The unheard story of Sri Lanka’s Operatic Nightingale -Kishani Jayasinghe
By: Rachithra Sandanayaka
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Kishani Jayasinghe
The name — Kishani Jayasinghe — rings familiar to many, particularly lovers of music and opera in Sri Lanka. Despite coming from “a very culturally full and very aesthetically filled” background, Kishani speaks of how, she grew up in a traditional country within a very academically inclined school environment, and how she never dreamed of growing up to be a singer or an artiste and went on to study to be an International Commercial Lawyer. She recalls how supportive her parents were of making the switch from law to music when she dreamt of venturing into the world of music after 2 law degrees and 4 years of law school. For her, the essence of her journey has resulted from the love and support from people around her. She explains that she has never possessed a single object that has been quintessential to her life — “it’s always been an inner strength and self-belief… a gift from my parents with their unconditional love, support and confidence that anything — everything — was possible and the presence and love of sincere, special people in my life…that has been the quintessential essence of life for me.”
Kishani was an all-rounder, and growing up, she represented her country in music and rowing, whilst still a schoolgirl. She was the first student to ever receive Rowing colours at Visakha. Three-time women’s rowing national champion, she was selected to represent Sri Lanka at the International Olympic Academy in Greece in 1996 and was subsequently invited to work for the IOA every summer for the next ten years. Kishani was the Sri Lanka Young Musician of the Year (Classical and Pop Vocal) at the age of 16 and won the Royal Overseas League Sri Lanka Music Scholarship to London in 1995. She was also the head girl of Visakha Vidyalaya (1996), leader of the choir, captain of the school tennis and debate teams and best all-round student in junior and senior school. Her family and school primarily influenced Kishani’s childhood. She fondly remembers how supportive her parents, brother and various educationists were at Visakha Vidyalaya of the unusual journey in her early life. Especially the principal during her time at Visaka — Mrs Edussuriya, deputy principal Mrs Sita Siriwardena and other senior academic staff such as Vajira miss and Lalitha miss who always supported her in the various ‘unusual’ activities she took part in during her school life.
Kishani’s music journey began from the cradle. Her father was a cellist and her mother’s family loved opera. “I was lucky, unusual as it was, we always had classical music playing in our home and there was always opera playing in the background when we went to my maternal grandmother’s house.” The ability to sing all the songs in The Sound of Music from the age of five, sparked her love for singing and eventually opera, which was further nurtured by musical giants like Mary Anne David (SL) and Pamela Cook (UK). The culmination of this interest into a career was yet to come; however, Kishani studied to become a commercial lawyer at the University of Nottingham and changed her path to pursue music as a career when she met Pam — “by a series of serendipitous accidents.” She was told about Pamela Cook by the then Head of Music of London’s Guildhall School of Music (one of the leading music conservatoires in England), Robin Bowman. He insisted that Kishani should take up singing when she performed a song at a summer music course, she attended ‘for fun’. Her immediate response was, “oh, no, I’m a lawyer, I can’t be a singer. I’m sorry. I’m a Sri Lankan; what would I do with being a classical singer?” Three years later, Kishani found the piece of paper given to her with Pam’s number as she was packing up to leave following the completion of her degree. One three-hour train ride later to meet Pam, followed by her masters degree in law whilst training to audition for music school, and her journey as an opera singer began with a full scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
It is not easy to be a female singer in Sri Lanka, let alone a female opera singer Kishani reminds us, she had many challenges to push through. Particularly being a brown coloured singer in a predominantly white professional industry, having to audition for traditional European looking roles in opera, meant having to work extremely hard. One of the biggest challenges perhaps came following the backlash resulting from her rendition of Danno Budunge at the 68th Sri Lankan Independence Day ceremony at Galle Face Green. After almost 17 years of living in England, Kishani was thrilled to be back home, and more so, to be invited to do this performance. “I remember the preparation that I put into it not only musically, but in terms of how to present myself and what to wear, it had to be a saree, being my national dress…I thought so carefully…even down to what colour my saree should be, to truly represent Sri Lanka” she recalls. It was essential to her that she brought out the importance of Danno Budunge for the nation. “I put a lot of thought into how to present it…it needed to be regal and respectful, knowing the importance this song held in our culture…to our people… and then this came.” The backlash left her quite stunned. Some people went as far as to question if she was a foreigner, as she sang in a foreign art form, and therefore if she even had a right to sing or perform it. In hindsight she felt there may have been political motivation behind it, especially at the outset, as there was ferocious criticism in the newspapers and especially on social media, where it went viral, reaching Sri Lankans all over the world.
But, as every cloud has a silver lining, soon after, came the unbridled support…there was a tremendous rallying of people and fellow artists who showed her solidarity and support and gathered around, culminating with the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka — “Then suddenly, the other side came out and people who I never expected to, stood up for me…I found support in the most unbelievable people and places … such revered musicians who came out in support of this, along with intellectuals and academics and they brought facts and figures, supported the beauty and importance of musical creativity and said, first of all, this girl is one of ours,” she remembers. After four weeks of the media onslaught, she wrote an article — her side of the story, “My Experience of Independence” — which the leading national newspapers published. Thus came a surprising turn of events where many people — including critics — reached out to her with such positivity.
“Solidarity for me is just a belief in the strength and power of people. It’s believing, trusting and empowering your fellow human beings to stand together — whether they’re male or female, young or old, fortunate or unfortunate” she says and recalls her biggest allies who have shown much solidarity and strength throughout her life. Speaking fondly of her husband, Kaveenga Wijayasekara, she muses, -“he’s my true North. He’s my guiding star because he puts everything into perspective and just understands and supports me, in whatever I do and whoever I choose to be. ”. And of course her parents, she says “they are the reason I am who I am.” Kishani is surrounded by a fantastic troop of solid people — “My Tribe” she calls them, who have been the bedrock of her life no matter the circumstances. Her K Family (husband Kaveenga, son Kiaan and daughter Kitaara) collective parents, siblings, sisters of her heart, trusted friends and musical colleagues and treasured students.
Kishani has been able to change certain norms people have about different types of music in Sri Lanka. She established the Colombo Opera Company to further opera in Sri Lanka, and held the inaugural Colombo Opera Festival, in 2019 in partnership with the ROH Jette Parker Young Artistes Programme (JPYAP) and in collaboration with the Arts Council of Sri Lanka, Colombo Municipal Council, Chamber Music Society of Colombo, British Council and the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Sri Lanka. In additional to performances with international artistes and free admission to students from around the country, it offered free vocal masterclasses with the artistic director of the JPYAP, Maestro David Gowland. Being a female opera singer in the country itself speaks of an unprecedented change that she has brought into the community. She sings in ten languages, was the first ever Sri Lankan and South Asian soprano to perform as a soloist at the prestigious Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2006, and the only South Asian soprano to have won 6 international vocal competitions in Italy, France, Spain, Holland, Turkey and Finland. She has also appeared in productions together with many international singers whilst she was a Young Artiste. Kishani was invited to perform for HRH Prince Charles’ 60th Birthday celebrations at Buckingham Palace and was presented to HM Queen Elizabeth II as a commonwealth representative for the Arts.
The girl who was an all-rounder in school while working hard in shaping up her journey of becoming a celebrated opera singer globally is extraordinary and inspiring. It is undoubtedly an unusual path for a female Sri Lankan artist. In her own words, “In terms of change, I think I’ve been able to broaden that perception of the classical arts as a profession and also break the stereotype that one can’t be a traditional Sri Lankan woman and also do something SO unusual…do something special..that you can have a family and follow a dream.” Her hope for the future is to bring more opera to Sri Lanka and create more opera with a local flavour in Sri Lanka, whilst discovering, nurturing and encouraging young singers, through her School of Voice. Kishani is an incredible woman who has changed the course of musical history in Sri Lanka. She firmly believes that there’s no substitute for hard work and that you should never be afraid of doing anything … ESPECIALLY because you are a woman.- I was born a Jayasinghe — a victorious lion and have since added Wijayasekara — a victorious ray of light, a truly blessed combination! “Strong, compassionate and brave women are the bedrock of any society…of any home. I learned that from my mother. She is fearless. — I like to think she taught me well”
(Rachithra Sandanayaka works as the Finance and Admin manager at Everystory Sri Lanka and is also coordinator of the Young Feminist Network run by the organisation. As a music and theatre enthusiast with a love for number-crunching and a fascination with the willingness of younger generations to learn about sensitive topics, Rachithra’s work at Everystory Sri Lanka — highlighting alternate or marginalised narratives, fits in perfectly with her passions.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
- Kishani Jayasinghe, Operabase.com, https://www.operabase.com/artists/kishani-jayasinghe-9785/en
- Kishani Jayasinghe, July 31, 2018 by Rochelle Gunaratne
- My Experience of Independence, The Sunday Times, 6th March 2016 https://www.sundaytimes.lk/160306/plus/my-experience-of-independence-185296.html
- Danno Budunge vs. the Warring Mind, Dailynews, 7th March 2016, https://www.dailynews.lk/2016/03/07/features/danno-budunge-vs-warring-mind
- Kishani Jayasinghe’s live performance of Dhanno Budunge on 4th February 2016
- Kishani Jayasinghe performs Mozart in Finland in 2009
- Kishani Jayasinghe on GMSL, MTV Sri Lanka (Youtube Channel), 3rd January 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDWq9pEaHTI
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