Sri Lankan Opera Singer Followed Her Dream To American Stage

A Sri Lankan soprano is shattering stereotypes. Tharanga Goonetilleke tells NPR's Scott Simon about being an opera singer and the first Sri Lankan woman accepted to The Juilliard School.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Kids in America can dream of becoming an opera singer and performing around the world. The odds are long, but talent, hard work, the right breaks - all of that could make it happen. But what if you grew up in Sri Lanka, off the coast of India?

Well, Tharanga Goonetilleke was discovered in Sri Lanka by a music professor who visited that tiny island in the Indian Ocean. The professor heard her sing, and soon after, he found a way to offer her a place at Converse College, which is in South Carolina. She abandoned her plans to study medical science in Sri Lanka.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

THARANGA GOONETILLEKE: (Singing).

SIMON: So no, you don't have to be a professor of music to know Tharanga Goonetilleke can sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

GOONETILLEKE: (Singing).

SIMON: She later became the first Sri Lankan woman ever admitted to Juilliard and has stayed in New York. There are few employment options for an opera singer in Sri Lanka. She joined us recently from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

GOONETILLEKE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What was the reaction of your parents when you, I guess - and maybe you didn't put it to them quite this way. But when you had that conversation where you had to say to them, well, maybe I won't be going into medicine. Instead, I'm going to go into show business, or music, at any rate.

GOONETILLEKE: Right. Well, first of all, we didn't even have the conversation about - mom, dad - may I leave? May I consider this option? I didn't even think that it was an option until my dad himself, to my greatest surprise, he said, well, looks like this is real, and what do you think? And I never expected my dad to say those words because I never even had stayed over at my friend's homes or anybody else's home. I was - I grew up in a very sheltered home.

I always was with my parents and my sister. And then he just said, you know, it was almost overnight, he said, well, if you want to give it a shot, maybe we'll both go together and check this place out. And also, it was a plus point that since the college that accepted me was a liberal arts school, I had decided that if I did go there, I'm going to take some classes in the sciences in case I have to fall back on something, you know. What if I didn't really like it after all?

SIMON: This - this was at Converse College, right?

GOONETILLEKE: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOONETILLEKE: So I did take a lot of classes, you know, calculus and biology and all these things. And I ended up with a minor in bio.

SIMON: You grew up in the middle of what has sometimes been a very, very bloody civil war...

GOONETILLEKE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...In Sri Lanka between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government. I gather you, yourself, are Sinhalese?

GOONETILLEKE: Yes, I am.

SIMON: What did you grow up thinking about that war and about...

GOONETILLEKE: I still consider myself one of the more fortunate Sri Lankans to have been growing up in a relatively safer area. But it was not like here, where the idea of war is not so much around you. Growing up in a place like that, you, I believe, learn to appreciate what it is to have that freedom of not being, you know, your ID's checked all the time when you're on the road. I mean, it's just like normal life for people who are there.

SIMON: So it's somewhat in your music now?

GOONETILLEKE: Oh, I think so. I - it's not, you know, black or white. But I think when you tap into emotions, there's no limit. And whatever experiences that you've been through, it's always accessible.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

GOONETILLEKE: (Singing).

SIMON: What are your dreams like now? What do you want to do?

GOONETILLEKE: In my personal life, I got married a couple of years ago. And I am a new mom. I have...

SIMON: Congratulations.

GOONETILLEKE: ...An 11-month-old baby girl. So I - when I say dream, I feel like people always tell me that, oh, it must be - you must feel like your dreams have come true because you're singing, and you have a beautiful family. It's all true. But the truth is that I didn't really dream any of this because, for some people, there are certain things that one cannot dream. You can't afford certain dreams. Like, if you to grow up in Sri Lanka, you're not going to dream as a 6-year-old or a 7-year-old, I want to be a opera star...

SIMON: Yeah.

GOONETILLEKE: ...Because you can't afford that dream because that's not an option within your grasp. So I consider myself to be fortunate beyond I could ever even imagined. But if you're willing, and if you're sincere with where your heart leads you, just follow it, and at least you'll be happy going to bed at night.

SIMON: Tharanga Goonetilleke from Sri Lanka. And she will sing at Mozart's "Requiem" later today in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Thanks so much for being with us.

GOONETILLEKE: Oh, thank you. Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

GOONETILLEKE: (Singing).

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