Thursday, September 3, 2020

Watch Crescendo for Racial Justice In Opera

From left: Alejandra Valarino Boyer, Naomi AndrĂ©, Matthew Ozawa, Kazem Abdullah, and J'Nai Bridges.

Black lives matter! And right now, amid COVID-19 shutdowns, the opera world has an opportunity to make systemic changes toward justice. In Seattle Opera’s August 2020 Community Conversation, Black and PoC opera professionals reflected on this pivotal moment in history. How can opera reemerge as a space of belonging, healing, and liberation for communities of color? Watch the discussion to learn more.  

Many thanks to all who tuned in to our Crescendo for Racial Justice in Opera panel. The video is now available to view at Moderated by Seattle Opera’s own Alejandra Valarino Boyer, Director of Programs & Partnerships (Moderator), we were honored to be joined by Naomi AndrĂ© (professor at the University of Michigan and Seattle Opera Scholar in Residence), Matthew Ozawa (Opera Stage Director), Kazem Abdullah, (Conductor), and J'Nai Bridges (Mezzo-Soprano). 

Below, check out some of the answers to questions we weren’t able to get to during the discussion. Questions were submitted by different viewers via Zoom during the live, online event. Answers are based on the broader discussion, as synthesized by Alejandra Valarino Boyer. (Outside of her work with Seattle Opera, Valarino Boyer is also the creator of BIPOC Arts, a database which highlights Black, Indigenous, and PoC opera professionals).

If you have further comments or questions, email

Do you think new operas will emerge from this time to give better voice to People of Color in a more authentic way?
Yes! We are already seeing a diverse American canon of opera repertoire: works including Blue, Central Park Five, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, An American Soldier, M. Butterfly, The Last Dream of Frida, Bel Canto, Frida—we anticipate seeing both new works, as well more commitment from opera companies to produce and present operas by creators of color.

Following today's panel discussion, is there a call to action that I can bring to the Executive Director of the opera company I work for? 
That depends on your organization’s needs and where the organization is in its journey toward anti-racism. Step one is to engage in the conversation: Discuss the importance of racial equity with your director and with company leadership. Where have you been complicit in the challenges outlined by the panelists? Where might your organization be able to make change internally and externally? Invite staff and artists to engage in those conversations, listen to understand, and center the voices of staff and artists of color. Develop a plan that will work for your organization. And don’t forget to engage the board of directors and your local communities in these conversations. Seattle Opera recently finalized its racial equity plan outlining goals for our organization; this will be available online soon. 

I saw a rehearsal of Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess. All the staff I saw, as well as the choreographer, maestro, etc. were white. It felt to me like a plantation. The Seattle Opera administration seemed so tone deaf and not paying attention. I was told, “Well this is the staff that came with the opera.” How is this OK? It’s not OK for me as a Black woman. Why did Seattle Opera hire this staff when the opera is about Black people? To me it’s unconscionable, especially when the opera is controversial like Porgy.
It's not OK—and I am so sorry you were hurt and had such a negative experience. This is an area where Seattle Opera has failed in the past and one of the systemic issues that we must dismantle as we work toward becoming an anti-racist institution. As you mentioned, operas that are co-produced come with the creative and design teams that were selected by the originating company. Seattle Opera is implementing across-the-board changes, including our practices surrounding casting, the selection of creative teams, and more. You can learn more in our Racial Impact & Social Impact plan, which will be available to view at very soon. 

If there are more operas featuring People of Color (including operas with roles that were historically cast with white singers), will this bring in a more diverse audience?
We believe that the answer is yes. At Seattle Opera, we have seen this is true from audience racial demographic data. For example, an opera such as An American Dream, brought in more Japanese and Asian Americans to the opera house. To generalize broadly, operas that center BIPOC as performers or storytellers, tend to bring in more diverse audiences. When you can see yourself reflected onstage and in the audience, you may be more inclined to feel a greater sense of belonging. The panelists discussed how Black people and other People of Color often feel more comfortable in spaces where they see themselves reflected onstage and in the audience. This is especially true of POC walking into a space for the first time, or where they perceive to not be included in the first place. 

It seems like the Seattle Opera is taking a strong lead in addressing social and racial justice. Why do you believe other big opera houses are not taking on as many community conversations like this?
There is much work to be done in the opera and classical music industry. Seattle Opera is proud to take on this work: It is our responsibility to educate ourselves. To hold ourselves accountable. And to make changes. It is our job to listen to feedback, constructive criticism, and to be open when we are called out/called in by communities of color. However, Seattle Opera is actually not alone in this work. Many companies across the United States are also engaging in anti-racism. For example:
  • - LA Opera recently announced that it would present a livestream of The Anonymous Lover (L'Amant Anonyme) by French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent Black composer in 18th-century France in place of the operas that were scheduled for its Fall Season. To learn more, read the press release.

  • - The Dallas Opera has a weekly program, Taking the Stage, as part of its Dallas Opera Network that discusses issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in opera.

  • - Long Beach Opera hosts their own Community Conversations Series which has addressed issues of race representation.

  • - Opera Orlando has launched the Representation Matters series that features diverse voices in the opera field talking about their work.

  • - Minnesota Opera has a long standing Diversity Council with stated goals.
There are companies doing important work not listed here, and many more who have yet to make equity a priority. I can’t speak to the exact reasons why a company would choose not to engage in this work. But I have found that inaction is often rooted in fear: fear of letting go of how things have been done in the past. Fear of losing stakeholders who are resistant to change, thus, resistant to making opera more inclusive. This work comes with a lot of courage and humility, which comes with some displacement of power—and that can be very scary for some folks. And yet, it's necessary. We must redistribute who has power in our art—and in society—if we want to move toward justice.    

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