Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Indigenizing Opera: Renson Madarang

In a year where racial equity has been top of mind, what does decolonization in opera look like? Decolonization is the process of breaking down systems that place Western worldviews above all others. This is relevant for opera, which has often existed through the lens of narrow, European perspectives. Opera has often told stories that exoticized People of Color. They are depicted as caricatures (Ping, Pang, and Pong), tragically foreign (Cio-Cio-San), stereotypes (Sportin' Life), or as sexy, exotic firecrackers (Carmen). But decolonization is about returning to our shared place of humanity; here, we can no longer hide behind our own ignorance, or create stories about people whom we fear or don't know. Decolonization is about recognizing one another as equals, and courageously embracing our differences. It requires valuing Indigenous ways of life, and ensuring that Indigenous people are able to determine their own destinies, be it in a story or in real life. 

One person who is finding ways to be his full self in opera is tenor Renson Madarang. Madarang has performed on operatic and concert stages around the world, as well as in the studio collaborating with Disney. As a Kanaka ʻŌiwi (being of Native Hawaiian and Filipino descent), he is also a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I. In addition to his work in the arts, Madarang is passionate about his work at Indiana University's First Nations Educational & Cultural Center (FNECC). As the Native Education and Programs Assistant, he's been working with various departments and schools at IU, discussing issues around Native voice and the systemic oppression of racialized minorities in higher education. He recently engaged with Music Education students surrounding Native/Indigenous music, and its treatment in American Music Education. Madarang describes his experience as having a "decolonized identity" in a "colonized art." As someone who loves opera and is committed to the sovereignty of his own people, he has ideas on both potential problems—and exciting collaborations—between Indigenous people and Western art forms.   

What is it like having a decolonized identity within a colonized art? How do you navigate that?
I would liken it to being an analog person in a digital world. I try to live out parts of my Native Hawaiian culture, but it’s still very much a colonizers’ world. You still need the ability to be able to code-switch between cultures. Indigenizing opera is not an easy task, but it’s an idea we still need to embrace. Opera is for all peopleit has the ability to embrace our Indigenous mechanisms, our sounds, our ideas. Opera can be a bridge between people, too. Every culture uses music and movement to present stories. Opera can be a vehicle to introduce Indigenous ways of knowing and existing to the non-Indigenous.

Madarang performing in The Tales of Hoffmann with  Hawai'i Opera Theatre. Courtesy of Renson Madarang

As a Studio Musician for Disney for eight years, you enhanced the cultural experience for Disney customers by providing authentic and accurate musical contribution. Does that mean, if I’m walking around Disney’s Aulani Resort, I will hear your voice?

I had the opportunity to work on several different Disney projects with a Polynesian theme. They needed an authentic voice to give way to authentic music. We sang music from within our own culture, and the arrangements were a collaboration between Native Hawaiians. Essentially, Disney provided the money for us to collaborate and create music together, then kept the product. I’m happy that they used our voices in this way. So yes, you would have heard my voice all over the Aulani resort, or maybe if you had requested a wakeup call!

Disney is a white institution, but this was a project led by People of Color. If you think about how there are only half a million of usNative Hawaiian people worldwideand out of that, how many people are actively identifying a Native Hawaiian? For a company like Disney to seek out members of our community meant something to me.

Of course, projects like this also represent the commodification of our culture to mainstream America. However, I will say that Disney movies like Moana or Lilo and Sitch typically are created with a great deal of collaboration with Native communities, at least in my experience. Many of us are simply hoping for visibility and it is refreshing to see good work being done, artists being treated with respect, and seeing Indigenous communities on the big screennot as a caricature.

Where can folks go to see and support Native Hawaiians telling their own stories?
Online, you can check out the following resources from your home: 
- ʻŌlelo Community Media, O‘ahu's Community Access TV Station. They broadcast a lot of TV shows and programming in the Hawaiian language, made by Hawaiian artists.

- ʻŌiwi TV, which produces top-quality documentaries, news and multimedia content from a uniquely Hawaiian perspective.

- Mana Maoli is a collective of educators, artists, musicians, cultural practitioners, community organizers, and families who share a common vision of, and action toward.

- There’s also ʻIolani Palace, which represents a time in Hawaiian history when King Kalākaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliʻuokalani, walked the halls and ruled the Hawaiian Kingdom. From the website: "The Palace complex contains beautiful memories of grand balls and hula performances, as well as painful ones of Liliʻuokalani’s overthrow and imprisonment. Since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, the Palace has undergone many changes as it once served as the Capitol for almost 80 years and was later vacated and restored to its original grandeur in the 1970s." You can enjoy a virtual tour of the palace virtually.

If you decide to go to Hawaiʻi as a visitor, I encourage folks to do their due diligence and seek out arts and cultural attractions, such as Iolani Palace, or the Bishop Museum, and other Hawaiian-run or Hawaiian-owned establishments.

Madarang performing St. John Passion by Bach with John Butt, conductor. Photo courtesy of Renson Madarang. 

You talked about the need for more Native Hawaiian visibility. What is your hope for your people?
It’s prime time for the Native Hawaiian communitya minority within a minority. In this moment of greater reckoning for racial justice for Black Americans, there is potential for more visibility for all Indigenous people in America. For examplewe need more awareness about the many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women: 
- Four out of five Native women are affected by violence today. 

- The U.S Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average.  

- Homicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among 10-24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Homicide). 

Within the field of opera, I would love to see more representation of Native Hawaiians' story. I’ve heard of several composers who are interested in telling the story of how Hawaiʻi is an illegally occupied countrybut this is a story that should be told by someone with a level of connectivity to these issues in order to make it more real, more human to an audience. I would like to see stories of Hawaiʻi represented in opera, and expressed through Hawaiian mediums. Or maybe, if the opera is doing a Hawaiian story, the director doesn’t necessarily have to be Native Hawaiian, but there are elements of Native Hawaiian culture that are a part of the production. It’s possible to create a truly collaborative experience.

Opera is the closest thing in Western art to what the Hawaiian arts are: we use our mele (chants, songs, or poems), our hula (dances), our oli (chants) to tell a story. These stories perpetuate certain norms in our culture. They carry our ancestral memories. I think opera has served as a similar vehicle for Italian culture, for German culture, and other Western cultures.

Yes, at times opera has been used to “other” those it deemed as different, or to uphold European worldviews and put down non-European worldviews. It has been enlisted as a tool in colonization and harm, but there’s so much more to opera than that.

Renson Madarang backstage during a performance of Il trovatore ('15) with  Hawai'i Opera Theatre. Courtesy of Renson Madarang. 

Seattle Opera operates on the home of the Coast Salish, including the Suquamish, Muckleshoot, Snohomish, Duwamish and other indigenous peoples of our local area. Two resources we invite you to check out are Native Land Digital, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to helping people learn more about their local Indigenous history, and Real Rent Duwamish for people in the Greater Seattle area. Here, as an act of solidarity and to help right the wrongs of history, people can pay "rent" of any amount to Seattle's first people. Learn more at native-land.ca and realrentduwamish.org.

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