Tharanga: Hitting the High Notes
For this world-class opera diva and visual artist with a yen for science, reaching for the stars is only the beginning.
Listening to a recording of famed opera star Kiri Te Kanawa for the first time roused a desire to sing opera within a 12-year-old Sri-Lankan girl. Little did Tharanga Goonetilleke know that she would one day become an international star in western classical music. She would rise to fame and grace world stages singing operatic works ranging from classical to modern by Mozart, Puccini, Ravel, Joplin, Offenbach, Handel, and others.
Tharanga has a full lyric soprano voice described as “magical” by The Washington Times and “appealingly rich” by The New York Times. Singing in character is a specialty of hers, by fully immersing herself into a character and giving it soul. Favorites include Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Genevra in Ariodante, and Mimi in La Bohème. Her lyric soprano voice has captured the hearts of audiences all over the world including her home country and has built a large following.
Tharanga has performed at some of the world’s top venues including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the New York City Opera. On stage, she has worked with world-famous composers, musicians, singers, and performers.
But among her most cherished achievements was a recent performance in Uganda. The African Prisons Project, a charity organization that brings dignity and hope to prison inmates across Africa, arranged the performance. Tharanga shared her music with over 3,000 inmates at Uganda’s Luzira Maximum Security Prison. She felt genuinely honored to perform and hoped that the audience might be inspired and compelled to dream. Perhaps her voice ignited a passion in someone’s heart in the same manner as Te Kanawa had to hers.
Artistic Expression in Pen and Ink
Tharanga founded TharangArt which combines her visual and musical arts. With this new take on artistry, she explores collaborations between different artistic disciplines. “It is challenging because most people don’t associate opera with visual art,” she says, but she is having success experimenting with this new creative venture.
Her interest in visual art started at an early age when she and her sister began to draw inspired by their mother’s artistic talent. Tharanga never received formal training in visual arts, but that did not stop her from continuing to self-express through her art.
A few years ago, Tharanga endured a traumatic injury which laid her up in bed for months followed by a difficult pregnancy. She had to cancel her prior professional engagements but was determined to keep preoccupied. Visual art became her outlet during this trying period and she settled in bed with pen and pad in hand and began to draw just for the fun of it. She ended up creating hundreds of beautiful works of art.
“I drew a lot of women, I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a woman, or if it’s because I have a lot of wonderful women in my life, my mom, my grandma, my sister, my friends,” she says. “No one told me what to do, I just went for it.” One’s first impression is that her art looks like doodles, but she developed her own style and every line is deliberate and placed with a purpose. Her work is mainly done in black and white and very detailed but they all have a pop of color somewhere.
She says, “I draw many human figures in my work and leave them colorless so that people from any part of the world could easily fit into and relate to any of the images as if they were from their own ethnicity and background.” Having a keen interest in neuroscience, she applies it to her artwork. “Most of my works have an obvious pop of color that stirs the imagination of the viewer to color the rest of the image in their minds, subconsciously.”
In 2017, Tharanga had a big opportunity to combine her love of music with her art. She was commissioned to paint portraits of five prominent women scientists who were from various parts of the world and in different scientific fields. The portraits were made to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Center for Women in Science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. She created portraits of pen and ink of the women and then performed a recital of songs to bring out their personalities. Her combined mastery of music with art was a hit and hailed as a huge success.
Tharanga has continued he pen and paper drawing and have now broadened her work even onto canvas in what she calls minimalist contemporary works of art.
More Than a Dream Come True
Born in Badulla, Sri Lanka, she led a sheltered life and grew up in Ratmalana —“growing up in a bubble” as she puts it. Her parents loved music and her mother, a piano teacher, taught her how to read music by the time she was four. A spark of artistic impression began to take hold of her amidst a climate of war in her nation between Tamil terrorists and the Sri Lankan government. She grew up in a slightly safer area but was still a witness to the violence. In 1998, Tharanga debuted her operatic talent with the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka after winning their Concerto Competition.
In 2000, fate intervened when a visiting American music professor Douglas Weeks touring as a concert pianist in Southeast Asia heard her lyrical voice during a rehearsal. He was so taken by her siren song, he took the pains to clear a path for her to attend Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. To her surprise, her parents agreed, breaking with traditional Sri Lankan norms and have been supportive ever since. Her plans to become a medical science professional were set aside and she seized the opportunity to fulfill her dream. The college awarded her a full scholarship and she earned a Bachelor of Music degree with a minor in Biology (a fallback in case music didn’t work out for her).
During her Junior year at Converse College, she became one of the district winners in South Carolina at the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions and the judges ( who also happened to be on the faculty of The Juilliard School, NY) urged her to apply to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. She was accepted into Juilliard in 2005 on a full scholarship. This was not only a personal feat for herself but also as the first Sri Lankan singer to do so. At Juilliard, she excelled and graduated with her Master of Music degree in Voice and Opera and her Artist Diploma for Opera Studies. ( Post Masters)
She goes on to spellbind audiences the world over performing over a dozen major opera roles so far. In 2015, Tharanga became a TED Fellow when she was invited to give her first TED talk in Vancouver, Canada. Since then she has also been invited to speak/perform at other TEDx conferences where she left the crowd awe-struck with her performance. In 2018, she attended TEDx Gateway held in Mumbai and wowed audiences once again. You can watch her TEDx Talk and beautiful rendition of O Mio Babbino Caro here….
Because of her achievements, she is the recipient of the President Scholarship of Sri Lanka. Tharanga was also awarded the Makiko Narumi Memorial prize by Juilliard and was honored as an Associate of the Trinity College of Music, London, England. She was named a TED Fellow in 2015.
Life Beyond the Bubble
She currently lives in Short Hills, New Jersey with her husband and two children. Recently she has been invited to record the theme song for The Glassworker, the first-hand drawn anime film being produced in Pakistan. She provides free master classes, workshops, and recitals when she visits her homeland as well as other parts of Southeast Asia and the United States.
She encourages people to go beyond their comfort zone and utilize their gifts to see how far they can go. She says, “If I don’t grow as a person, my art doesn’t grow. They are not independent of each other. I am learning all the time.” Indeed, she has not reached her limits in any of her endeavors.
Be sure to read our Q&A with Tharangafor more insight into her amazing life of. You can learn more about her at http://www.tharanga.yolasite.com/.
Article Cover Photo Credit by Erica Moffit of Naki studios