Do you remember the first time you went to go see a live production of an opera? Maybe it was during a school field trip, or for a date that you wanted to impress. I’ve met people whose first experience in an opera house was born out of a pure curiosity that led to the purchase of a ticket.
Everyone has a different story about their introduction to this art form, but what isn’t engaged as much is the residual emotional impact of said introduction. For me, the introduction came by way of performing on the stage, but I wasn’t able to measure the emotional impact opera had on me until I engaged opera as an audience member.
My high school had a long-standing relationship with the local opera company, and whenever a production of “La Boheme” came through town, Opera Memphis would hire members of the high school band to play the “banda” that marches across the stage at the end of the opera’s second movement. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to play one of these roles in high school – a seed that grew into a genuine love for opera performance.
As is the case for most classical instrumentalists, the job market required that I audition for and accept the available opportunities, which led me to a career that centered orchestral music instead of opera.
My growing lack of proximity to opera, coupled with what I saw as its continued dedication to the “classical” status quo, completely diminished my appreciation for this most elaborately expensive of artistic expressions, but my activism would eventually bring me back into the fold.
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, countless organizations were created within the arts to address and engage a deeper relationship with diversity, equity, and inclusion; among them the Black Opera Alliance, who invited me to be a part of their work in early 2021. Having been separated from opera for several years, I assumed that the work of “decolonizing” opera would be too daunting to engage, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of Black opera professionals who not only exist in the field but are actively working to change it.
Representation is at the head of much of this work, which in turn has resulted in more diverse audiences seeking an opportunity to offer a verbal “bravo” to people on stage who look like them. Encouraged by this shift in the ecosystem (and driven by a deeply seeded love for opera born from my early days as a musician), I decided to re-engage opera as an audience member, and in doing so I realized that opera’s broader reach requires a deeper understanding of how particular characters and storylines can trigger the trauma that’s embedded in many of our experiences.
The first opera that I saw live, post-quarantine, was the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones”. The first opera by a Black composer staged in this most famous of opera venues. This historic event was one that I wanted to say that I was there for, and though I don’t regret seeing it, I can’t say that I wasn’t troubled by a storyline that involved a (seemingly) queer youth and his struggles after having been sexually abused as a child.
This isn’t to say that I expected the opera to be completely without dissonance. I simply questioned the role of that story as an entry-point for Black patrons. This was, after all, my first attendance at the Metropolitan Opera, so I imagine that this was the case for many other people as well.
At the same time, I could not deny the brilliance of the singers and the vitality of the orchestra – musically (and visually) the show was stunning. So I set my emotional responses to the side and contextualized them as something I should spend more time with away from the opera house. In other words, this was my problem, not opera’s problem. I believed that my critique of this opera, in particular, couldn’t be realized as a problem that opera needs to address, generally, but even that notion would soon be challenged.
Among the many opera companies to stage “Carmen” that following spring was the Kennedy Center, home to Washington National Opera. Being in town at the time allowed me to take part in this audience well. Hearing some of Carmen’s most famous melodies was nostalgic in many ways, but seeing the title character treated as an evil vixen triggered feelings in me that were similar to my initial reactions to “Fire Shut Up In My Bones”.
The opera also included lines that, translated into English, suggest that women are inherently deceptive and better suited for trickery and thievery than men. As the chuckles (and occasional belly laughs) filled the opera house in response to these statements, I found I grew more and more uncomfortable with the environment. Were people laughing at the ridiculousness of these statements, or cheerfully agreeing with what was being asserted?
The production ended with a very uncomfortable physical struggle between Carmen and her (once) lover, Don José, ending with Carmen’s murder – one of many examples in opera of women who die as their male counterparts go on to live beyond their respective stories (such as “La Boheme”, an opera served as my entry into the genre).
As a man, I could never frame the femicide-fueled frustrations I felt with the opera “Carmen” as something born from lived experience (unlike the way that I could relate my frustrations with “Fire Shut Up In My Bones”). However, the feelings were too similar to ignore. What I’ve now come to understand is that an introduction to opera “from the inside” denies one the ability to see how common tropes and storylines can impact the “uninitiated”, or people new to opera.
This point can be unpacked and critiqued for days, but what I think is most important to understand is that opera’s desire to broaden (or re-engage) its audiences will fall short unless those desires are accompanied by systems and initiatives that honor the outside perspective. Murder, rape, and violence have been key ingredients in opera for generations. While I’m not advocating for the complete sanitization of opera, I do believe my post-pandemic experiences with opera aren’t completely unique and may potentially be prohibitive to the renewal of engaging opera audiences. What is the potential solution to this issue? It’s twofold: balance and active cultural competency.
Joel Thompson’s “The Snowy Day” (inspired by the benign, Ezra Jack Keats short story of the same name) was staged by Houston Grand Opera in late 2021. Streaming it from my living room offered an extremely refreshing contrast to what I experienced at the Metropolitan Opera just a few months before – a story about Black people who aren’t being subjugated to physical, emotional, or sexual harm.
The African-American experience could never be fully and accurately portrayed without an acknowledgement of our unique and collective struggles, but that’s not our entire story. It’s vital that opera companies consider this when choosing which Black stories to stage and offering the bad without the good within a given season is, in my opinion, a failure to do so.
As the world continues to shift away from the pejorative “g-word” in reference to members of Romani communities, opera companies are applying this practice to the translation of “Carmen”. If this shift can be made (as it should), is there no license to protect Carmen from violent, sexually driven men by making her the ultimate heroine of the story, as opposed to the ultimate victim? Not only would this dismantle some of the inherit patriarchal issues with this opera (and opera, in general), but it would also begin to dismantle the respectability that has prevented opera from speaking to the specific time, place, and sensibilities of its audiences.
All in all, opera is becoming more diverse – both on stage and in audiences. If the industry wants to maintain this momentum, there must be a consideration of what happens not only on stage or even in an audience, but in the hearts and minds of opera companies’ broadening base of potential patrons.