THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Juilliard-trained songbird Mariko Mukai Ando defied expectations

bioline_Greg Robinson(Editor’s note: The following article was co-written with Jonathan Van Harmelen.)

As part of a continuing series of “Great Unknown” articles on Japanese Americans in classical music, we now present the career of the operatic and concert singer Mariko Mukai Ando. After getting her start in Nikkei community circles in Seattle, she moved to New York, where she shined as one of the first Japanese American students at the renowned Juilliard School of Music. While her professional career was cut short by her marriage and wish to raise a family, she served as a symbol both of Nisei achievement and the union of art and progressive politics.

Born in Seattle in 1919 to Seizaburo and Sawayo Mukai, a Japanese immigrant couple, Mariko Mukai was the first-born of five children. As a young girl, she and her siblings — Frank, George, Lily and Henry — helped their father operate a series of movie theaters, as well as a bait and tackle shop located in Seattle’s “Chinatown.”

Mukai was recognized as a talented vocalist from an early age. She performed her first public concert at the age of 10, and continued training throughout her adolescence. She graduated from Garfield High School in 1937 (serving as salutatorian at commencement,) and then enrolled as a music major at the University of Washington.

In November of 1937, she sang a recital at Seattle’s century theater, mixing opera arias and lieder. In 1938, while at UW, Mukai appeared as Abigail in a Seattle Lyric Opera production of Karl Goldmark’s “The Queen of Sheba,” thereby becoming the first Nisei to sing grand opera in Seattle. Two years later, she took her first lead roles, as Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at UW’s Lyric Theatre and as Rosina in the Aeolian Society production of Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”

Mukai gained significant local attention as a result of these performances. On the basis of her excellence as a singer, the local newspaper Taihoku Nippō nominated Mukai for the national “Nisei of the Year” contest. Interestingly, in her recitals and operatic appearances, Mukai did not perform Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” the bread and butter role for Japanese American singers. In August of 1941, after she traveled to Los Angeles and sang in a Nisei Festival Week program, a critic in the Kashu Mainichi suggested that Mukai’s coloratura voice was more suited to the “gay, light arias of Mozart and Verdi” than to Puccini’s heroine.

In 1941, following her graduation from UW, Mukai was awarded a four-year scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. This represented a considerable endorsement of her talents.

She moved to New York to begin her studies. However, within a few months, her life was turned upside down by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the attack, Seizaburo Mukai was arrested by the FBI, and ultimately was incarcerated at a camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the duration of the war. The rest of the family was displaced from Seattle. Mukai’s mother and aunt moved to New York to join her.

Although spared mass confinement during the war years, Mukai and her relatives faced racial bias and housing discrimination in New York.

During her time in New York, Mukai was interviewed by Japanese American sociologist Charles Kikuchi for the Japanese Evacuation and Relocation Study. (Kikuchi was impressed by Mukai. While at first he described her as having an “Am I Good” attitude, he ultimately found her “delightful, nice looking, personable and intelligent.”) Kikuchi recorded in his notes that Mukai confessed her anxieties over choosing between marriage and a career. Even with her connection to Juilliard, she stated, it was difficult for her as a Japanese American to find gigs as a singer.

Despite the obstacles, Mukai persevered in her studies and performance. Her appearance as Blonda in a Juilliard production of Mozart’s opera “The Abduction” from the Seraglio in 1944 received a standing ovation from a packed house. Meanwhile, she began making appearances outside. Most notably, in December of 1943 and January of 1944 she performed a pair of joint recitals with instrumentalists at New York’s Barbizon Hotel. She became a regular choir member and soloist at Sunday church services at the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in nearby Scarsdale, New York.

Throughout this period, Mukai combined her artistry with political commitment. In November of 1944, she performed with African American tenor Pruth McFarlin at an interracial concert in Flushing sponsored by a local branch of the NAACP. She also associated herself with the antifascist Nisei activist group Japanese American Committee for Democracy. In June of 1943, she performed alongside Nisei violinist Kazuko Tajitsu at a “Resettlement Benefit entertainment” for new arrivals from the camps. In January of 1946, she performed in a playlet, “How Do You Spell Democracy?” at the JACD’s Rally for a Democratic Japan. In May of 1946 she performed at a joint concert with Kazuko Tajitsu at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall sponsored by the JACD. That same year, she made her radio debut in a non-singing role as a Japanese American in Philip A. Young’s antiracist play “Nine September,” alongside Fredi Washington, Canada Lee and Gene Kelly.

In April of 1947, Mukai achieved a peak in her career when she made her formal New York debut, in a recital before a packed house of 1,400 spectators at Town Hall. Accompanied by pianist Brooks Smith, she put together a program of songs and arias that included selections by Mozart, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and the modern American composer Paul Bowles. A New York Times review extolled her “exceptional charm, skill and intelligence” as both a coloratura and lyric soprano, and the “graceful ease” with which she moved from one operatic style to another.

In September of 1947, she married Tomomi Ando, a Texas-born Nisei World War II veteran. In the years that followed, she was forced to balance her professional career against an intense set of domestic demands, as the wife of a career Army officer and mother of four children.

After relocating to Denver with her family in 1955, Mariko Ando performed in Denver’s Tabor Grand Opera House as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Later that year, she sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mamie Eisenhower, and was congratulated by the president for an “enjoyable” performance.

In later years, she lived on several military bases in Baltimore and Seattle, before ultimately settling in Alexandria, Va. with her family. In September of 1962, she starred as Rosina in a production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” that was presented by the Arlington Music Theater. In later years, she sang in chapel choirs at Fort Myer, Va. She died on March 10, 2017, of respiratory failure and pneumonia.

Ando’s story is unique among the Nisei songbirds of her generation who embarked on musical careers. She trained at the renowned Juilliard school in an era when nonwhite students were exceptional there (trombonist Ferdinand Alcindor, Sr., father of future basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was one of the few others). Furthermore, Ando defied expectations by going beyond typical Japanese American roles such as “Madame Butterfly,” and refusing to sing Japanese songs. In her few appearances on the opera stage, she performed a variety of parts — in part because of her unique voice, which proved well-suited for both lyric and coloratura roles — and proved her versatility as well as her talent.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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