by Mark Van Streefkerk
For over 400 years, opera has been an art form that encompasses vocal and orchestral music, storytelling, and visual art to explore the human condition — and in its beginnings, that meant the white, European human condition. Opera has since been written, performed, and loved by people around the world from many diverse cultures and ethnicities. In the 21st century, audiences and performers alike are increasingly acknowledging the historical racism, exoticism, and misogyny of opera’s traditional works and opening up doors for conversations about how to approach and interpret them.
As part of Seattle Opera’s ongoing Community Conversations, last week the company presented a virtual panel discussion, The View From the Pit: Maestros on Race and Gender in Opera. The public webinar was moderated by Seattle Opera’s Director of Programs and Partnerships Alejandra Valarino Boyer, and featured maestros Kazem Abdullah, Viswa Subbaraman, and Judith Yan, conductors who have all worked with the Seattle Opera and internationally. The discussion covered a wide range of topics like representing marginalized people, finding liberatory spaces in opera, advice for other BIPOC artists, and how the conductors would like companies and audiences to approach challenging works. The discussion will soon be uploaded for viewing on Seattle Opera’s Community Conversations page.
Conductors are in charge of shaping the music, crafting the audience’s experience, making interpretive decisions about the work, overseeing rehearsals, unifying performers, and so much more. All of the maestros on the Seattle Opera panel emphasized that their industry is globally competitive and requires an incredible amount of persistence and dedication to be successful. Subbaraman and Abdullah also noted that it’s not uncommon to feel pigeonholed in their work.
Subbaraman said he sees his role as “the only musician [in an opera] who doesn’t make sounds.” He was recently the artistic director and music director of Skylight Music Theater, and conducted Flight, streamed online for Seattle Opera.
“The places I’ve seen [racism] the most are from the perspective of the types of work I get offered, and the pigeonholing of being a minority conductor and being tasked with doing all the minority work,” Subbaraman said. “Opera companies have been adding more minority-oriented work to their seasons.”
Subbaraman noted the addition of BIPOC-focused works means more BIPOC performers get hired and paid, which is positive, but his ultimate goal is to be known for his skill as a conductor, not his racial identity.
Abdullah is an international composer who joined Seattle Opera for a filming of Tosca. Throughout his career, he said some opportunities he has been offered were, “Sometimes more about the optics rather than the actual artistic and musical experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been much more selective about what I decide to do.”
Yan has conducted opera, symphony, and ballet internationally and joined Seattle Opera for An American Dream in 2015. Yan shared her strategy for resilience in the face of harmful racial or gender stereotypes: “It takes decades to figure out what exactly you’re doing and how to do it. I’ve never had time to take note of the offenses,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m accepting it. This is the world. This is the game. Figure out what you need to get from these conditions.”
For Yan, those skills of discernment and survival as a Woman of Color in the industry lead to moments of pure liberation — like right when she’s in front of an orchestra — that make it all worth it.
“The minute the work starts, all of that goes away — who you are, where you’re from, what your gender is — it really does go away. I can’t speak for my colleagues … [but for me] that is a moment when you’re just a pure being, there’s nothing attached to you … you’re just a vehicle for the work.”
When it comes to challenging operas, such as The Mikado — which has been criticized for its stereotypes of Japanese people by British writers — Subbaraman, Abdullah, and Yan recognized opera companies have an obligation to educate, invite dialogue, and where necessary, depart from a traditional telling of the story. Sometimes despite these efforts, the work simply can’t be fixed.
Subbaraman remembered conducting The Mikado in Houston in 2019. The company worked with the Japanese Cultural Association to be more thoughtful about the production. It was ultimately produced as a play within a play. “I don’t know if it was necessarily successful at solving the problems [of the opera],” Subaraman admitted. Part of the audience was angry because it wasn’t the traditional version they were used to. “When a company is trying to figure out how to be more thoughtful about a production, the audience has to understand … it may not look exactly like the old show you used to see, and that is the point,” he said.
But grappling with interpreting an opera is exactly part of a conductor’s work, the panelists emphasized, and they welcome taking on challenging pieces. Coming from marginalized backgrounds can be a strength when it comes to understanding and communicating nuance and complexity.
“Please don’t cancel Puccini,” Yan said, advocating instead for more marginalized identities to be included in conversations around challenging works.
Read more about the Seattle Opera’s Racial Equity Plan here.
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