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Article Published: 01 Jul 2020

Opera Conference 2020: One Panel, Two Perspectives

Writer, dancer, and teacher Theresa Ruth Howard offers her reflections on the final panel discussion of Opera Conference 2020 and on how arts organizations can do a better job of including Black voices in conversations about race. Howard is the founder and curator of MOBBallet, which preserves, presents, and promotes the contributions and stories of Black artists in ballet.

The brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were a tipping point for the nation, resulting in an uprising against the systemic racist policies, practices, and behaviors begotten by white supremacy. These events pointed out the urgent need for industries not just to talk about the core values of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging, but to take action to implement them. “Making Change,” a panel held on June 3 as part of this year’s online Opera Conference, was curated to examine the dynamics of organizational change and how they can be applied to achieving racial justice in opera.

No one can claim to be ignorant of the technical mechanisms to create change. In her opening comments, Aubrey Bergauer, executive director of the Center for Innovative Leadership at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, outlined several of them:

  • Equitable casting and repertory
  • Diversity on boards of directors
  • Reaching and involving the community
  • Leadership accountability

These ideas are not new or revolutionary. However, I think it might have been better to ask: How are opera’s leaders upholding institutional racism? How do we move past individual bias to contribute to change? Perhaps these questions would have fomented an honest discussion about the systemic racism that’s present in opera through implicit bias, microaggressions, and marginalization (intentional or not). The field needs to examine how the residue of white privilege still clings to even the “wokest” of allies, who in their eagerness to separate themselves from the pack are tipsy from their newly acquired knowledge.

When the discussion moved to reframe diversity as a “business opportunity,” I thought, “Slavery was a business opportunity.” Black people are tired of being used as a commodity for white profit.

Timothy O’Leary, general director of Washington National Opera and board chair at OPERA America, led the discussion, which included both black and white participants. As I watched, it seemed to me that the African Americans on the panel — Quodesia Johnson, education and company culture manager at The Dallas Opera; Derrell Acon, director of engagement and equity at Long Beach Opera; and Tracy L. Wilson, director of community engagement and education at Cincinnati Opera — had been enlisted as “emotional laborers.” Their job was to share their stories, explaining, imploring, and serving as a guide for their non-Black colleagues. They served as human enigma-decoder machines to tease out the latent biases and cultural insensitivities of their well-meaning colleagues.

Yet, when a question came in from the chat room — “Are the works that we are creating, that we think will appeal to an African American audience, really just being written for a white audience?”— Johnson cut to the quick: “Did you ask them? Did you ask Black people if it’s for a Black audience? Did you ask Black people if they wanted to see that? The default with our current leaders in opera is that ‘We know what is best.’ Our white leaders are still centering themselves in the decision making.”

Wilson then pointed out that the stories opera chooses to tell lean toward Black stereotypes (tragic, poor) that make white folks feel good. She encouraged leaders to forge authentic relationships not just with the African Americans on their teams, but with Black communities. “Really get to know the community,” Wilson said. “Get deep, get in with them, and you’ll learn what’s important.” This is a concept that is always suggested and at this point is EDI 101.

They performed the role of “representation” perfectly and offered observations and suggestions from lived experience, doing the emotional labor in education of white people, only to have their insight completely disregarded, supplanted by whiteness centering itself and dictating what is of importance in their opinions. This is the second time in an OPERA America setting that I have witnessed this with Black voices in the space. When whiteness, and its power, privilege, or perception of itself, is threatened or made uncomfortable, it pulls rank, pivots, or shuts down. The reactions of the non-Black participants made me think that white people should not be the leaders of these discussions, and that those who may be “woke” still have sleep in their eyes and are not self-aware or adroit enough to do so. It is like getting diagnosed with a brain tumor and deciding to perform the surgery on yourself.

This is a brutal but frank critique through the lens of Blackness during a time when we cannot afford the fragility, hubris, or ego of whiteness. OPERA America and the field at large would do well to stop talking, start listening, and yield the space. You can’t fix the problem when you are the problem.

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