by Jasmine J. Mahmoud
Stage left: A towering three-story glass window frames a humble apartment. With dark grille lines that form a grid within, the window slopes inward and lets in iridescent rays of orange, yellow, and blue from the outside. Inside, we are in the attic apartment of four roommates: visual artist Marcello, poet Rodolfo, philosopher Colline, and musician Schaunard. Their apartment is sparse, with accouterments of art — music stand, easel, books — and of survival: a fire. Art and fire interact when we first meet Marcello and Rodolfo, who lament over the incessant cold and burn some of Rodolfo’s writing to keep warm.
This is the opening to La Bohème, the four-part opera about poverty, romance, and tragedy in early 19th-century Paris. Written by Giacomo Puccini, this classic first debuted in 1896 in Turin, Italy. I was nervous to attend this production in October 2021 at Seattle Opera, as I imagined a stereotype of opera (and its audience) as opulent, dense, and intimidating — and, quite frankly, white. In the actual production, I found hallmarks of opera produced in the United States, including the libretto sung in Italian and translated on a screen below the performers. But I also found warmth in Puccini’s story and a racially diverse cast, including Kang Wang, an opera singer from China, who portrayed the caring, attentive Rodolfo, and Brandie Sutton, who is Black, as Musetta, whose high-pitched notes brought exuberance and brightness to the production. As their voices boomed with energy and power, I asked myself, what did it mean for these performers to tell this story? Aesthetically, how are their faces lit to honor their skin tones? And how might opera center non-white stories?
Those questions are answered, in part, by upcoming programming, including last week’s Seattle debut of Blue, described as “a portrait of contemporary African American life: of love and loss, church, sisterhood, and most importantly, family.” Created by librettist Tazewell Thompson and composer Jeanine Tesori, Blue will run at Seattle Opera from Feb. 26 to March 12.
“We had been, as an industry, holding this precious art, and we didn’t ever want to say that there was anything wrong with it. But the reality is, we have done harm, historically,” Alejandra Valarino Boyer, Seattle Opera’s former director of programs and partnerships, told me. “I think it’s been really great to see the industry as a whole grapple with it, understand it, figure out how to address it and build from that.” When Boyer was still working at Seattle Opera, I spoke with her about the production and about Seattle Opera’s Racial Equity and Social Impact (RESI) plan, which was implemented in 2020.
Leading up to the implementation, Seattle Opera worked with the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative in 2015, internally formed an equity committee in 2016, and in 2019 — led by Dominica Myers, who was the Opera’s associate director of administration — went through an assessment involving staff, board, volunteers, and other stakeholders.
“The discussions that happened around Black Lives Matter are crucial in this country that needs to admit that there has been and still continues to be massive injustice,” Christina Scheppelmann, Seattle Opera’s general director, told me. “I think that there has to be some admittance to genocide that happened to the Indigenous tribes and also to the Black population that was brought to this country. I think it would help the conversation if one started with that.”
The resulting RESI plan includes three strategic priorities. The first is to formalize equity practices within and across all departments. “We’re integrating that into every department. … Even the leadership of the staff is making sure that we’re constantly talking about this and addressing these issues, [including] hiring practices,” Boyer said. The second priority seeks to “ensure that all of our stakeholders are engaging in the work with us.” The third priority commits the Opera to increasing racial and ethnic diversity on and off stage.
“Right now, we’re exploring the training that we’re giving our lighting designers, to ensure that they’re able to light correctly for any skin color that’s on the stage, not just using the default, which is, of course, the white singers onstage.” Boyer said. “What are the stories that we’re telling on the stage, and whose stories are we telling onstage?”
In addition to Blue, upcoming programming includes the February 2023 world premiere of A Thousand Splendid Suns, based on author Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 award-winning novel. Boyer explains that even though composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos are white, Roya Sadat, an Afghan film producer and director, will direct the production. “It was really important to ensure that the stage director was somebody who knew the story, who’s lived the story, who could bring their lived experiences,” she said. In the following season, the Opera will co-produce X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, composed by Anthony Davis. X first premiered at New York City Opera in 1986.
Additionally, Boyer says, Seattle Opera has a “new works program [called Creation Lab] for young writers and composers to get more ideas, and more sounds, and more out there.” The Opera also has a scholar in residence, musicologist Naomi André, whose research engages race and opera.
“I hope that the RESI plan and what we’re doing will make it clear to people that we’re not just about words — that we follow it up with actions,” Scheppelmann said. “And I’m trying very much to make sure that we do follow up with actions.”
Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts writer, curator, and assistant professor in Performing Arts & Arts Leadership at Seattle University. She lives on the border of Westwood, South Delridge, and White Center in (south) West Seattle.
📸 Featured Image: Cast from “Blue,” an award-winning opera now showing at Seattle Opera. From left to right: Cheryse McLeod Lewis, Ellaina Lewis, Briana Hunter, and Ariana Wehr. (Photo: Philip Newton, courtesy of Seattle Opera)
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