Monday, March 12, 2018

Black inclusion at Seattle Opera

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

This spring, Seattle Opera is excited to be working with Social Impact Consultant ChrisTiana ObeySumner as we continue our racial equity work. ChrisTiana will help Seattle Opera forge a dialogue with members of Seattle’s Black and PoC communities leading up to our Aida and Porgy and Bess productions. 

Ultimately, they (ChrisTiana uses they/theirs pronouns) will help Seattle Opera envision a future for opera that truly includes and honors people of color—a process that made meaningful strides this past summer with members of the Asian Pacific Islander community during Madame Butterfly.

ChrisTiana has a BS in Psychology, a Master in Nonprofit Leadership, and is currently pursuing a Master in Public Administration at Seattle University. Their area of expertise and research is the relationship between marginalized and oppressed intersectionalities and access to basic human needs and rights in American society. ChrisTiana is the General Co-Chair and Housing Committee Chair of the Seattle Commission of People with disAbilities. They are also the founding Executive Director of the Eleanor Elizabeth Institute for Black Empowerment. 

You have been coming to Seattle Opera for several years now. What was your introduction to the art form?

My introduction to the art form was watching a blue alien sing opera in The Fifth Element. I was 8 years old, and I felt like I could see myself in this character. Her hair reminded me of dreadlocks, and as a Caribbean Black and AfroLatinx, I identified with that. I identified with her blue skin even because it wasn’t white. I saw that you don’t have to be White to be a diva and sing this amazing aria.

A still from the movie, The Fifth Element. 

Envision a beautiful future for opera in Seattle. What do you see?

I would love for McCaw Hall to become a space where an 8-year-old girl of color can think, “I can be up there. That’s something I can do.” Operas like Porgy and Bess and Aida are important opportunities for representation that Seattle Opera should take advantage of.

I would like to see Seattle Opera make a more explicit invitation to PoC communities, and more implicitly make the opera a place where everyone feels welcome. Sometimes when people don’t see themselves in a space, they worry: “Am I going to be the only Black person there?” “Will people stare at me?” “Am I going to feel comfortable?” Or, for my friends who have disabilities—“Will there be a space for my wheelchair?” “Will I be able to make it back from intermission in time?” “Will there be strobe lights that will affect my epilepsy?” What I’ve been brought in to do—and , and what I’m honored to do—is to help identify and break down some of these barriers, both real and perceived.
Among other artists of color, Black tenor Vinson Cole (pictured with Sheri Greenawald) is celebrated as one of Seattle Opera's legendary performers. In its 55-year-history, Seattle Opera has made conscious efforts to hire Black singers through colorblind casting under the direction of Glynn Ross and Speight Jenkins. At the time, these were audacious and important stepping-stones for racial equity. Now in 2018, the conversation on racial equity has moved forward. In 2018, we see that classical European art forms such as opera and ballet are still overwhelmingly white, from the decision-makers at these organizations, to the artists and audience members. While colorblind casting was helpful in some ways for minority representation, it is no longer the way forward. In order for opera to speak to the people of Puget Sound, Seattle Opera will make conscious efforts to hire storytellers and artists who represent our region's diversity moving forward. As part of our racial-equity work, we have learned that we cannot be "blind" to color; we must recognize and acknowledge the lived histories of  marginalized people. This includes making amends with those we have hurt through practices such as blackface (also yellowface and brownface) and  cultural appropriation. Photo by Ron Scherl 
ChrisTiana attends Seattle Opera with friend, John. Philip Newton photo
What made you want to work with Seattle Opera?
I love opera. Opera, like all art, is a way to get a temperature, a pulse at the time—how people thought and understood other folks in terms of race, ability or gender. There is a beauty in being able to see where we came from, like “Oh wow, this is how they thought about women back then?” But it’s important to remember we’re in a new place now. Looking at opera with a twenty-first-century consciousness, we have a lot of updating to do. That updating could include owning some of opera’s problematic history, discussing it with a critical lens. It could include moving toward more color-conscious casting. It could include increasing diversity both onstage and behind the scenes. Maybe a director takes an opera like La bohème and places it in Harlem, for example. What we can’t do, however, is to move forward with this historic art form without any discussion or consideration for the world we live in today.

Of course, not all operas performed today are stories of the past. Seattle Opera's As One depicts a single, transgender woman protagonist, as told through two singers at Washington Hall. While singers Taylor Raven and Jorell Williams are cisgender, librettist Kimberly Reed, a trans woman, provided both words and inspiration for the story. Rozarii Lynch photo

Obviously, you cannot speak for all Black people. But what, in your own experience, is a barrier for Black folks coming to the opera?
Well, first of all, Jim Crow laws meant that Black performers and audience members would either be excluded altogether, or would often not be presented with the same opportunities. But, in terms of people today, from my experience, it’s the unspoken feeling of unwelcome. It can feel like people are saying, “Are you really supposed to be here?” There’s so much historic trauma and even contemporary trauma of feeling and being unwanted in these sorts of spaces.

For example, I don’t go to monster truck rallies because I don’t feel safe (though, I love monster trucks!). I love rock music, but I was attacked at a Fall Out Boy concert once. When I told people about it, they said, “What were you doing at a rock concert?” Opera has a lot of cultural environment work to do when people come in, meaning, the opera must show it is working on healing these wounds. There must be an explicit invitation to the community saying, “We own the fact that opera has historically not been welcoming to you, and we’re trying to change that.”

An example of Jim Crow laws in arts/entertainment. Getty Images 

Opera has an inconsistent track record with minority representation onstage or behind-the-scenes. How does this contrast with what’s happening outside this art form?
Black people are having more opportunity for representation now than ever before. When I was growing up, I couldn’t wear box braids or wear my hair kinky without being sent home. Elders in my family would say, “This is why I told you to straighten your hair.” “This is why you need to code switch; to work on your diction.” They wanted me to assimilate, because they wanted me to be able to survive. We are currently in a time when I feel like I can be unabashedly Black. You see women like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B doing some great work as proud Afro-Latinas. In movies, we are starting to rise above the trope of showing Black people as enslaved or as poor Africans. Black people are everywhere; they can be themselves, and it’s beautiful. Of course, politically this is also one of the worst social climates for Black folks...

However, what makes me excited to be alive as a Black person right now is that I can be who I am with reckless abandon; without respectability politics. I feel like we’re in a time where I can say, this is who I am. This is the hair that grows out of my head. This is how my body has chosen to proportion itself. I’m not going to change for you. If you can’t accept me, you’re not ready for my beauty, my talents and my gifts. That’s your loss.

WOMEN OF WAKANDA | "Black Panther is groundbreaking in a multitude of ways. It’s a massive step forward for black representation in film, it’s changing what a superhero movie can accomplish, and it’s smashing through box office records like T’challa smashes through gangsters in a South Korean casino. In addition to these accomplishments, however, there’s also the salient fact that Black Panther successfully gives female characters depth and range on the same level of its male heroes and villains. Black Panther as a movie and as a character cannot exist without the women of Wakanda, and the overarching message is one that is rarely seen in the superhero genre (or in many movies in general): Women Get Sh*! Done, Discount Them At Your Own Risk." - Cosmopolitan [ Read more HERE ]

When a White European composer creates an opera with Black or Brown characters, what are some of the equity challenges?
With Aida for example, there’s still this culture of color-blindness to a certain extent. Colorblind casting was very progressive initially, but it’s not anymore. “I don’t see color, I don’t see race”—that was a great thing to say in the 80s. The truth is, we do see color, and we need to be able to see ourselves onstage. When opera presents stories set in “faraway places” from a European’s perspective, there is an opportunity to bring in singers of color to do those roles. This is so important for increasing diversity in the art form in general.

Aida is a story that Verdi very intentionally wrote about Egypt and Ethiopia. Imagine bringing an East African child to this performance and they see very few non-White performers. What message is being sent to this child?

For folks who really just want to unwind and relax, and enjoy the production — I empathize with you. But I also think it’s important to consider why Verdi wrote this work in the first place. Art is meant to challenge us and to reflect the political climate of the time; art is not necessarily synonymous with entertainment.

ACTORS WHO HAVE DEPICTED EGYPTIAN ROYALTY, ANCIENT EGYPT, OR MOSES | "Hollywood is a sucker for a story about ancient Egypt. Movies like The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, and even The Mummy prove it. Upcoming movies like Exodus and Gods of Egypt all but confirm it. Unfortunately though, those films have something in common aside from being about ancient Egypt — they show that Hollywood, tends to envision ancient Egyptians and ancient Egyptian royalty as white men and women (sometimes with copious amounts of bronzer splashed on)." - Vox [ Read more HERE ]

What are some of the equity challenges with our upcoming operas?
Porgy and Bess is an interesting storyline. It brings up stereotypes of toxic masculinity in Black culture, as well as the sexualization of Black femme bodies—that we are these extremely lustful creatures. There’s also issues of ableism, domestic violence, colorism...

While acknowledging the ways in which Porgy perpetuates negative stereotypes, I have to ask: With so many People of Color onstage, is there an opportunity for this opera to make a positive impact?
Definitely. Porgy is going to be very powerful. There are going to be People of Color onstage! I hope people come and see it, and I hope they embrace the production. I think we can still enjoy works like Porgy; we just need to remember that this is a work about Black culture as seen through the lens of an affluent White man in the last century. 

Porgy and Bess, The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017. © Karli Cadel.
I hear you talk about the healing work that needs to happen between European art forms like opera and PoC communities. However, I know you also love opera. In your view, why is this art form worthwhile to the Black community?
To all PoC communities, I would say this is a time of decolonization; it’s a time of undoing some of the trauma that stems from White and European colonialists, and a time for healing, for reclaiming our own stories and history. Black folks have done a great job of decolonizing other spaces, be it rock music through Afropunk, or science fiction through the Afrofuturism genre. There are programs helping Black teens get into STEAM fields and Ivy League schools. We’re decolonizing the ballet with Misty Copeland, and the opera, with artists like RETNA — the graffiti artist who created the set design for Aida. We deserve a place here, too.

Graffiti artist, RETNA, makes his Seattle Opera debut as Artistic Designer for Aida.

RETNA's graffiti makes a dramatic impact in Seattle Opera's upcoming Aida. Photo by Cory Weaver

Why should people care about racial equity?
Opera is meant to be shared, explored, and performed by everyone. By including more folks in this art form, we are not excluding others. There is always space for equity, because there is always space for everyone. Both in art, and in a broader sense, society must de-center its Eurocentric point of view. Don’t forget that there are people alive right now who can still remember a segregated America. Of course we’re going to have growing pains. And of course, we’re not going to heal from centuries of enslavement, followed by racism and segregation in a mere lifetime. That doesn't make any sense.

[Editor’s note: In addition to RETNA, Aida’s Artistic Designer, other Black artists in the production include singers Gordon Hawkins and Alfred Walker. ] 
"I MATTER"| "In its essence, Black Lives Matter is a response to the persistent and historical trauma Black people have endured at the hands of the State. This trauma and pain, unresolved and unhealed lives on in our bodies, in our relationships and in what we create together. Since the inception of BLM, organizers and healers have taken this understanding of historical and generational trauma and made it the foundation of our healing circles, of creative and liberatory space held amidst actions, of our attempts to resolve conflict and division in ways that don’t replicate harm or rely on carceral ways of being with one another. It’s not an easy road; healing individual and community trauma while organizing to make real change in Black lives, but it’s what we know has to be done." -

You will be leading an event called "Cultured Conversations: Black Inclusion in Opera" on March 30. The event seeks insights and experiences from the Black community and will be a safe space to discuss representation in casting, attending the opera (or barriers to attending), and more. What do you hope to accomplish?
I come from a grassroots activist background, and that doesn't change just because I’m working with the opera. This focus group will be an opportunity for me to collect narratives and opinions from the community as I help Seattle Opera to make progress. How often does this happen that an organization like Seattle Opera hires a Black woman to help make a European artform a place where People of Color are celebrated? The fact that many people at the opera identify as a White allies (or, non-Black allies), shows a huge amount of progress. It makes me realize that the community input from Madame Butterfly didn’t fall on deaf ears. Now, I see the opera saying, “OK, how do we make this right? How do we make this a more inclusive space?” That growth is something to praise. There is a lot of fertile ground here.

[ "Cultured Conversations: Black Inclusion in Opera" is free and open to those who identify as Black. To register, go to ]

Ballerina Misty Copeland recreates one of Degas' paintings

REPRESENTATION MATTERS | "Just as brown girls deserve to watch ballerinas with their skin tone dance, and yellow boys deserve to see movies with a handsome hero who looks like them (not just another ninja), people of color deserve to see themselves represented in this beautiful space: McCaw Hall. We need to see stories that hold up our complexity and potential on an equal arm’s length to white people and European traditions. Is opera willing to help make this happen?" - Gabrielle Nomura Gainor, Madame Butterfly program
Opera singer Mary Elizabeth Williams with supernumerary Kendall Green, the two played Elizabeth I, adult and child, in the opera Mary Stuart.