would be working with them in the future I would have laughed!” she says.

Most recently, Gandhi has performed as Varvara in Leos Janacek’s opera Kat’a Kabanova, as Silvia in Mozart’s Ascanio In Alba in Mexico City, and with the Tulsa Opera in Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince.

For current and future UCSD students pursuing a career in the arts, Gandhi imparts some well-considered advice. “Don’t be afraid. Even if you don’t feel like you know everything, a little naiveté is good. It keeps you positive; it keeps your eyes wide open.”

Anna Ritner is a freelance writer living in the Sacramento area.


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