Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

My Open Letter to President Obama

Here is the blog that prompted this letter:

In response to the classical arts being left out of a Celebration of American Creativity, I have posted my open letter to President Obama.


15 October 2015


President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500


Dear President Obama:

As an Indian American who grew up listening to Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Pearl Jam, Indian Carnatic music, and Garth Brooks but now conducts opera and orchestral music, I wanted to write to you about my sincere disappointment that no American classical musicians were invited to the White House for the Celebration of American Creativity. As someone currently living in the classical music world, I find myself constantly defending rap, hip-hop, country, rock and roll, etc. against the snobbery of some of my peers. I find it unfortunate that one of the oldest art forms, and one that has been material in diplomacy would not get the same focus from the White House. Leonard Bernstein’s taking the New York Philharmonic to Moscow where they played the music of Shostakovich to a stunned Russian crowd is one example. The more recent trip of the Minnesota Orchestra to Cuba is another. Even my company in Milwaukee got in on the act when we took a world premiere opera to Bangkok this summer.

Mr. President, America is probably one of the most vibrant parts of the world for creativity in the classical arts. Mason Bates fuses electronica with orchestra – he is also a gifted DJ and turntable instrumentalist. David T. Little, in his incredibly moving opera tribute to soldiers who have fought for our freedoms over generations, Soldier Songs, incorporates rock amplified strings and at times conjures the sounds of Metallica more than Bach. America has done more for resurrecting modern opera than any other country in the world. Opera America and the Mellon Foundation have dedicated time and money to promoting great American opera, and we are seeing the results. The world already knew composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass, but composers such as Jake Heggie, David T. Little, and Kevin Puts are entering and changing the international opera scene on a regular basis. They have taken on such subjects as Moby Dick, JFK (soon to premiere in Fort Worth), and Silent Night (about the famous WWI Christmas truce). There have been American operas about Malcolm X, Nixon in China, and Appomattox. I realize that politicians have avoided connecting with classical music in public to avoid being tagged as elitist. But, for a celebration of American creation, how can we ignore artists who are devoting their artistic lives to tell stories as relevant and unelitist as these?

Even more than that, Baltimore and Washington are home to two of the most important Americans working in classical music: Marin Alsop and Francesca Zambello. Either would have been a wonderful addition to the eminent group you already invited. Mr. President, opera companies and orchestras have tirelessly built music education programs to go into schools to replace the programs cut due to lack of funding. It is a role that we were not prepared for 40 years ago, but it is one that we have shouldered and been proud to take on. Many of those who teach band and orchestra in schools also play in our orchestras. Music is a vital part of the American fabric, but please, Mr. President, in an era where the classical arts are fighting for funding, the messaging of leaving us out of the mix does not help the cause.

I have been a proud supporter of you for the past seven years, and I still am. I literally cried when I was invited to the White House for the Diwali celebrations in 2012 and 2013. When celebrating American Creativity, it sends a difficult message when the White House leaves out some of the most creative Americans on the planet: those who are shifting, modernizing, and fighting for classical music in America and music education in our schools.


Viswa Subbaraman
Artistic and Music Director,
    Skylight Music Theatre