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Article Published: 13 Nov 2020

Old Titles, New Tactics

“Continuing to excuse and defend the problematic aspects of opera is no longer acceptable,” said Cayenne Harris, vice president of education and community engagement at the University Musical Society.

She was speaking at “Managing the Challenges of Inherited Repertoire,” a September 16 OPERA America panel discussion held via Zoom. Led by dramaturg Cori Ellison, the session addressed the issue of standard-repertory works that embody problematic attitudes, inherited from European culture and a legacy of oppression toward women and people of color. The prompts: “Should these works be dropped from the repertoire? Should they be retold in ways that align with today’s values? What are producers and artists to do?”

The discussion acknowledged the voices that have called for the termination of performances of the most troublesome titles, but the panelists uniformly advocated a more measured approach. “The inherited repertory is deeply problematic, but it can also reveal truths about the human condition,” said production designer Marcus Doshi. “Should these works be dropped? No. Should they be retold? Yes, of course, if they can be done in a way that can help us interrogate today’s values.”

“I would not advocate that any pieces should be wholesale dropped from the repertoire,” said Yuval Sharon, artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre and The Industry. “On the flip side, I don’t think we should assume that any pieces should be programmed just because they’re part of the inherited repertoire. It would be hard for me to imagine doing Madama Butterfly. Still, I think there are lots of ways to grapple with the appropriation and the view of ‘the other’ that the piece represents. But to do it in an un-investigated way is not possible.”

“With something like Don Giovanni, maybe it’s okay if it’s not a dramma giocoso,” said E. Loren Meeker, general and artistic director of OPERA San Antonio. “Maybe it’s okay not to laugh your way through it, and instead to analyze the text for what it is. That doesn’t mean it’s a lesser presentation: It’s allowing the material to flourish in a new light.”

“In order to find relevance in these titles, we need to empower artists to have creative autonomy,” said director/producer Aria Umezawa. “They need to feel like they can take these stories apart and put them back together in a way that is genuine to them. If we can truly create spaces for that to occur, even the most problematic title could become a political intervention.”

This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Opera America Magazine.