Tahanee Aluwihare, AG24, knows art can be exclusionary. She’s pursuing a master’s in museum education to invite people in
Back in 2006, while other teenagers were watching High School Musical, Tahanee Aluwihare, AG24, was watching DVDs of great opera performances. She fell hard for Bach and Handel. Once you’re bitten by the opera bug, she says, “you’re infected for life.”
A mezzo-soprano, Aluwihare has performed major roles with opera companies across the U.S. and in Asia and Europe. She has been praised for her unique vocal timbre. Just as she reached her professional prime as an opera singer—which comes in the late 20s or early 30s, when a singer’s voice has fully matured—Aluwihare decided to exercise an additional muscle. She enrolled in the master’s in museum education program at Tufts, energized by her interest in making art more inclusive.
Raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aluwihare earned her B.A. from Mount Holyoke, where she majored in music and anthropology. Because opera singer didn’t seem like a job one could aspire to, she planned to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. But her music teacher arranged an audition for her at Longy School of Music of Bard College.
This episode in Aluwihare’s story could be plucked from Fame or Whiplash: She sang for a panel of judges and was offered admission on the spot. At the time, she assumed this was normal. “It is not a thing that happens,” she says in hindsight, laughing.
Movie moment aside, nothing about Aluwihare’s impressive career as an opera singer has been easy. The word opera comes from the Latin for “work,” referencing the finished product and the labor of creating it. Preparing a role can take half a year of immersive research. Aluwihare begins by reading the source material. Because she believes in the importance of understanding the languages she sings, she studies French, German, and Italian. Listening to the opera is her last step.
After months of preparation, she sometimes reaches a terrifying point in the process when she realizes she can’t remember any of the music. This moment is like a caesura: a sudden silence, and then the music comes back to her in full force.
Among the roles she has performed, her favorite role is the fierce and capricious Carmen in Bizet’s opera of the same name—a DVD she grew up watching.
“You can watch the same opera repeatedly over your lifetime and find new things to look at,” she says. “It’s like the paintings of Dalí.”
Art of a Different Kind
As her career took off, Aluwihare went to museums as a kind of meditation. There, she could be a spectator rather than the art on view.
In 2020, when the early pandemic altered the landscape of live performance—Aluwihare sang in a steampunk VR opera, Miranda, while wearing a motion capture suit—she had time to step back and trace her own movements. She realized something was missing. “There’s research and history that goes into singing a role, but at a certain point it’s very physical and instinctive, and the intellectual side takes a backseat,” she says. “I realized I wanted more of that part.”
Now entering her second year as a master’s student in museum studies at Tufts, Aluwihare is interested in creating new entry points for people to interact with art through a decolonized lens.
“There’s been a reckoning, similar to that in opera, that museums are exclusionary institutions,” she says. Aluwihare believes museums have a duty to acknowledge their own problematic histories and educate visitors, even when it’s uncomfortable. For museumgoers, she says the greatest value is in seeing one’s own communities and concerns reflected, rather than only seeing “what an expert thinks is beautiful or interesting.”
When asked about the perception of opera as an elite art form, Aluwihare says she doesn’t hope for opera to become as popular as film or musical theater. “Not everybody can be interested in opera,” she acknowledges. “Even in the early days of its inception, it was never an art form with mass appeal.”
She’s more interested in ensuring equity in the profession, so that everyone who wants to attend an opera can see their identities and experiences represented on stage. “That creates a personal connection,” says Aluwihare, that can otherwise be hard to forge amidst the grand scale of an opera house or museum. But this is the potential she sees in both spaces: “We can have that spectacle and intimacy together.”
Aluwihare balances her museum studies coursework with an international performance schedule. She is featured in a forthcoming documentary, Aria (2024), that follows the paths of four opera singers. While opera still takes center stage for Aluwihare, she hopes to work part-time in a museum after graduating.
Her life right now, like the mezzo-soprano voice, is all about range. She likes it that way.