Bass-baritone Jonathan Woody
Bass-baritone Jonathan Woody (photo: Sam Reiss)
Article Published: 01 Jul 2019

Where Are Our Singers of Color? Part 1

African American and Latinx singers can face disproportionately large obstacles in their progress toward a career. An OPERA America project seeks to uncover contributing factors — and work toward solutions.

Paths to A Career

What Do Singers of Color Encounter?

For the past three generations, African American and Latino singers have figured prominently on the American opera landscape. You need only consider the brilliant careers of Martina Arroyo, Justino Díaz and Leontyne Price or, today, Lawrence Brownlee, Ana María Martínez, Ailyn Pérez and Eric Owens, to name just a few. Still, the fact remains that singers of color are underrepresented on American opera stages. One chief reason is that artists of color are more likely than Caucasians to face roadblocks on their paths toward an opera career.

OPERA America has instituted a project to address this inequity. As a starting point, the organization, with support from the Howard Gilman Foundation, has sought to identify “barriers”: the points along the path to a career in opera that may prevent a singer of color from moving forward. The first phase of the project has focused primarily on New York State and, in particular, New York City: an area rich in arts high schools, colleges with music curricula, and conservatories, while also the national nexus for artist managers and casting directors.

The initial documentation phase consisted of interviews with representative figures at every level of the discovery, training and employment process: a racially diverse group of educators, opera administrators and singers, along with interested observers. They offered their thoughts about the various stages all singers pass through before establishing themselves in careers: starting with issues of acculturation; moving on to structures within public schools, colleges and graduate-level educational institutions; and then addressing the pressures in early stages of a singing career that may affect singers of color particularly. Using these findings as a basis, OA convened a meeting on March 26, drawing in a wide range of industry participants.

Many participants believed that one key issue is, to a large extent, an economic one. The path to an opera career may well be as forbidding for a disadvantaged young white person as a black person in the same economic bracket. But since New York’s black and Latino populations in general experience more economic hardship than its white population, economic barriers disproportionately “constrict” access to a career among potential singers of color.

Still, not all of the barriers are economic. The art form’s lack of success in connecting with audiences of color creates a self-perpetuating system, in that African American and Latino children will typically have no early introduction to opera. “It’s a miracle that my family even knows what opera is,” says Alaysha Fox, a finalist in the Met’s National Council Auditions and an African American native of Queens. The soprano reports that her early environment not only lacked opportunities for arts participation; it actively discouraged exploration. “You could get teased by the kids in my neighborhood,” she says. “It’s a place where even reading is considered nerdy and troublesome.”

Even if young people of color do experience opera, they encounter a world that seems to exclude them, with sparse representation of people who look like them. Rebekah Diaz, a Latina soprano and civic-engagement consultant from the Bronx, made her first trip to the opera during high school, when a teacher took her to a Met dress rehearsal. But it wasn’t until she was a graduate student at Manhattan School of Music that she saw a Latino singer — Ramón Vargas in the Met’s Roméo et Juliette — on any stage. “That feeling of exclusion colors everything I do now,” she says.

New York City does offer opera-education opportunities in primary and secondary school, but they’re unequally distributed. The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s “Students Compose Opera,” “Urban Voices” and “Access Opera” programs introduce children to various aspects of opera, but they come with fees that public schools in low-income neighborhoods may be unwilling or unable to meet. “Yes, it’s affordable and doable,” says Stuart Holt, the Guild’s director of school programs and community engagement. “But you have to look at a public school’s budget and all the things they have to serve. Some of the students don’t have basic life necessities. They need free or reduced-price lunches. They have a hard time getting to school from home. This makes it super challenging for a school to find the money for an arts program.”

Melissa Wegner, executive director of the Met’s National Council Auditions, thinks the field as a whole should be doing more to reach high school students of color. “The industry needs to look at arts high schools, especially in urban areas,” she says. “We’ll hear [at the auditions] a great singer of color who’s 25 or 26, but they’ve started their serious training a little later than others. Let’s identify that talent before they’re undergraduates.”

The usual pattern, though, is that a teacher is the decisive factor, serving as a mentor to draw a young person’s attention to opera. Fox was singing in a church choir when a schoolteacher spotted her talent and encouraged her to think about opera. Rebekah Diaz was at a Bronx high school when her teacher brought her to the Met. “When students decide on a career in music, it’s often because of choral teachers or band teachers who get them to see music is something you can do,” says Kirk Severtson, a member of the voice faculty at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music.

Even for young people of color who have the talent and awareness to consider an opera career, its potential risks may prove insurmountable. “When you consider the years of training it takes and the uncertainty of a young artist’s career, it tends to attract people from privileged backgrounds,” says Douglas Beck, director of Carnegie Hall’s Artist Training Programs. “They have the resources to fall back on.”

“I came from a very, very poor neighborhood, and three generations of us lived in the same apartment building,” says Diaz. “Nobody left; nobody went to college. Your mother grew up here, and she might have been a secretary. So that is what you were going to be.” While Diaz earned her mother’s support for her decision to go into opera, she realizes: “I was lucky.”

Cultural obstacles, as well, may keep people of color from gravitating toward opera. It remains an overwhelmingly white realm, which can make it seem forbidding to prospective singers of color. “Throughout the classical music field, the issue is the extent to which the work itself feels relevant and welcoming to communities of color,” says Beck. Navigating a predominantly white space as a racial minority adds emotional labor: Black and Latino/a artists often have to wade through conversations in organizations that are not yet ready to shift their culture toward greater inclusivity.

Edward Berkeley, a faculty member in Juilliard’s voice studies department, notes the sparse representation of people of color on conservatory voice faculties. It’s a self-perpetuating void, in that it keeps the field from attracting new generations of African Americans and Latinos. “It affects the way things work,” he says. Berkeley is a director at the Aspen Opera Center, where he notes the presence of African American tenor Vinson Cole on the faculty has proved a magnet for potential students of color.

“It can be frightening to venture out,” says Timothy Long, director of opera at the Eastman
School of Music. Long likens the “code-shifting” that opera demands of singers of color to his own efforts, as an Oklahoma-born Native American, to adjust to the culture of the overwhelmingly Eastern and white classical-music world. “You have to feel comfortable in that world,” he says. “If you aren’t secure about any of that, it’s difficult to make gains.” Long’s observation points to an undoubted inequity, placing the burden for adaptation on the artist of color rather than on the field itself.

Disparities in preparedness skew the college admissions process. In order to apply to the undergraduate opera program at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, for instance, students must have experience singing in different languages and must memorize pieces of classical repertoire for their auditions. “The requirements presume that the students have access to that kind of preparation, and shuts the door to people who don’t,” says Kirk Severtson. The school is looking at ways it can counteract the implicit bias of its admission process. Still, Severtson warns, students who enter with little previous familiarity with opera may find themselves floundering when faced with the school’s rigorous academic requirements.

That was Diaz’s experience when she entered Carnegie Mellon as the only Latina student in the undergraduate voice program. “There were so many things I was deficient in,” she says. “I had to spend every morning in remedial studies. A lot of my colleagues had gone to private schools and had voice teachers since they were 11. You have to work so hard to be at the same level, I thought I’d never catch up. I spent much of my time feeling I didn’t belong.”

Diaz notes about her conservatory days: “Every summer when my classmates would go to Italy for pay-to-sing programs, I’d be working a part-time job moving furniture.” Darren K. Woods, as artistic director of the tuition-based Seagle Music Colony in the Adirondacks, grapples with this very issue. Many of Seagle’s artists get scholarships toward the fee; some even get plane tickets courtesy of the colony’s donors. But that hardly erases the financial burden of the summer. “If you’re paying just half, that’s still about $2,700,” Woods says. “Even if you’re getting full freight, if you aren’t working over the summer, you still have to worry about where to find money to pay rent in the coming months.”

The economic stresses imposed by an opera career do not magically dissipate once a singer nears her or his goal. Alaysha Fox bemoans the expenses involved in launching a career: coaching, lessons, audition fees, travel and the taboo against letting judges see you in the same dress twice, highlighting a special burden placed on women of color. As for Diaz, she is still paying off “astronomical debt” from student loans incurred years ago.

Aside from economic factors, an insular circle of relationships within the field also impedes diverse representation. When singers of color come up for auditions or competitions, they will find themselves face to face with panels that, like voice faculties, are mostly made up of white people. Wegner acknowledges that her own professional network lacks representation by people of color.

Singers may still face racism in the casting process. Diaz recalls being cast in a student-made production as a “feisty, slutty character, because I was the one Latina.” Later on, she had an easier time getting cast in the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda than in other repertoire. Some African American singers often encounter the same thing: They’re ghettoized in Porgy and Bess, finding difficulty in crossing over into other operas. “If I sing a Jake in Porgy,” says baritone Jorell Williams, “I let them know I’d also like to be cast as Mercutio or Papageno.”

In theory, the industry supports the notion of color-blind casting wholeheartedly, and it has in fact expanded opportunities. But much remains to be done. The issue is not simply one of equity, but also of making opera reflect our own times. “People under 45 have grown up seeing interracial couples and diverse casting on TV,” notes Wegner. “If they don’t see diversity on stage, it can seem really weird to them. If we don’t have a diverse industry, we can’t move forward.”

This article was published in the Summer 2019 issue of Opera America Magazine.