The Power to Heal
The concurrence of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Daunte Wright, and the detestable attacks on Asians — including the recent beating of a 65-year-old woman steps away from Times Square — forces us to reassess our commitment to art-making.
Achieving performance excellence has been the worthy goal of all who work in opera as artists, administrators, trustees, and volunteers. We seek to share the inspiration of virtuosity with as many people as possible. But the creation of art — even art of the highest standard — is no longer enough when our communities are in desperate need of healing from COVID, of unity in the face of political divisions, and of reconciliation after centuries of racism that has terrorized and disadvantaged millions. What art do we produce, by whom and for whom? How and where do we produce it? How do we reconcile abstract concepts of excellence with the search for connection with the world around us?
The need to be far more reflective and inclusive was the focus of this year’s New Works Forum. The BIPOC participants were brilliant, compassionate, and insistent on change. Regrettably through, the burden was placed on them once again to educate an audience of largely white people who remain slow to learn about the patterns of exclusion and the barriers that keep many of our fellow citizens from participating in the world of opera. Their commitment of physical and psychic energy to improve our field comes with a responsibility for everyone in our field to be willing to change, to manifest our commitment to change through action, and to accelerate action to achieve racial justice as soon as possible.
Government intervention compels us to include civic action in our industry’s mandate. Most of our companies have received some combination of federal relief in the form of Payroll Protection Program loans (rounds 1 and 2), Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, Employee Retention Tax Credits, and special grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. The total value of combined federal support to opera alone will be well over $100 million.
This is taxpayer money — public support. These funds have not been made available simply to preserve opera for opera lovers, but to help us support our communities as we emerge from the crisis, prepared to help lift them from the depths of isolation back into the full realization of civic participation. We have a responsibility to use public support for public good. At this moment in time, what public good is more important than healing, unity, reconciliation, and justice?
Legislators have recognized over the last year that the arts are central to a strong economy and to resilient communities. They have demonstrated this recognition with billions of dollars for the sector. If we have any hope of holding on to a higher level of public support for our work in the future, we have to uphold our responsibility to give back to our communities. We must prove that if we receive, we will give back.
There has never been a time when our unique contribution to society has been needed more.