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San Diego-raised singer Priti Gandhi tapped to lead artistic job at Portland Opera

Priti Gandhi, photographed at Liberty Station in San Diego in 2018, is the new artistic director of Portland Opera in Oregon.
Priti Gandhi, photographed at Liberty Station in San Diego in 2018, was appointed artistic director of Portland Opera company in Oregon on July 21.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Born in Bombay and raised in Encinitas, Gandhi started her opera career 27 years ago in the San Diego Opera chorus

Back in 1994, Priti Gandhi auditioned for a job in the chorus at San Diego Opera. On Wednesday, July 21, the former chorus girl from Encinitas was appointed to the top artistic job at an opera company in Oregon.

Gandhi was named the new artistic director for Portland Opera, joining general director Sue Dixon at the 57-year-old company known for its progressive and boundary-breaking work. Gandhi’s role will include artistic and repertoire planning, casting, developing a resident artist program and directing the department that oversees education and community engagement programs.

Gandhi spent nearly 20 years as an opera singer before moving to the administrative side of the industry in 2013, when she spent five years as artistic administrator at San Diego Opera and the past three years as chief artistic officer at Minnesota Opera. Gandhi said this week it’s hard to imagine how that day in San Diego 27 years ago would change her life.

“When I decided to audition for the opera chorus so long ago, never did I think I’d end up walking the path that I found opening up,” she said. “But I know that all those years of being on the road, of being exposed to all the highs and lows that come with it, have given me the motivation to see what I can do, in my own way, to make my little corner of the industry better.”

Gandhi was born in Bombay, India, and moved to Encinitas with her family at age 3. After graduating from San Dieguito Academy High School in Encinitas, she studied communications, with a minor in theater, at UC San Diego. Gandhi thought she’d pursue a career in journalism, but during her sophomore year at UCSD she took some voice lessons for fun and was surprised when her teacher told her she had an operatic voice.

“When she gave me an aria to sing, it did something to me. I lit up from the inside and felt so crazy happy,” she said.

Gandhi, a soprano, went on to a professional career where she went from chorus singer, to youth ensemble member to principal singer for productions at opera companies throughout the U.S. and Europe. But when the recession struck in 2008, several opera companies went belly up and singer contracts dried up. When the opportunity to join the San Diego Opera staff came up in 2013, she saw it as a chance for much-needed stability.

During her years at Minnesota Opera, Gandhi said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to champion new operas like “The Fix,” about the 1919 White Sox baseball scandal, and the choral suite “Edward Tulane,” which was put on hold when the pandemic arrived. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota Opera was at the heart of the national reckoning on race last year after George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, just five miles from the company’s offices.

As a woman of color, Gandhi said she is honored to be part of the national dialogue the tragedy has opened up in many industries where minorities are under-represented, including the opera world.

“There are so many branches of this industry that are creating needed change to evolve not only how we do business, but why,” she said. “Every facet of that work is important, from re-examining the operatic canon, to tackling the walls and ceilings that have kept so many Black, indigenous and people of color out of these spaces.”

Gandhi said she’s excited for her new opportunity in Portland, where she will become one of a handful of women of color in artistic leadership positions at American opera companies. Portland Opera’s Dixon called Gandhi an “inspiring artistic leader” in a press announcement Wednesday morning, July 21.

“I am so excited to work with her as a collaborative partner to move the company forward, as we continue to realize Portland Opera’s mission in the community,” Dixon said of Gandhi.

As a former singer who experienced sexual harassment and emotional abuse within the industry, Gandhi said she wants to help create a space in Portland where artists feel supported and respected. She would also like to explore ways the company can provide a better life/work balance for its contracted artists. While she looks forward to the return of live opera, she believes the expansion into digital entertainment has expanded the opera audience nationwide and she’s curious about that market potential. But more than anything, Gandhi said she’s looking forward to learning from and listening to the creative team and audience at Portland Opera.

“There is still so much to learn about the company, and I’m really looking forward to the journey with them,” she said.


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