Kashu-do (歌手道): Race Fear in Opera: The Scary White Elephant in the Room

Who is afraid of the word Race in Opera?  Everybody!  I have never wanted to concentrate my thoughts on the subject of race in operatic casting because I thought it detracted from the necessity to concentrate on what one can do as opposed to what one has no control over.  When I think on the Black singers who have accomplished greatness in Opera, I see commonalities:  great voices combined with unlimited discipline and determination.  As a singer whose race would probably be considered in casting, it was clear to me that I could not change my race so why concentrate on it? I concentrated on what I could control. Edward Pierson II, was the first Black opera singer I knew. His wife was my first art teacher at Winfield Scott School No. 2 in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the United States.  Soon after my year in her class I became passionate about the game of tennis and joined a city  -sponsored summer youth tennis program.  There I met his son, Edward Pierson III, who played tennis and also sang with a beautiful tenor voice. We sang in a local chamber choir together the year after and after playing several tennis games with his father, the elder Ed Pierson, I learned that the older gentlemen with the Darth Vader voice was actually an opera singer who sang Hollander at New York City Opera among other great roles.  Mr. Pierson was kind and friendly and gentle.  His speaking voice, unforced resonated everywhere.  I was just beginning to come to grips with the fact that opera was my passion and having these role models was important.  Soon after Mr. Pierson, I met Simon Estes, George Shirley, Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price.  Their performances and their manner was always concentrated, musically impeccable and they without exception stressed work ethic, continual improvement, never taking your gifts for granted and never resting on your laurels! 

In a laudable and responsible approach, these great pioneers concentrated on what they could affect through hard work and never concentrated on complaining against racism.  It was tacitly understood that complaining would only bring retribution, so the best thing to do was simply to do the job as well as was possible.  I believe this attitude was passed down to the latter generation.  I know that I learned this from George Shirley, not in those specific words, but in is gentle demeanor and in the balanced and cool-headed way he approached everything.  Perhaps it was influenced by Martin Luther King and the ideology of non-violence that was the understood philosophy of the time.  I could never disrespect those heroes for their quiet perseverance.  It is what they had to do to help put Black faces on the operatic stage (their own) and thereby inspire the generations after them to go further.

There is also a very paradoxical problem in calling out racism in the operatic field.  I don’t know a single Black singer who did not achieve his or her success without the support of White supporters, whether a patron who took real interest in them as artists and human beings, or a loving teacher, coach or conductor, or even the administrator of an Opera house.  So how do you call racism out in those situations without offending the very people who support your rise and help maintain your progress?

When I recently posted some questions on my Facebook page regarding racism in Opera, not a single one of my working minority friends responded to the questions and I have many–from those who work at top houses all over the world to those who work at mid-level houses in Europe and regional houses in the United States.  Considering the previous paragraph alone, I empathize with my colleagues’ choice of just staying out of the conversation.  Additionally, as a friend, a non-performer, who is close to these singers expressed, these singers do not wish to be linked to any conversation on social media about Race in Opera for fear of losing their jobs or losing their status in the mainstream.

As another friend of mine mentioned on my Facebook feed, the Metropolitan Opera (It is only normal to target the MET, because it sets the standards for how regional opera companies in the U.S. behave) lists its soloists roster for 2015-2016 including 272 singers with only 8 Blacks (3%) and 11 Asians (4%).  The estimated percentage of Asians in the United States in 2015 is 4% while estimated percentage of Blacks in the United States is 13%.  Asians are represented at the Metropolitan, Blacks are severely underrepresented.  Yet equal representation is not the central question.  The central question is whether the disparity has to do with tacitly accepted racist practices that are not addressed because everyone is afraid to open what could be a very uncomfortable Pandora’s Box.  Because the issue is so potentially volatile, no one within the Opera performing world is willing to address it.  Consequently racist elements may exercise their poisonous activities in the guise of artistic realism by saying that such a singer does not look like what these characters might look like historically, for instance.  A red-herring argument, as we have enough precedence to counter that posturing!

How then do we approach this issue?  As is evident by the activity on my Facebook page, my fair-minded White colleagues are not afraid to speak about this, because they do not fear retribution. Perhaps some do for merely raising the question!  The call to justice therefore is incumbent upon the Operatic establishment worldwide to make certain, once again that casting practices are not based on the composition of skin but rather on the content of character and the viability of the artistic talent.  Criteria in opera are many!  One singer can be dismissed because his diction is not perfect.  Then one goes to a performance to find that the singer who is cast is severely vocally inadequate.  When the singer dismissed for his diction is a Black or Asian singer, one must wonder if casting such a singer aside for diction is not simply a pretense for excluding a non-White singer.

Indeed operatic casting involves not only racism, but lookism of all kinds and homophobia.  One colleague of mine explained that a friend of his was told point blank that he was a superior artist but he could not be cast because those who make the decisions were afraid he would be too effeminate onstage.  An effeminate gay man can “butch it up” just as a heterosexual can easily play effeminate if they are good actors.  However, a Black man or an Asian woman cannot change their race.  That is what the make-up and costume crews are for: to help us transcend realism and get into a world of imagination.  The issue of blackface and racist American minstrelsy have made the question of make-up deferring to the character’s race problematic.  Here we are putting the cart before the horse!  I would prefer to see us deal with the problem of getting Black singers on stage because they are talented enough and deal with the issue of stage make-up after.

Indeed there is a lot of responsibility to be shared.  What made the Verretts and Shirleys of the operatic world so beyond reproach was their exceptional musicianship and attention to details (linguistic, stylistic, stagecraft, physical fitness, etc).  These singers were beyond reproach on so many levels.  Singers of African decent must do their part to be as beyond reproach as one can be, such that nothing can be used against them.  The administrations of opera houses must make a point of making sure that their casting directors do not practice race-based biases, inappropriate lookism, etc.   This includes making operatic talent the main focus of their hiring policies and not nepotism with regards to their artistic leadership (i.e. conductors and directors).  Productions that require decisions on a racial line where race is not of fundamental concern to the operatic plot must be frowned upon. The journalistic media must become more objective with regards to their critiques of productions.  Too often, journalists become the sycophants and pawns in support of the houses they are supposed to critique and totally fail in their duties to question the artistic values of a production.

Casting agents in opera houses may be convenient but they are in a sense superfluous.  The speed of life on our planet has increased to untenable levels and thus with regards to opera, conductors who should be making decisions for their production are too busy to make them and defer to casting directors and agents.  Casting directors who are sometimes not appropriately competent to make casting judgments do, often relying on the judgments of friends who are agents to tell them which voice types are appropriate for a given role.  The agents themselves sometimes do not know! Worse than that, the agents will attempt to get their singers in who may be charmingly inappropriate for the role in question.  In other words, the conflict of interest between casting directors and favorite agents borders on blatant nepotism.  What if one or both of such people have racist, misogynistic or homophobic bents?  Their choices become unchecked and biased.

A propitiously timed article came out in defense of recent Wimbledon champion, Serena Williams and her sister Venus, commenting on the degree of disrespect and racial abuse these exceptional athletes have been subjected to in a sport that up until their dominating entry had been more or less a White sport.  Sports like Tennis and Golf, requiring early financial investment was economically prohibitive for many Blacks until recently.  Many consider the dominance of the Williams sisters to be offensive plainly because they are Black.  In essence, without always using the racial epithet (although it comes up), high achievers in areas considered formerly white property are treated as “uppity niggers” encroaching on areas they do not belong. The treatment of President Obama by the Republican Congress–and by their example inspiring detractors around the country– has been abhorrent behavior tantamount to conduct unbecoming a member of the U.S. Congress.  It is as if the extreme hatred of blacks that had been swept under the rug, during the Civil Rights movements–on the heels of the murders of King, X and the Kennedy Brothers–has reared its ugly head and is becoming accepted again.  Police brutality targeting Blacks, White Supremacists targeting Black Churches as they did a half century ago, are all becoming more common place in our times begging the question if we will ever go beyond this uncivilized adolescent stage as a nation–Unfortunately a nation that casts such a grand aura that its examples become a convenient blueprint for the modern development of a new Western European culture, where minorities of different origins (whether the North Africans in France or the Turks in Germany) become the targets of racially motivated violence and institutionalized racism.

The difference between the Williams Sisters, President Obama and Opera singers is the following: There are rules in presidential politics that gives a uniquely talented candidate like Obama the opportunity to show his talent and win two American elections despite the obvious racist elements.  Despite racial abuse, the game of tennis cannot keep down players like the Williams Sisters.  They have an opportunity to compete on the even playing field of the tennis court.  There are no standards left in Opera that would guarantee fair competition in the way that the generation of Leontyne Price and George Shirley were afforded.  In essence, there is no way of monitoring racist activities in an operatic environment.

Opera itself has been not only redefined but in large part bastardized to imitate popular genres such as musical theater and film.  Criteria that are abhorrent to the art form are imposed by a great part of the leadership that does not believe the art form to be viable in our times.  The vocal talent that made so many great Black singers come to the fore has become a relatively minor part of a greater package that is part opera, part pop-culture.  Our conservatories no longer prepare students thoroughly enough to meet the challenges of the field.  Thus raw Black vocal talent often go unrefined, giving fodder to the racist canon that Black singers are, beyond native vocal talent, otherwise unprepared.  American Opera houses are importing singers from Eastern Europe and Asia for their Young Artist Programs!  In some cases these singers of the East have better vocal preparation, but they too lack certain elements of the operatic package.  Why then are they chosen over viable Black and Asian Americans?  One must wonder?  Can Asians pass for White more convincingly than Blacks?  Are Blacks of less pigmented skin more likely to get hired than very dark Blacks? The questions are endless!
How viable is a career for Blacks in Europe these days?  By and large there is more opportunity in Europe and Blacks (particularly Black Americans) are liked and are still considered exotic in a sense. However, competition in Europe is fiercer than ever. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East, full of grand vocal talent looked West for opportunity.  The former Soviet Block, the Chinese, Mongolians and Armenians are joining the Koreans in dominating vocal competitions.  The Scandinavians, especially the Swedes, have a grand tradition and are in the mix in much greater numbers than before.  Germany, Austria and Switzerland have become the battle ground for operatic competition and there are not enough jobs to satisfy the saturated field of aspiring singers.  Eastern Europeans and Asians are preferred to Blacks now.  
One of the artists’ managers that I often recommended to my singers responded disturbingly to me once that a particular African-American singer was too American for their taste and they did not feel this singer would succeed in the European market (although the singer has already been successful in Europe).  I never got that response when I sent Caucasian Americans to this agent.  How else is an American supposed to be?  Does the singer not transform onstage with his/her character?
Not every negative comment made to a Black singer is racist.  One excellent conductor told me after I auditioned with Siegmund and Otello that he felt my voice lacked a certain concentration for the dramatic leads that I would do better in such roles as Mime and Herod and that he would be happy to recommend me for such roles.  He also said it would be difficult to be cast as an Aryan demigod in a country where Aryan-looking singers are plentiful.   This was logical! At the time of the audition he was correct.  I was in the middle of my transition to tenor and although I displayed an even voice, I was the first to say to myself, this is not yet ready for prime time.  Yet, given the poor representation of Blacks on the operatic stages of the world, it is not offensive to question whether race-based bias is at the core of it.
That no one, not the great Black singers of the past, nor the current generation of working Black singers, feel safe enough to address the question, for fear of retribution, is precisely why this issue needs to be addressed.  Should Black singers be afraid to discuss this for fear of being sidelined represents a level of oppression that suggests privileged people have something to lose in addressing such an important question, which has been addressed in virtually all other art-forms and disciplines.  Opera lags sadly behind in that regard.
Parenthetically, in my early days in the United States, I had two close friends: one was Portuguese and the other Dominican.  My Dominican friend was darker in skin color than me and in every sense looked like a Black young man.  Somehow we got into the conversation of what made Haitians who share the island of Hispañola with the Dominican Republic different.  My young friend calmly stated: “You are Black, I am Hispanic.”  So does the United States Government define it.  The choices on an official U.S. document with regards to race is suspect: A) Caucasian B) Black (not of Hispanic origin) C) Hispanic D) Asian, etc…  Thus one who is Black but born in a former Spanish colony is considered Hispanic.  The formerly enslaved Black American is seen as the lowest among the races, and thus the Hispanic makes a political choice to distinguish himself from Blacks who may be closer in heritage to him than his former Spanish colonizer.  Consequently Hispanics fare a great deal better in the Operatic world, whether Black Hispanics or Caucasian-looking Hispanics.
This racism is deeply woven in the fabric of American History and World History. As much as individuals may make a choice to put that past behind them, the nature of historically privileged  institutions, the Opera house being among the last bastions of such distinction, is to preserve such an image, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  Privilege in a Eurocentric society is equivalent to Caucasian.  To expect racism to disappear from the face of the world is naive at best, unless we are visited by a culture from beyond our world that wishes us harm.  Only then will humanity unite.  To unshackle ourselves, all of us, from the bonds of racism, we need to take a journey within as a World society and analyze our historical biases and how they rule us or we rule them.  
The arts are here to ennoble us. An art form should limit racism and  not be used to limit someone because of their race.  An art form may deal with race as an issue but not be used as a tool for racism.
I am about to begin a new chapter of my life in Sweden, a country that compared to everywhere else I have lived is relatively homogeneously Caucasian.  Yet, in the time I have spent there, it is the first place where I have felt that my race is not a criterion that determines my worth as a human being or as a professional in Opera.  No, Sweden is not totally devoid of race bias.  Racism exists there too!  But the people of Sweden abhor racism and nothing is worse there than to be considered a racist.   
In light of my new situation, I could easily have resisted to write on this issue.  Yet, I teach Black singers from many corners of the planet.  I sometimes advise Black singers who are not my students on matters of career development.  What do I tell them about the nature of the current Operatic business environment?  I cannot tell them there is no racism. That would be a blatant lie.  Yet I cannot tell them precisely in what form racism is expressed in the business.  It can be creatively subtle or expertly masked.  Thus the only thing I can do is to begin the conversation in earnest.  This is the first of many articles on this blog to address the question of Race in Opera full-frontal.  No this blog will not turn into a blog about Race, however discussing this issue is totally in keeping with my mission.  On the top of the blog’s front page is written the following:

This blog is dedicated to making sense of what we know about vocal technique, the psychology and spirituality of singing and issues that directly impact vocal pedagogy, performance and the effect of the art form on the broader social discourse…

I hope with all my heart that this topic will become something that does not scare people but inspire us all to take a good look at what our art form means to us beyond our own opportunities and safety.  We have to be willing to lose something to gain something better!

© 07/13/2015

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