IDEAs: Artists of Color and the Future of Opera

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Our nation has been confronted with an uncomfortable truth:  there is not yet equality or justice for Blacks and other peoples of color. Will action finally be taken, not just by the government but by all parts of society, including the music arts industry?  The Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF) is rising to the challenge with a new initiative on Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Access – what a good IDEA!

Four HPAF alumni, African Americans Makeda Hampton and Alysia Lee, South African Njabulo Madlala, and Filipino-American Mary Rose Go were joined by HPAF faculty member Paulina Villarreal of Mexico first to sing, and then to engage in a sometimes painfully honest conversation about their experiences in a white male-dominated world, and to identify what must change.

Alysia Lee

Alysia Lee pointed to white music and white artists being considered the norm to which all artists must conform to and are compared to. This doesn’t give room and recognition for the different singing styles of peoples of color, or for non-European compositions to be added to the classical music repertoire. Mary Rose added that opera now just shows one slice of life – wouldn’t we be better off with the whole pie?

Paulina talked about bias.  Since she has a Spanish accent, she has been passed over, for example, for a white New Yorker role, and instead steered toward West Side Story and the Puerto Rican New Yorker role! Even when a non-white story like Porgy and Bess is performed, Makeda noted, if it is produced and directed by whites, they get the details wrong; people of color need to make those decisions to make a production authentic. Mary Rose added that operas like Madame Butterfly are painful and offensive to Asians, particularly women, who are vulnerable to the sexual stereotyping and predation of white men, which is the hidden under-story of Butterfly; but when an innovative production showed Butterfly in this light, the white audience left the hall.  Njabulo said too often he is the token black performer, and Alysia added that the problem is not just casting choices: entire organizational structures must change.

Njabulo (left) looked all of us straight in the eye: when there is a performance and the whole orchestra, the whole choir, the soloists, the whole producing organization is white, where are his colleagues, his friends, his fans?  Why don’t we say something? Is it up to the Black artist to raise the alarm, and jeopardize their own careers in the process?

The songs chosen by each of these artists and the way they were performed was an illustration of what happens when you practice inclusivity and diversity.  The sense of freedom and joy – “to fling my arms wide… to whirl and to dance,” something African American poet Langston Hughes can only dream of as a Black person in America, was put to song by Detroit-born contemporary composer Brandon Spencer. Makeda’s powerful soprano made the words her own. Njabulo Madlala has a smooth baritone voice that is as easy-going as if he were speaking; there is nothing forced about the two African songs he performed. “Malaika,” or “Angel” in Swahili, first was heard in the US from Miriam Makeba, who was one of the early Blacks to diversify the folk music scene. It turned out that white people loved music from other parts of the world, and not having the opportunity to hear it narrows their field of enjoyment.  Alysia Lee wrote “Say Her Name” using the meme from Black Lives Matter to make sure we remember the real people that have been murdered by the police, so they don’t become just statistics. She begins with a powerful solo and is then joined by eight voices who sing in unison; then she solos again, and is joined by 36 now using harmony, and later, with more than a hundred whose faces are on the zoom screen, in counterpoint.  The repetition and call-and-response are in the Black church tradition; the use of hands and breath as percussion remind us of the roots of that tradition in African music – Njabulo used the same clapping of his hand against his chest as in “Say Her Name.”

Mary Rose’s coloratura rose to the heights in the Silver Aria from the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. She chose this piece perhaps in defiance of once being told she was not blond enough for the role! Raised in Honolulu, she also gave us a lovely hula as she immerses herself in Native Hawaiian tradition; she tells us that culture allows us to enter and explore worlds that are not our own; our humanity binds us together wherever we go. Mezzo-soprano Paulina sang “Despedida” with its Latin beat, composed by Maria Grever, the first Mexican woman composer to be successful on the US side of the border. Her choice reminds us that women are particularly likely to be overlooked and forgotten, and it is up to artists like Paulina to bring those gems back into the light of day.

The performances were stunning individually, and awesome as a whole.  While I wanted more music, it is a tribute to HPAF that they allowed the roundtable to last long enough (the whole program was two hours, twice as long as usual) for the artists to be able to say what they needed to say; time is also a cultural phenomenon, and not everyone can express their hearts within a two-minute deadline!

Mary Rose Go

Each of these artists, against all odds, have become successful performers in the mainstream world. This conversation allowed us a glimpse into what hardships they had to endure to get to where they are and made us even more appreciative of their determination. They are ground-breakers and exceptions – but they want to become the rule! What can make that happen? For one thing, starting early: music education in grade school can, as Alysia said, “open kids’ world to how music is all around us,” and how we are all creators as well as consumers. Give them a sense of their potential, and help them not become like some famous performer (as Mary Rose said, “de-center celebrity”), but to explore and develop their own unique voices, grounded in the culture they come from.

Mary Rose issued HPAF a challenge to become “less a singing program in Hawaii and more of a Hawaiian singing program.”  And Njabulo brought the conversation back full circle, when he said that what HPAF does to mentor and open doors for young artists, as it did for him, a poor kid from a South African Black township, gives him hope that there can be change. Director Moniz told us of some of the steps they are putting in place to better serve singers of color. 

Both artists and audience owe HPAF a big thanks for their courage in having this conversation, and for being willing to change.  As we better understand the extra obstacles facing artists of color, each of us can be a better change agent.  No more dreaming: let’s make a world where everyone can fling their arms wide, and whirl, and dance!


About the author: Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Courtesy photos

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