Terrible news: Wonderful countertenor dies, aged 49

Terrible news: Wonderful countertenor dies, aged 49


norman lebrecht

April 18, 2016

Family and friends are reporting the death of Brian Asawa, a dazzling countertenor who in 2014 set up a management agency for opera singers. Brian was 49, or possibly 50.

The report says he passed away today at 12:42 pm surrounded by his loving family.


asawa died


Three years after a 1991 debut in San Francisco, Brian became the first countertenor to win Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition. He went on to sing at the Met, Covent Garden, Paris, Brussels, Munich and other major houses.

A friend said of him tonight: ‘Wonderful, wonderful talent. The most dedication you can imagine. Generous to a fault.’


brian asawa


  • Laura Claycomb says:

    Brian was 49, and would turn 50 this October, if I’m counting right. He is missed dearly by his friends and family. The outpouring of love and sorrow on social media was been overwhelming. As all of us, he had his faults, but made up for it in generosity of spirit, his infectious zest for life, and unwavering friendship. We loved him so.

    • CR says:

      What kind of a cheap tribute talks about him having ‘faults?’ Seriously?

      • Brenda b. says:

        “Generous to a fault ” is a compliment…

        • Alexander says:

          But Ms Claycomb didn’t say, “generous to a fault”, she said, “As all of us, he had his faults, but made up for it in generosity of spirit”.

          • Marya Berry says:

            Why even say such a thing about a wonderful, sweet artist whose charm was overwhelming, on & offstage & who had just died? What ulterior purpose was that supposed to serve? I met him after his Britten Oberon in Lyon (France). He was fabulous. THE most beautiful counter tenor I’ve ever heard. How I miss him & miss hearing that voice.

      • Robert Breault says:

        We all do.

      • Marcy Richardon says:

        With all due respect, the most powerful and meaningful memorials I have ever sung or witnessed have not shied away from addressing the imperfections and demons of those who left us before their time. It is not cheap. It can, and has, saved a life and more.

      • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

        If there is such a thing as a “cheap tribute”, you have posted one to yourself.

      • Oliver Webber says:

        You’ve misunderstood. “To a fault” is an affectionate phrase used to qualify a good quality by implying that a person possesses an excess of it. “Generous to a fault” therefore means that Brian was extremely generous. This is quite common, but it’s a subtle usage so if English is your second language you might not have realised its meaning.

        • Alexander says:

          I am getting confused about where Ms Claycomb allegedly described him as being “generous to a fault”. I think what she said was, “As all of us, he had his faults, but made up for it in generosity of spirit”. That means something quite different! English is *my* first language, so I think I have understood this perfectly clearly, as has the original person who responded to this comment, CR.

      • Robin Pietà says:

        CR think you’ve misunderstood the phrase ‘generous to a fault’. It means he was the most generous person you could meet. No fault.

        • Alexander says:

          CR is not responding to the observation that he was “generous to a fault” that is made in the main article. He or she is responding to Laura Claycomb’s comment that “he had his faults”.

      • Bruce says:

        Hagiography only, please. Acknowledgement of human imperfection is not welcome. Please make a note of it.

    • Linda WATSON says:

      Terribly sad to say good-bye so early. We had such laughs and good times at the LA Opera. What a wonderful soul. Be at peace my friend.

      • Siphiwe McKenzie says:

        Brian Asawa was like a metior light, he shon brightly& gave us all such joy, extatic delight& utter happiness. Laughter was one of his many gifts, he was a true person with a true voice& will continue to move all those who knew him& heard him. Soar high my friend, soar high.

    • Christine says:

      I think some of the discomfort with the word “faults” stems from the presumption that this may be referring to an addiction or substance abuse issue. Much work is being done in the recovery community to combat the stigma attached to substance abuse. I think that the less we view these as faults, the more possible it becomes for people living with addiction and substance abuse problems to seek help without shame. (I speak as someone who is 2 years sober and a classical musician.)

    • Richard K. Brown says:

      I met Brian when he was in Houston for a concert in the mid-1990s. He was one of the most gentle, beautiful, talented artists I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I will miss him and never forget him.

    • Marya Berry says:

      Should read “like all of us”, but this kind of character subtraction doesn’t belong in an elegiac comment, to my mind. I loved Brian & loved his great voice. Why even mention that he had faults, should read “flaws”? Seems inappropriate to me.

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    Oh no! This is really terrible news

  • Peter says:

    I am so sad to learn this. I heard him sing at his Aunt Ruth Asawa’s house in San Francisco. He had a beautiful singing voice.

  • Fiona Janes says:

    This is a terrible shock. Wonderful singer. We did Julius Caesar together. A very sad day for his family. How dreadful.

  • John daszak says:

    Please, somebody tell me this isn’t true! Dear, lovely, generous, fragile soul Brian Asawa has died?? I’m finding it hard to believe… 49 years young!

    • Chris Merritt says:

      Sadly John it is true. I found out earlier today. He was certainly all those things…and much much more!!

      Chris Merritt

  • Sue says:

    I’m very sorry to learn about this man dying, and at 49 years of age. My step-daughter’s husband, the same age, died suddenly of a heart attack in November 2014 at exactly the same age.

    Loved the aria from “Rodelinda” – an opera I saw at Theater an der Wien in 2011.

  • Meera Collier says:

    Oh no! Does anyone have more information? This is terrible news!

  • Bob Brock (aka OperaBobb) says:

    Sad, sad news. Followed his career after Merola in 1991. Met him several years ago in San Francisco while singing Orlofsky. Whew! Lovely man. Opera will really miss him.

  • Frank Hernandez says:

    Such sad….SAD And tragic news. He died of liver failure I’ve now learned from another well known artist. Alcoholism is such a KILLER. 49 years old is waaaaaaay too young! May Brian rest in peace.

  • Anne Hubble says:

    He was such a sweet and lovely man! I feel fortunate to have known him. What a loss!!

  • Fred Bayersdorfer says:

    This is so sad.

  • Heidi Skok says:

    What a gift he was and will remain. A precious, eternal gift.

  • Barry Babks says:

    A more generous, loving and fun colleague, and friend one could never know! He was so generous and nurturing of young talent. So so tragic. R.I.P. My friend xxxxx

  • Suzanne says:

    Brian would have been 50 on 1 October. He was one of a kind and a dear friend to all who knew him. He had a demon, alas, and a struggle he lost to that demon. Peace, Dear One.

  • John Koch says:

    I was in the Met Finals many years ago with Brian and remember how beautifully he sang..He was a very kind soul. Rest in peace my friend…may God enjoy your artistry and talent in His presence….

  • Johannes Bos-Beijer says:

    Incredible person and talent. So shocking as he was active on line very recently. My heart sank. He will be terribly missed.

  • Julia K Birdsong says:

    What a beautiful, resonant voice he had…. heard him years ago at the San Francisco Opera. May he be remembered for all he brought to the Opera World including his Management Co for Singers! (yes, I am a musician and a singer)

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Brian Asawa’s gift enriched all of us and made us appreciate how music can bring out the best in each and everyone of us. We have lost, again, a great voice, a great human being. We must turn this loss into generosity, wherever we are, in whatever we do…

  • Stephen Wadsworth says:

    Very very sad and startled to hear this. He was a dear guy, and that big, warm-toned voice of his was pure pleasure. He was a wonderful Arsamene in our Xerxes in Santa Fe and LA. Waft him, angels.

    Stephen Wadsworth

  • Steven Schultz says:

    I am so saddened at this news. Brian was my choice teacher for a few months many years ago, when I was a budding countertenir. One night I joined him at his friends house for a musical and he got up and sang che faro senza euridice with me – it was a thrilling and surreal experience. His voice was surpassing beautiful. Goodbye dear maestro.

  • john guglielmelli says:

    Brian was a friend. He will be missed. I treasure the time we spent together as my heart goes out to his family and friends.

  • Kimarie says:

    I came here to read tributes of a great artist who has contributed so much to opera and has a place in its history. Instead, I end up reading about faults, demons, and alcoholism. Do you want to be remembered like this? Grow up people! Shame on you!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      There is nothing about any faults. You have misread.

      • Alexander says:

        I think that people are getting confused between your own article, where you say that he was generous to a fault, and Laura Claycomb’s comment that “he had his faults”. The former is entirely unobjectionable. The latter is also arguably unobjectionable, but it has proven to be controversial, and I think that that is what people are responding to, not to the observations made in the original article above.

        • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

          Kimmarie, I refer you to my comment lower down the list. Don’t take umbrage, there nothing wrong with being honest.

    • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

      Kimmarie, I refer you to my comment lower down the list. Don’t take umbrage, there nothing wrong with being honest

  • Robert Crowe says:

    Brian was a wonderful singer, actor and musician and an extremely generous colleague. I only worked with him briefly, so cannot really claim him as a friend, but the few days we spent in each other’s company are numbered, largely due to his intense joy of music and of life, among my most treasured singing memories.

  • Nanette McGuinness says:

    Such a sad day for all of us, to have lost such a kind, generous, talented human being.

  • Emmanuelle Haïm says:

    Dear Brian was truly a tender and sweet man. We had lot of fun and pleasure making music together. I am very sad for him and his family.
    Emmanuelle Haïm

  • Nanette McGuinness says:

    Such a sad day for all of us, to have lost such a kind, generous, talented colleague.

  • john copley says:

    Brian was such a lovely man and so delightful to work with. I did Britten’s Dream with him several times and he was always a splendid and courageous Oberon. He will be much missed as both an artist and an important singer who also passed on his craft and knowledge to so many young counter tenors.

  • jochen from Germany says:

    I can’t believe these bad news . the good guy has go to early. life is not fair 🙁

  • Bruno Cocset says:

    Oh dear Brian… we played together any years ago with Christophe Rousset, Opera de Lyon, concert récital. It was a fantastic human and musical moment… So sad…
    Bruno Cocset

  • Martijn Jacobus says:

    What to say! I am lost for words. Brian was so generous, fun and a great singer and friend. I will miss him profoundly. I will cherish the great concerts here in Amsterdam, Barcelona, will remember the enormous fun we had on our bikes in Amsterdam singing Händel. Dearest Brian, I hope that if there is a heaven you now found your peace and happiness ! Whenever I hear your repertoire I will think of you. XXX as for ever your friend Martijn Jacobus ( Amsterdam)

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    I feel compelled to write a few words in the light of some of the comments above, comments reprimanding in nature and indignant about the airing of some home truths.

    Those of us who knew and/or had worked with Brian are well aware of the demons that he battled with during his career. There is no shame in admitting that he had a problem with drug and alcohol abuse some years ago, and that he almost destroyed his career at its height because he was having a very tough time controlling his lifestyle. We also know that he worked hard to put himself to right and that he was able to work through his difficulties and problems to the extent that he was able to continue working. He not only found a new confidence in himself as a singer and artist, but managed to win back the trust and confidence of those in the profession that had almost given up on him. In recent years he had not only been performing a lot, but had begun teaching more and had set up his artists agency in partnership with a friend, an agency which looked to all intents and purposes like it was going to be a real success in the long term.

    All of us who work in the opera and concert profession understand how these problems can arise, and how close to the edge everything can be sometimes. There have been others, myself included, who have ridden hard on the back of success and sometimes almost buckled under the stress of that success, especially in later years when – especially as a Countertenor – one’s career begins to wind down as middle-age takes over, as the inevitable cycle of young blood replaces the older blood, the roles that one can sing with any real virtuosity or vocal accomplishment diminish, and the prospect of finding any sort of work within the profession seems to get harder and harder.

    So we hear that Brian has succumbed to liver failure. But we should not presume too much, and perhaps in the coming days or weeks the family might find the words to enlighten us as to how things passed for Brian in the last 2 weeks. Many of us knew that the last couple of years had been quite challenging for Brian – setting up the agency, trying to find his artists work and all that entailed, coping with the financial stress of juggling his professional singing life and his personal life. He was quite open with his friends and colleagues about how hard things were for him recently. But in spite of this he was also openly optimistic, and full of the joy and love of music and singing that was the backbone of his life. Above all, the love for his family and friends and colleagues, and loyalty that he possessed, shone through. One of his last Facebook posts on the 8th April was expressing a loving concern for a young cousin who was having personal & family problems.

    So I say a very sad farewell to an esteemed colleague who I always admired. Yes, he had his demons as many of us have had and, as I said earlier, there is no shame in that – it was common knowledge in the profession. But he was loved and admired by all of us that knew him not only for his voice & artistry, but also because he was a genuinely nice man who showed love and loyalty to his friends & colleagues despite all the problems he may have had personally.

    R.I.P. Brian Asawa.

    • Johannes Bos-Beijer says:

      Thank you for an eloquent and elegant remembrance of Brian. You are very special to have taken the time to reflect on thoughts many of us share as his friends and colleagues.

    • Andrew says:

      Goodness, Chris, you give too much respect to this tawdry site to post such a glorious reminiscence here, but I am grateful that you did all the same – and this trash bag is all the more fragrant for it.

    • Laura Claycomb says:

      Thanks so much for this tribute, my dear. I didn’t realize speaking to the Elephant in the Room would really be so problematic. Brian was a dear friend, one of the most fun people I have ever had the pleasure to share the stage (and friendship) with, and I hope he will have found peace. Those who find any mention of problems of the dead to be objectionable obviously didn’t know Brian well.

    • Rebecca says:

      Bravo. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

    • Paul Thomason says:

      Thank you for this most beautiful tribute to Brian.

    • Laurence Dale says:

      Thank you Chris….. cutting to the quick with this terribly sad news.
      How right you are that this can be a cruel world.
      Let’s all try to make it more compassionate and supportive.

    • Claudia Friedlander says:

      Really grateful for these honest and caring words, Chris. On the one hand, I understand a desire to protect the privacy of a loved one’s family and close friends; on the other, a more complete picture of Brian’s triumphs and challenges helps us to better appreciate the extraordinary life that he lived and the very real difficulties and pressures that can mount even for a stellar and beloved performer. It is no small thing to give of oneself so generously.

    • Sue says:

      Beautiful, sincere tribute. Isn’t it funny the way we’re often very attracted to the most troubled yet interesting people? I know I always have been. Frequently those qualities go together – demons and challenges right alongside creativity, humour, intelligence etc.

      RIP Brian.

    • Jacques Wieciech says:

      Thank you so much for your comments. I am very very new to the music world as a countertenor. I started very late and Brian believed in me so much so that when he was on the East coast he gave me a few free voice lessons!! So wonderful!!!! He was amazing!

    • John Guglielmelli says:

      Very well said. Thank you.

  • Bruce says:

    How sad. I didn’t know him, but I have his “Vocalise” CD and was always astonished at the beauty of his voice & his musicianship. I’m glad to see he was so highly regarded & so cared about by his colleagues.

  • Michael C says:

    A terrible and shocking loss to all who were touched by him through music friendship or just decent open collegiality. I remember meeting his parents in S Francisco many years ago when his astonishing career was just beginning. They were unspeakably proud. We all are. Thank you Chris for describing his life so eloquently and honestly.

  • Dan Carno says:

    I first heard him at Glimmerglass Opera in the 1990’s in Monteverdi’s Poppea, opposite David Daniels (!). My wife and I walked out of the theater that day in pleasant shock. A new era had begun for Baroque opera; countertenors had stepped forward mightily to help breathe new life into all but forgotten masterpieces.

    What a terrible loss.

  • Simone Alberghini says:

    We were at the Operalia Competition in 1994 in Mexico City together and I remember him as a sunny, funny, full of love for life person… and that’s how I’ll remember him.
    R.I.P. Brian

  • Kenneth Hamrick says:

    A really dear, sincere man, and always a friend. Then also a magnificent singer, full of gusto, style and splendor. He loved life and sang that joy.

    Requiescat In Pace

  • Monica Bacelli says:

    I’m immensely sorry.
    Ciao Brian!

  • Nadya Koopmans says:

    Dear Norman,

    I would like to thank you for using Youtube video of the concert I have produced 5 years ago. I am so sad that we all lost Brian that there are no words to describe my feelings.

  • Alfonso Cano says:

    I met Brian in Bogota Colombia, and had the honor to watch is unforgettable performance,
    Subsequently when I was by San Francisco we used to get together for a cup of coffee, and engage in long conversation about Music and its evolution , we talk about classic Mexican rancheras and the vocal technique of those singers, that gender not having any consequence on the gender which Brian executed brilliantly entertained us to take a break , and it was a nice visit. The Human quality of Brian Asawa was one of a kind. we are going to have Brian in our hearts for a long time and he has immortalized his voice with those pages of baroque music. and the contribution to Modern opera artistry which transports us to the early beginnings of Music. Alfonso Cano

  • Siphiwe McKenzie says:

    I would like to thank Christopher Robson for your most deep, human and profound words. Many people in this business forget that we are all human beings, we all have fragility and vulnerability and everyone is effected by it and everyone deals with it in different ways, none of us are exempt from that. Brian was an amazing spirit that had a short life span, kind of like Mozart in that sense. He was a genious and changed the classical music scene on enormous levels and if one had the opportunity of working with him and really knowing him, he was a blessing for all of our lives. He was a true light, a true human being and he and will be greatly, greatly missed. My heart goes out to his family and other close friends at this time. Brian, you were an amazing friend, thank you for the gift of you.

  • Kent Barnes says:

    Listening to Brian on Christmas day.
    Worked with him many times at the San Francisco Opera. He was a friend.