Privilege and Connection
What does it mean for an opera company overseen and run by predominantly white male leadership to take civic action in a multicultural, economically diverse community? The question came up during “Building a Company’s Civic Practice,” a February 21 discussion during OPERA America’s 2019 National Trustee Forum. The event featured a panel of seasoned administrators: Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis; Charles MacKay, retired general director of The Santa Fe Opera; Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America; and James Wright, retired general director of Vancouver Opera. They addressed the challenges and rewards of inviting community members outside of the company’s core demographic into the opera experience.
Wright discussed Vancouver Opera’s production of The Magic Flute, initially staged in 2007, with members of British Columbia’s First Nations population participating as creators and performers (see “Cross-Cultural Hybrids,”p. 6). The adaptation occasioned an eye-opening cultural exchange for the First Nations community and the opera company alike. Similarly, MacKay described the experience of fostering dialogue between The Santa Fe Opera and its Pueblo neighbors, on whose ancestral land the opera house stands. Centered on the company’s 2018 production of Adams’ Doctor Atomic, the exchanges between neighbors engendered a rich, meaningful discussion about their complicated shared history. Canty described the ongoing success of Opera Memphis’ 30 Days of Opera initiative, which brings the opera experience to underserved neighborhoods throughout Memphis.
Toward the end of the session, an audience member asked the four panelists how they could reconcile their status as white men with the need to spearhead equity, diversity and inclusivity. Canty responded by stressing the importance of making space for more diversity in opera, while acknowledging his privilege and power as a white man. “My privilege gives me access to rooms and to people that others may not have,” he said. “That means I have an obligation to help dismantle these systems of power from the inside, as well as from the outside, so that if I were to get hit by a bus, the people interviewed to replace me would not all look like me.”
All the panelists argued that the measure of successful civic engagement and advocacy is not the number of tickets sold, but the relationships that a company builds and maintains within the community. By drawing in new, more diverse voices, these relationships can enact change that travels beyond the footlights and into the streets. “It’s not about extracting value out of a community partner,” said Scorca. “It’s about building a long-term relationship that reflects mutual investment.