Rising Opera Star Melissa Sondhi Lands Lead Role In ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Soprano Melissa Sondhi and Joshua Sanders in Opera San José’s “Romeo and Juliet” playing Sept. 9–24 at the California Theatre in San Jose, CA. Photo: David Allen.
By REENA RATHORE
SAN JOSE, CA – Fueled by passion and perseverance, Melissa Sondhi is embarking on a new artistic endeavor. The Indian American soprano has landed her dream role in Opera San José’s production of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s the first leading role for the operatic talent who has steadily risen through the ranks, from a chorister to an emerging new classical voice.
Throughout her young career, she has continued to command the stage, charm audiences, and showcase her powerful and resonant voice via several featured chorus roles and as an understudy.
“With each succeeding show, I’ve slowly and steadily gotten bigger roles, always dreaming that my journey would lead me here one day,” Sondhi told India-West. “I am unbelievably excited about so many aspects of this opportunity, but what excites me the most is getting to share it with a community I love so deeply. The Bay Area has been my home base for the past eight years, and Opera San José has been an artistic home for me throughout those years. I truly cannot wait to tell this incredible story in one of my favorite places in the world surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world.”
A feast of impassioned French music, famous melodies, and a timeless story, “Romeo and Juliet” will be sung in French, with English and Spanish supertitles, Sept. 9-24 at the California Theatre in San Jose. The company opens its ambitious 40th anniversary season with an all-new production of this romantic love story directed by Shawna Lucey, the general director/CEO, Opera San José.
Sondhi, who has been rigorously rehearsing for her highly anticipated title role debut, shared that she does not take any role for granted and goes to great lengths while doing her research to better understand the composer’s thought process behind writing the opera. For “Romeo and Juliet,” that also meant studying the English translation of the French lyrics.
“You don’t want to just be singing the lines; you have to feel the character within yourself, it’s so important to truly understand the words before you are ready to perform and make the character your own,” Sondhi remarked. “Something that I find helpful is to write out my own version of what I would say as the character in each situation. Since Juliet goes on such an emotional roller coaster and evolves so much throughout the story, this was a particularly helpful tool to me throughout this process. I then worked on my vocal technique with my voice teacher for several months leading up to the rehearsal process.”
The Carmel, Indiana, native, who now calls Mountain View, CA, home, is also the first-ever Wadhwani Artist-in-Residence for the South Bay opera company as part of which she will make not one but three role debuts, including Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Rosalba in “Florencia en el Amazonas.”
“One of the things Opera San José feels passionately about is being an incubator not only for operatic talent, but also being a home for South Asian opera artists – from singers to designers to choreographers, and more,” Sondhi, who nurtures young talent as a vocal coach, told India-West. “They want our community to be connected to our performances…I am so honored to be the inaugural Wadhwani Artist-in-Residence this season. Through the help of this partnership, I feel I am growing in ways as an artist that is truly invaluable, and I know will really help me continue to prosper and thrive throughout my career.”
After hitting a career milestone and stepping into the spotlight, Sondhi is acutely aware of the challenges that artists of color face before arriving at this moment. Recounting the often-invisible obstacles, Sondhi said for a long time, she simply tried to ignore the fact that she was often one of very few people of color in the rehearsal rooms she worked in.
“I think it was an attempt to cope with the fear that the way I looked could potentially hold me back in my career one day. Over time, however, it became much more difficult to ignore. There are only so many times one can hear that they sing and act an aria beautifully, but they just don’t ‘fit the bill’ before it really starts getting to them,” Sondhi recalled to India-West. “I would often wear makeup that made my skin look lighter for auditions, and never really allowed myself to wear any of the Indian jewelry that I loved at risk of looking too different to place on stage in a predominantly white industry.”
But over the past few years, she has learned to truly embrace her brown skin, her dark eyes, and the darker bolder lip colors that she loves wearing.
“(It) has helped me mold a sense of self-worth and confidence that I’ve never felt before,” she stated.
Music has been a driving force for Sondhi from the age of nine. At home, she was exposed to a wide array of music early on, ranging from Bollywood to Broadway to rap, while her school gave her a variety of performance opportunities.
“I sang a lot of musical theater roles as a teenager, but as my voice developed, my voice teacher, who was a classically trained soprano, began to hear more of an operatic sound,” she recalled to India-West. “She gave me my first aria when I was 16 years old, and something clicked. It felt as though my big voice had finally found its home in the repertoire, and that my love for singing could know no bounds within the wide range of genres of classical music.”
In 2023, Sondhi won first place in the Adult Classical Voice category at the Los Angeles Semifinals of the Music International Grand Prix competition, making her a star to look out for.
Previously, she made her principal role debut with Opera San Jose, singing First Witch in “Dido and Aeneas” and Barbarina in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Her credits include Musetta in Puccini’s “La bohème” (San Francisco Opera Guild), Le feu and Le rossignol in Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges” (Air Opera Collective), Angelina in Arthur Sullivan and William Schwenck Gilbert’s “Trial by Jury” (Lyric Theatre of San José), and Giannetta in Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” (Pocket Opera).
Sondhi spent several years honing her craft, earning a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance and following it up with a master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
For more information or to purchase tickets ($55–$195): operasj.org or 408-437-4450.