Monday, September 9, 2019

The journey here, the journey ahead

Seattle Opera General Director Christina Scheppelmann. Photo by Philip Newton.
By Christina Scheppelmann

I took the long road to Seattle. It began in Hamburg, Germany, weaving through far flung places like Barcelona, Washington D.C., and Muscat. As a woman, in an industry where decisions remain too often dominated by men, it took determination and strength and there were many obstacles along the path that brought me to this place and position. After a busy first month here I wanted now to briefly share how I intend to lead, lifting up, supporting and encouraging those still struggling down that same road.

Like many women in my generation, I felt enormous pressure to adapt in a man’s world.  When I was entering the workforce, I saw how men set the rules and doled out punishments for those who didn’t conform to their standards, in all industries, not just opera. Advancement only took place on their terms.  It was necessary to project toughness.  There are many parts of that experience that I hope today’s young professionals will never ever have to face.

I am now privileged enough to enjoy the chance to reflect and rededicate myself to what remains to be changed in our operatic system.  There is a lot we must do.  One of the reasons I wanted to come to Seattle, to this company, was out of a belief that this is a city with an enormous hunger and ability to catalyze that change. For example, through its racial equity work and programming to serve people of all backgrounds statewide, Seattle Opera is building a future that better represents us all. This is the kind of work—the kind of legacy—that matters to me as a leader, and as a human being. 

We live in a time of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty.  If our community chooses to embrace possibilities, there is much that can be done.  I believe that opera can help to lift up, create awareness, and help us to discover ourselves and our shared humanity. 

In order for opera to truly fulfill its potential, we not only need to produce opera at the highest artistic standard and invest in engaging programs to introduce more people to opera, we must also pull back the curtain on our struggles. To this day, opera has too few women leaders, and too few People of Color in all areas of the art form.  We need general directors who are not afraid to speak out strongly for what is right.  We need to seek out and listen to those who have been left out or ignored in the past. We need to ensure that everyone feels welcome and is protected within our organizations.  

Christina Scheppelmann says Seattle Opera will continue to present fearless dialogue on race and gender equity and more through its Community Conversations series. One recent event in this series included "Decolonizing Allure" in April 2019 featuring panelists Perri Rhoden and Sara Porkalob. Sunny Martini photo
As someone who spent four decades in this industry, I am aware that such evolutions will not always be easy for me or for others.  Yet, I know, they are necessary.  As a leader, it is not only about seeking to bring the best out of others. It’s about being willing to listen, learn and evolve. In entering this role, I am cognizant of what each of us must do to bring about long-overdue progress.  I stand ready to undertake the uneasy task of examining where I too still need to grow.

So, while I am looking forward to many wonderful years of thrilling opera here in the Pacific Northwest, I also believe an internal journey must continue. It is one that will lead me across new territory and frontiers. In the coming months, I am dedicated to learning from staff, community, and audiences, while ensuring Seattle Opera's future as a force for change. We will continue the series of Community Conversations started in the past with topics such as racial representation in opera, and I’m also interested in hosting a conversation with Seattle artists on workplace safety and how to create a more supportive environment. Through Seattle Opera's internal practices, our storytelling, and our dialogue, the company will help change culture. I will see to that. Through our work, we can make a difference for women, and amplify diverse voices that are too often ignored. 

Grand opera has a deep history to celebrate and love, but we can and must learn from our past trials and pave a bold highway to the future.

Seattle Opera's home, the Opera Center on the Seattle Center campus. Photo by Sean Airhart.