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Opera Is Becoming More Diverse. It's About Time.

Date: Jan 04, 2018

How composers of color are pushing the genre in new directions


I moved to New York City in 2011 to be a theatre journalist, and in addition to becoming a bona fide Broadway baby, I also planned to regularly attend the other "high" performing arts: dance, the symphony, and especially the opera. Yet I soon gave up on becoming a connoisseur of the latter. Although the genre is famous for being passionate and epic, opera left me cold. I blamed it on not having an ear for classical music.

Then this past fall, I saw an opera called We Shall Not Be Moved crafted by a trio of black artists: composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones. Inspired by a real-life event, it followed five poor, inner-city teenagers, most of them African-American, hiding from the law in an abandoned home. I was swept away by the story, the singing, the poetry, and the urgency of the work. Finally I understood opera's appeal.

I think the reason I connected with the piece so strongly is that it was created by people of color and addressed issues of today, which is uncommon in the opera world. I felt it was written for audiences of 2017 as opposed to viewers 200 years ago. "It's very rare that a black librettist, composer, and director are the founding creative team of a new opera work," Joseph affirms. "But hopefully there will be more and more."

While opera has seen an increase in performers of color in recent years, the creation process has mostly remained the purview of white men. But composers of color are making inroads. Last year, China-born, New York-based composer Du Yun won the Pulitzer Prize for music for her opera Angel's Bone. And this month, the centerpiece of The Public's Under the Radar festival is Parable of the Sower written by African-American mother-daughter composing team Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon. Based on Octavia Butler's 1993 sci-fi novel of the same name, the opera focuses on a young black girl living in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by global warming.

Similar to We Shall Not Be Moved, Parable of the Sower utilizes musical styles not found in traditional opera. The former featured jazz, hip-hop, and modern classical. Parable for the Sower uses a mix of what Toshi calls "black music traditions," including blues, funk, gospel, and soul. While Parable of the Sower doesn't contain a conventional operatic score, Toshi maintains it's an opera because "everything is sung. The human voice is the storyteller, and the emotion of the sound of the voice is a storyteller." That definition opens up the genre, allowing for non-European musical traditions.


Diversity is also helping the art form in other ways. Although opera has long included some characters of color, in recent years their portrayals have been met with raised eyebrows because they reek of caricature and are often played by white performers. Works like We Shall Not Be Moved, Parable of the Sower, and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter (which was co-written by the Reagons) are allowing creators and performers of color to tell the stories of their communities authentically.

"You can't just keep pulling out Madama Butterfly or Porgy and Bess," says Joseph. "We need to normalize a wide breadth of voices in the American theatre, including in the opera."

Embracing artists of color doesn't just allow opera to accurately reflect the diversity of the 21st century, these new works explore themes that resonate with modern-day audiences. Parable of the Sower may be science fiction, but it is telling a timely story about global warming, economic inequality, and racism. "Octavia Butler really understood something about humans and our endless capacity to be destructive," says Toshi. For a genre often dependent on refrains from the past, it's refreshing for an opera to feel so immediate.

"The last great opera was created centuries ago," says Joseph. "So undoing or unpacking the form -- not only through a particular African and African-American aesthetic frame, but also to interject our stories and our history, and most importantly, our politics in a contemporary way -- is necessary both for the form and the broad trajectory of performance in America."

In opera, a diva can croon about heartbreak for 10 minutes, not because it is dramatically necessary, but because her feelings are so overwhelming that they must be sung that loudly, that lushly, for that long. With these new operas written by artists from diverse backgrounds, it's an affirmation that marginalized communities are worthy of that same grandiose treatment, that our feelings deserve devastating arias. I may have to start attending the opera regularly again.


Follow Diep Tran at @DiepThought. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: We Shall Not Be Moved. Photo by Dave DiRentis /Opera Philadelphia.

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