Brendan Nguyen has lived a lot of life for a 39 year old.
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, he has lived in Europe and New York. For decades he seriously studied classical music and piano. While studying in Amsterdam after graduating from Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, he suffered depression related to burnout and returned to his hometown of Seattle.
Although he served tables there to earn a living, Nguyen always found time to practice the piano. For four consecutive summers in Skagway, Alaska, he worked as a waiter and – in his off hours – performed with a musical theater troupe.
Overachieving at a young age, Nguyen started playing the piano at age 4. Her teenage stepsisters taught her.
“For many immigrant families, music lessons are a sign that your children are developing well,” said Nguyen, the only US-born member of his Vietnam-born family. “My parents are not artists but thought that was what they should do.
“My sisters didn’t like the piano, but they liked teaching their little brother what they were learning. After they gave up, I continued training on my own and my parents noticed. I started lessons when I was 6 years old.
In 2008, Nguyen stopped traveling and began his eight years in the graduate music program at the University of California, San Diego.
Fast forward to March 2020. He had built a successful piano studio here. The local nonprofit arts organization Nguyen co-founded with fellow UC San Diego Leslie Ann Leytham in 2018, Project [Blank]was in its second season.
The organization, which aims to produce unique musical experiences involving artists of various genres, was preparing its first opera.
When the pandemic restrictions were declared, Nguyen quickly transitioned into teaching virtual piano and Project [Blank] took action. He launched the “Sofa Series”, a virtual gallery of interviews (directed by Leytham) and performances by artists of many mediums from across the country.
Later this fall, Project [Blank] brought together local artists to create a multi-genre video for a national competition, organized by Catapult Opera, which encouraged socially distanced opera performances. Featuring mezzo-soprano Leytham and pianist-arranger Nguyen, the video won the Catapult Innovation Award.
How did Nguyen immediately change gears without getting upset?
“I think I thrive on disasters!” he said laughing. “It was confirmed when everything stopped. I felt more activated than ever.
“These changes have literally affected everyone. I took it as a signal to push harder.
Project [Blank] co-founder Leytham agreed.
“Because we’re small and scrappy, it was a no-brainer,” she said. “People were out of work, so we immediately started giving people a stage.
“Our process is fun. Particularly over the past year, things might have seemed out of reach at first. But it still feels like a recreation. Brendan is always thinking, ‘What can I do to make it better, one little bit at a time’?”
While at UC San Diego, Nguyen and Leytham discovered that they “were on the same page aesthetically,” as he put it.
When they started their nonprofit in 2018, they named it Project [Blank]inspired by the already covered “Tabula Rasa” (clean slate).
“We start with an idea and plan out every detail,” Nguyen said, speaking from East Village, where he lives with Klaus, his mini schnauzer. “The name is obtuse enough that we don’t get stuck on genre or style. It represents a promise to create a form of uniqueness.
The group has two productions scheduled for this spring to help deliver on that promise. “Working Title,” a three-day multimedia event at St. James by-the-Sea in La Jolla has been postponed from spring due to construction delays at the church. It is now set for September.
The last weekend of May, the organization will present “Paradise TBD” at Bread & Salt. The world-first chamber music opera features electronics and five singers, including Leytham. Nguyen will perform and serve as producer and musical director. Written and composed by Baltimore-based Clint McCallum, “Paradise TBD” explores the emotional consequences of natural disasters.
Outside the project [Blank], Nguyen has worked closely since grad school with another local arts organization, Bodhi Tree Concerts. He had countless “idea sessions” with Bodhi Tree founders Diana and Walter DuMelle.
“They are amazing people. They are like family to me,” Nguyen said.
Diana DuMelle replied that the feeling is mutual.
“Brendan is such a technical wizard, he redefined what a music director is,” she said. “He is a fabulous pianist, trained in both classical music and the most current cutting-edge music. And he is technically gifted. It’s an amazing combination.
Bodhi Tree will present the ancient opera “Dido & Aeneas” from September 23 to 25 at Bread & Salt. Nguyen will serve as musical director.
“We respect every note,” DuMelle said. “But we present it through a modern lens. Brendan will bring his little something special to it.
Last January, Nguyen presented the first project in person [Blank] performance since the pandemic. The solo concert, highlighting female composers, was dedicated to her immigrant mother, Thao Phuong Nguyen, and her sisters Linda (who died of cancer three years ago) and Julie.
“At school I was in America, and at home I was in a strange Vietnam/America hybrid,” he recalls. “The food was different. No pizza and lots of fish sauce!”
It was not until the age of 20 that Nguyen heard the stories from his parents. Her father, Khanh Phuc Nguyen, a South Vietnamese naval officer, first came to California and picked strawberries, but eventually became a manager at Boeing in Seattle.
Brendan’s mother worked with the US Attaché’s office in Vietnam. She lost her first husband, a South Vietnamese pilot, during the war. Recovering his remains in the north, Thao Phuong, Linda and Julie missed the helicopter scheduled to take them to the United States
Instead, they became boat people, spending six months on an Indonesian island, waiting to immigrate. They eventually moved to Seattle, where they met Khanh Phuc. Thao Phuong worked as a pharmacy technician until her retirement from the University of Washington.
“When my mom told me the details, it was very impactful,” Brendan recalls. “I realized I was different from the rest of my family. I didn’t see the horrors they witnessed.
“My parents were always busy making our lives better. My family did not act like traumatized people. They must have tried to protect me from this.
Phone calls with his now retired parents are in “Vietlish” – Vietnamese (them) and English (him). Although a career in music was something they didn’t understand, his parents were supportive of his choice.
Decades ago, Nguyen was striving to be a solo pianist on tour, but he didn’t like the intense pressure and mega-hours of practicing alone.
“It’s still an enigma,” Nguyen said. “When I’m on stage, I feel so at peace. But when I run a program, I want to quit it and do something else. I have projects going on that, if the opportunity arises, I would tour. Those would definitely involve another artist or two.
In the meantime, Nguyen has a busy schedule.
Last month, he took his first vacation since 2017. Returning from his trip to Hawaii with his boyfriend, Nguyen said he learned a key lesson from the past two years.
“Of course,” he said, “I have to take more breaks.”
Project [Blank] presents “Paradise TBD”, a world premiere opera
When: 7:30 p.m. on May 27 and 28; 2 p.m. May 29
Or: Bread and Salt, 1955 Julian Avenue, Logan Heights
Tickets: $25, general admission; $15, seniors and students
In line: projectblanksd.org
Wood is a freelance writer.