Civic Action Group Cohort Discussions
Politics of Storytelling in Opera
Opera leaders make choices about the stories that are shared with audiences. These programming choices do not happen in a vacuum; there are opportunities to foster important discussions and build mutual understanding. There are stories that certain communities will identify with on a very personal level, and others that will challenge the sensibilities of longtime opera lovers. In reality, opera producers are weighing the costs and benefits of audiences and donors with differing political viewpoints. The field may see “time travel opera” and works that are less risky at the box office as apolitical, but in fact this curation is a form of political choice. Marc Scorca explained: “What you stage is always political. The stories you are telling are political. There is no non-political work. There are passive choices. If your season is La bohème, Così fan tutte and Faust, you are choosing not to overtly engage in more challenging, and perhaps relevant, discussions.”
The fact is that many “traditional” opera works that are still programmed today deal with subject matter that is problematic in modern times and, in many ways, work against the principles of civic practice. This includes misogynist and racist narratives, as well as cultural appropriation. Michael Bolton from Opera Philadelphia said: “We hold every project that comes up to the director, the designer, the composer, the librettist and ask, ‘Is this progressive? Does it resonate with the community and time we live in? Is it worth being put out there? How can we deconstruct the stereotypes?’ We are interested in the holistic approach as to how opera can be part of the living ecology and not just a pillar or museum.”
Many companies now produce new works that chronicle the experience of contemporary lives, such as veterans and transgender individuals, or program productions that deal with divisive modern issues, such as the death penalty and immigration. On the whole, companies are taking postures that don’t convey specific perspectives on this issues, allowing the works to speak for themselves. Chris Milligan from Cincinnati Opera said: “We are opening a dialogue. We live in a society that is siloed and divided. We want to be a gathering place for everyone.” Their marketing materials show enough about the topic, without warning or apology, but allow someone to decide for themselves whether to attend. Despite a neutral stance and clear information about the nature of a production, at some point, an audience member may get upset. Logan Phillips added: “It’s the resilience of being able to deal with these anxieties and animosities. This is a proactive posture. We are in a political climate in which we will be pushed to make these decisions.”
Civic practice goes beyond simply programming a work and adding community engagement programming that stimulates discussion or learning. Civic practice’s focus on process and co-creation calls for elevating stories that are meaningful to the communities and partners. New works might give voice to narratives that haven’t made it to the mainstream and serve as a platform to celebrate artists working in different cultural traditions. Artists from Opera Omaha met with community groups who expressed their need to be heard in their own voice. Camtrice Bexten explained: “Meeting after meeting, we kept hearing that there needs to be a place for people to tell their own stories instead of somebody else telling their story for them, whether it’s the Latino community, youth, homeless. We don’t jump in and say, ‘This is what we are bringing to you.’”
This process raises new questions for opera companies and pushes leaders into taking a stand. Brandon Gryde of OPERA America explained, “When we're telling the stories from our community, we are saying, ‘We're going to be allies for you in getting your stories out there.’”
Mark Valdez responded: “As you get deeper and deeper into the work, the partners and people you collaborate with are going to want to know what you stand for. If I’m going to partner with you, it’s not enough for me to get visibility. I need to know that we share some kind of values. If you are not going to show up for me when I need you at that march, why would I show up for you when you do this show?”
Performance Spaces and Audiences
The location at which an opera company chooses to perform sends a signal to the performers and audiences about the nature of the work and type of experience to expect. As many companies are producing works in venues beyond the opera house — in community centers and found spaces for site-specific works — these spaces have implications for civic practice, particularly in creating belonging, cultural competence and developing co-created works.
In inviting community members to attend performances, it is important to ensure that the space is welcoming and that the brand association with the opera company is clear, even at alternate venues. This posed a challenge at Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival, of which David Levy said: “We performed in five different venues. How do we create our own identity in each of these places which isn’t our regular home? Part of the solution was ambassadors in each of those spaces — greeters wearing the T-shirts for the company and having a consistent message.”
Welcoming audiences from differing cultural backgrounds is an opportunity for the opera company to demonstrate cultural competence and foster mutual understanding. Lyric Unlimited worked with different community groups to produce original opera works through its Chicago Voices program. Three groups performed their pieces at the Harris Theater for friends and family. Cayenne Harris explained: “Some of the performers were Croatian immigrants, and they ended the piece by coming into the audience and dancing. They invited people to get up and dance as the music was playing. The people who came to see ‘Harmony, Hope and Healing,’ a group coming out of homelessness and drug addiction, were part of that group that was dancing to the Croatian folk music.”
The reality, however, is that opera patrons and ushers (no matter the venue) have expectations about audience behavior, from arrival times to modes of audience reactions. Dictating that there is no late seating, and cheering only during historically approved pauses, contributes to a white supremacist view of how artistic experiences should be enjoyed. Mark Valdez mused: “We are striving to bring together these diverse audiences to sit side by side. As somebody pointed out that, at best, we mildly tolerate each other — just because we’re polite. Really, we’re annoyed that they’re making noise, or we’re annoyed that they’re silent. Or we’re annoyed that I can’t go to the bathroom and come back, or that I can’t check my voicemail or text.”
Animating belonging within these spaces takes some strategic interventions and conscious effort. In Cincinnati, the artistic director prompts audience members to turn to someone they don’t know and ask them about their first opera during the curtain speech. The response has been surprisingly lively and it gives audience members an understanding of how their neighbors may respond differently during the performance. As a result of Hurricane Harvey, Houston Grand Opera was forced to produce its season in the local convention center. At first, it was a challenge for staff to make sure the lobbies were welcoming and that ushers knew the layout. The space, which is often shared with other conferences, was named HGO’s Resilience Theater, and it created an opportunity to foster belonging. “We created a station where they can talk to us about what ‘home’ means to them,” said Carleen Graham. “We’re doing a project based around home, and how do people view home?”
This article is part of the report, An Introduction to Civic Practice, published by OPERA America. The report was derived from the meetings of the Civic Action Group, a peer-learning cohort of company representatives working to explore how opera can increase its capacity to address civic priorities, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.