UC Irvine Alumna Shabnam Kalbasi is a Rising Star on Classical Music Stages

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

A mezzo-soprano who excels in classical and modern repertoires, Shabnam Kalbasi has performed as a soloist in Los Angeles Master Chorale’s popular audience-participation concerts of Handel’s “Messiah”; in the world premiere of Juhi Bansal’s “We All Look to the Stars” with Los Angeles Opera; and in schools and community recitals as a teaching artist with LA Opera Connects. Just weeks before the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, she sang with the LA Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on “IVES: Complete Symphonies,” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, which won the 2021 Grammy for best orchestral performance.

You earned a bachelor’s degree in music from UC Irvine—how was your experience there?
I have to say that my audition at UC Irvine was really memorable. After I sang, I was with my parents and we were walking toward the parking structure, and Dr. (Darryl) Taylor was walking behind us. He caught up and said, “I wish you the best wherever you go, but I really hope you choose Irvine and I really look forward to working with you.” He put himself out there—such a cool thing to do. He became my voice teacher and probably my biggest advocate—so supportive of me.

What steered you into classical music versus musical theater or another singing style?
I started singing at age 8. Most of my teachers wanted me to pursue classical, even though I really loved musical theater originally. I think the voice is a funny thing. I don’t know if you have ever heard Julie Andrews belt, but I haven’t. Her beautiful voice is more suited toward the classical musical theater repertory and classical music. That’s what she does best. Kristin Chenoweth can belt. I’m not a belter. And that was something I realized. I’ve got a good ear, so I realized, yeah, this isn’t good; people aren’t going to like me if I sing (musical theater).

You’ve sung in English, but also French, German, and Italian. Do you have an ear for languages too?
Any singer who pursues classical music typically has to be well-versed in many languages. In college, you take diction courses. I like to say that if you were to give me a book in Italian or German, I could read it. I could pronounce the words. Obviously as a singer, you have to know what you’re singing about so you also study the text, the meaning, who the author was, what poems it’s coming from. There’s a lot of history and humanities in a music major for a singer. I don’t know if a percussionist or a violinist has to study the literary element of a piece the way that a singer does. We’re communicating not only the notes but the words we’re singing.

What’s it like to be a part of a Grammy-winning recording?
I don’t see this as my personal success. I’m just so lucky to be proxy to two institutions, the LA Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. How lucky am I to constantly collaborate with these two pillars of the arts community in California? Wow—to be a part of that, and get a Grammy? Cool! The Master Chorale only comes in in the fourth movement, probably in the last two minutes of the entire piece. So it’s funny when people congratulate me because I had probably 16 measures of a solo, which is really not a lot. Despite that, being conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and being among the top musicians anywhere, being able to see that was such a cool experience and I’m so grateful for it.

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