Robert Feng ’14 was a sophomore in the Academy when he attended his first opera, “Aida” by Giuseppi Verdi in 2012. Set in ancient Egypt, the epic opera is a delight for the eyes and ears. The teenage Feng was awestruck. “For me, it was the spectacle and the drama of it. The set was really incredible, and the acting was so believable,” recalled Feng. “But there was the closeness and intimacy that you don’t get from a movie, especially with the human voice being able to project over an orchestra. It affects your whole body when you watch it.”
That experience impacted Feng on a deeper level, as he witnessed the prowess of Native Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey perform. “Seeing Quinn, seeing other people that I could identify with, that look like me on stage, was really important,” said Feng. As an Asian-American artist in a business that’s predominantly Eurocentric, he is optimistic that inclusivity is in opera’s future. “That’s one of my goals, to help the next generation be able to see themselves on stage.” As a member of the Asian Opera Alliance, he has advocated for greater Asian representation of both creators and performers in opera.
Feng graduated from Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and is currently the Young Artist in Residence at Hawai‘i Opera Theatre. The two-year program has allowed him to bridge conservatory life with a full-blown professional career by working with teachers and coaches, participating in master classes and being part of stage productions and studio concerts. Most recently, Feng played the role of Papa, Mr. Makoto Kobayashi, in Hawai‘i Opera Theatre’s October 2023 production of “An American Dream,” an opera focused on two families from Washington state during World War II.
While the life of an opera singer is typically nomadic, the local residency has given Feng a rare opportunity to settle in, while living and working in Hawai‘i. It also allowed him to return to Punahou in September to offer a master class to five Academy students of his former Music School voice teacher, Cathy Goto. Each student was given the opportunity to sing one piece for Feng, who then offered his perspective – in words and song. “It was quite special for me to give back to the community, and really, to the studio that I grew up in and learned how to sing in. A lot of the students express their struggles with certain notes or phrases, but looking back, I had those exact same troubles, and I think that helps me be able to tell them that it’s going to be okay.”
As a bass, the 27-year-old’s voice is still developing and likely won’t reach its peak until Feng is in his late 30s or early 40s. “It’s a balancing game of being patient, knowing that there are certain roles that might be too big right now, but also still working on certain roles that might help me get there,” said Feng. “So what I can do now is explore all that my voice can do, and make sure that my voice is healthy enough and my technique is honed enough so that when I get to that point, I’m ready.”
Already on his list of dream roles are the villain Osmin from “Abduction from the Seraglio” – “a fun, buffo character that is very comedic and bombastic” and the devil Mephistopheles from “Faust” – “the most villain of villains.”
Could his 16-year-old self have imagined his journey thus far? “Not at all,” says Feng. “He actually wanted to be in a rock band, although I think he might have wanted some semblance of this. To anyone wanting to be an opera singer, I would say be kind to yourself because it is a long and difficult journey, but it is also a very rewarding one.”
– By Erin Teruya ’93 Kinney
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