By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the new Seattle Opera Center, a quote by the Opera’s founder, Glynn Ross, reads in part, “We are not custodians of the old order. We are not curators of establishment art. We must be oriented towards the future…” Not what one expects from what is often regarded as a highbrow art form reserved for upper-crust Caucasians. It’s time for Seattle to revise its perception of its hometown opera, and for Seattle Opera to broaden its reach to the AAPI community. Hong Chhuor, Seattle Opera’s new Associate Director of Development, is ready to help make that happen.
Chhuor’s childhood did not set him up to love opera. Part of a refugee family that fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, Chhuor’s parents were concerned with survival and a practical education for their children.
“I wasn’t able to do things like piano lessons, summer camp…,” says Chhuor. “I recognize that it’s not just a class thing. It’s also a race thing and an origin thing.
The focus for them…was that I would be able to focus on my education in hopes that I would have a better life than they had.” Growing up, Chhuor had little exposure to museums, or even pop music. Like many impacted by the “model minority” expectations, Chhuor, who is ethnically Chinese, thought the best career would involve math and science.
Yet, he loved stories. He didn’t yet know how much, or how important his own story would become. A visit from the Seattle Opera to Chhuor’s high school in Bellevue was a sign. Chhuor recalls, “This was a pivotal moment in my life where I was introduced to an art form, to a community, that it would have taken me another decade or two to experience.” A busy, exhausted student, with little knowledge at that time of what opera was, Chhuor’s first experience was mixed.
“I fell asleep,” he laughs. But opera kept coming into his life.
At Seattle University, Chhuor enrolled in the Honors Program, an intense academic tour of the humanities, and stories. Opera came in the form of a music class taught by Perry Lorenzo, the then-Director of Education at Seattle Opera.
“It was like this whole world had opened up that no one had bothered to invite me into before,” remarks Chhuor. Typically, lack of income and lack of exposure cause non-Caucasian populations to be underserved when it comes to the arts.
Lorenzo showed Chhuor how to imagine the story inside of a piece of music.
During an internship with Lorenzo at the Opera, Chhuor learned about donor relations and the connection of the arts to the community. He learned that we are each the authors of our own stories. It became clear Chhuor needed to rethink his educational path. Science and math no longer held the same appeal, so Chhuor decided to take charge of his story by earning two degrees — in history and business administration.
“If there’s any overlap between my business school world and my history, art, and music world, it’s that I’m focused on the power of stories,” he contends.
After college, and a preliminary stint in the world of finance, Chhuor spent a year in Bangkok. It was a breakthrough in his understanding of who he was.
“I have always had an outsider’s perspective because I wasn’t Cambodian, fully, I’m not really Chinese either, and I grew up in America.” Chhuor recalls being uncomfortable in his own skin as a youngster, speaking English loudly and clearly to emphasize his Americanness, and unwilling to demonstrate cultural traits at school. “I didn’t want to bring stinky fish [for lunch]. I wanted to bring a sandwich,” he recalls. “Thailand was life changing because for once in my life, I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything.”
Another overseas stay, this time in London working for an investment bank, allowed Chhuor to take advantage of London’s inexpensive access to cultural venues. Yet something was still missing. He returned to the United States asking himself, “Am I making a difference?” Volunteerism and nonprofits appealed, so he split his time between Global Visionaries, a group which empowers youth to become global citizens, and Seattle Tilth, who gave him his first job as a communications manager in the nonprofit world. But Chhuor realized, at no fault of Seattle Tilth’s, “I can only talk about chickens and bees and plants for so long.” His own story demanded attention. “I missed social justice aspects. I missed telling stories of true impact.”
It was then Chhuor began “living the dream” as a communications manager at Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS). At ACRS, Chhuor advocated for issues he cared about and improved himself as a fundraiser.
“ACRS in so many ways gave me the chance to grow as a professional and the chance to establish roots in my identity as an Asian American,” he says.
Fundraising would turn out to be the way Chhuor could help others tell their stories while supporting his own.
Flash forward to an ad for a job opening at Seattle Opera. The job description feels like it was written for Chhuor. And the timing was perfect. The Opera had just opened its new Opera Center, with dedicated space for community programming and education. Here was an opportunity to utilize his fundraising skills while promoting diversity and telling stories. Chhuor explains that with the new center, there will be “renewed focus on making opera more accessible to more people…the idea is that we invite other cultural organizations to partner with us and that we invite new and different audiences to come in and experience music, art, drama, opera.”
Seattle Opera made promising overtures when, prior to showing Madame Butterfly in 2017, they sought feedback from the AAPI community.
“It was amazing to me to hear that they were leaning into discussions that were uncomfortable,” recalls Chhuor. In his new position, Chhuor is confident he is in good company. “My colleagues are committed to the same thing, and we have folks of color at all levels of the organization, from director level to associate level.” Brainstorming sessions include discussion about cultural appropriation and equity. Now, with his extensive background in advocating for the AAPI community, Chhuor has a voice at what was historically a white-dominated table — and is no longer.
Seattle Opera is open to telling its stories to an expanded audience that includes Asian Americans. If the stories still seem unrelatable, remember they are almost always about “the other” — someone who does not at first seem to fit in. Someone who wants to eat fish instead of a sandwich. Yet someone whose integration into society makes everyone the richer, such as Carmen, the main figure in the opera now playing through May 19. As Chhuor discovered, we all have a right to our own stories. Chhuor has taken charge of his, and will help Seattle Opera tell theirs.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.