It’s a good thing I am on time, because Milk & Honey, the little restaurant on Anapamu Street at which I have agreed to meet mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen, is closed on Sunday evening. She’s standing out front working her Blackberry when I walk up. She spots me right away, and even before I have a chance to say hello, she calls out in a deeper voice than I expect: “Are you Charles? I’m Nine-ah.” The pronunciation throws me a little off guard. Her name is spelled the normal way — N-i-n-a, as in “Neenah” — but obviously she prefers this other way of saying it. I make a note of that as I suggest that we cross the street and sit down for dinner and conversation at the nearby Hungry Cat, which is open.
Nelsen, a Santa Barbara native, will sing the role of Suzuki in this weekend’s Opera Santa Barbara production of Madame Butterfly. It’s a very important part, and one that Nelsen has, in the past few years, made a specialty, having sung the role in such illustrious houses as London’s Royal Albert Hall (2011) and with such prestigious companies as the New York City Opera (2010). Nelsen, who began her study of music as a violinist, has only been singing since she was 14. Now that may sound like a reasonably early start, but in the world of classical music, where prodigies are the norm and 12-year-olds routinely play rooms as big as the Granada, that’s considered late.
As we settle into dinner, Nelsen visibly unwinds, albeit with a Diet Coke. “When I’m back in Santa Barbara, I try to eat fish the whole time,” says Nelsen, who now lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with her husband, Jeff Nelsen, a top horn player and professor of music at Indiana University. Over diver scallops, Nelsen fixes me with her big brown eyes and relates her life story with the relaxed air of someone who is proud of what she has accomplished in life and comfortable with telling people how she got there.
“It all started at Santa Barbara High because I couldn’t get into this course that I wanted. I was a sophomore, and I wanted to take a certain class, but the only section of it that fit with the rest of my schedule was labeled ‘English as a Second Language,’ which I did not need.” Nelsen identifies strongly with her Japanese-American heritage — her father taught 6th grade at Cleveland Elementary School in Santa Barbara for many years, and Nelsen is intensely proud of her parents and the degree of culture they have attained. Her mother, who accompanies her on many of her tours, is an artist. “So I ended up in Music Theory, which I had no interest in at the time, but my teacher turned out to be Phyllis Zimmerman, and she changed my life.”
Zimmerman, the legendary choral conductor and voice teacher who died just a few weeks ago after a long battle with cancer, took young Nina Yoshida under her wing and began to introduce her to the advanced choral singing that she pioneered here with the a cappella group Canticle. Steven Sharpe, general director of Opera Santa Barbara, was another budding music professional whose life was altered by Zimmerman’s influence. He recalled, “While it was sometimes not easy singing with Phyllis because she was so demanding, in the end we learned so much more than just singing with her. She taught us how to approach life with reverence and respect. She taught us how to work for what we wanted, and to strive to be the very best we could be. Many of us ‘grew up’ in her classroom. Much of what I learned from Phyllis has guided me my entire life.”
Zimmerman may have put Nelsen on the track to singing, but it took another important figure in the Santa Barbara music scene to nudge her from the violin to giving it a go with just her voice. “Léni Fé Bland has a program that helps young musicians,” said Nelsen, “and the whole thing is very personal. Léni looks at you, and she can see your potential.” In the first round of support from the Fé Bland program, Nelsen was awarded funding for her study of the violin, but as she gained musical knowledge and experience while majoring in violin performance and psychology at Boston University, Fé Bland detected another aspect of her musicality that lay dormant.
“Nina came to me for a scholarship as a very young girl; I think she might have been 15 at the time,” recalled Fé Bland. “She came as a violinist, and I knew her father, who would come with her when she auditioned. She auditioned for several years as a violinist, and then we heard she was starting her voice training. The third or fourth time she auditioned as a violinist, I told her, ‘When you come next year, come as a singer.’ She did, and we were very impressed with her voice. It was a small voice, but we could see the potential. We thought she would make great progress, and she has blossomed! I was just speaking with Carrie-Ann Matheson (assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera) last week, who speaks very highly of Nina. I’m very fond of her; I’ve even seen her little baby.”
Back at the Hungry Cat, I ask Nelsen about her habits and the discipline required for singers to maintain “the instrument.” A wry smile lights up her face as she assures me that “I don’t really go for any of that stuff. I have other things to think about.” Nelsen is referring to her 2-year-old son, Rhys, who road-trips with his mom regularly. “Some singers might be thinking about their throats, but when I get to the city where I am going to work, I am looking for the nearest zoo,” she said. Nelsen’s husband teaches a course in defeating performance anxiety called “Get Fearless,” and it’s easy to tell that the singer belongs to that elite group of top musicians who can handle the pressure.
The Opera Santa Barbara production of Madame Butterfly, which comes to the Granada Theatre this weekend, brings one of the greatest examples of stage orientalism in history to life with an outstanding cast of internationally recognized singers. As Suzuki, the servant and confidante of Butterfly, Nelsen will sing some of the most purely lyrical music ever written. That she does so as a returning local hero, a young mother, and a testament to the legacy of both an extraordinary teacher and a prescient patron, makes the occasion all the more significant.
Opera Santa Barbara presents Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, November 2, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, November 4, at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.