Through the continued journey toward a renewed and more intentional application of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in Western classical music spaces, it’s been inspiring to see how dialogue has largely been the fuel. Since 2020 (and even prior), innumerable panel discussions, convenings, and conferences have offered space to some of the industry’s most innovative conversations and ideas in a generation.
The positive, residual impact of this dialogue-based approach toward change can’t be denied; however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to address today’s missteps and examples of inequity in performance spaces by and with words alone. It begs the question: What should the next stage of change-making in the arts look like, considering the relative normalization of the talk-centric aspects of this work?
It’s a question that arts institutions and their associated individuals alike must consider, because in the recent weeks and months alone, the arts world has given its members plenty to work with when it comes to an actual application of the values that have fueled the general narrative of DEI thus far.
Among the latest issues plaguing the world of Western classical music in recent weeks, once again, is an issue that the world has been fighting for decades – maybe even over a century.
It’s a practice that perpetuated racist stereotypes on vaudeville stages, one that’s been normalized among those who frequent anti-Black hate rallies, and a practice that recently made yet another appearance in opera: blackface.
The use of skin-darkening make-up to portray members of the African Diaspora has long been a part of the tradition for performances of operatic compositions including (but not limited to) Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s Aida. But as people have become more vocal about the offensive nature of blackface, especially when used in opera, artists on both sides of the debate have dug in their proverbial heels and shown the world just how much of a deal breaker this is (or isn’t) for them.
The institution in question, in the latest headline-grabbing iteration of operatic blackface, is Arena di Verona: one of the world’s most famous opera stages and a leading institution for emerging and established opera singers.
When Angel Blue, a Black opera singer from the U.S. celebrated for her performances across the globe, learned that blackface would be used in an upcoming production by Arena di Verona, she canceled her existing contract with the venue, making it clear that she finds blackface totally unacceptable and under no circumstances something that should be considered appropriate for the stage.
Conversely, J’Nai Bridges, another very famous Black opera singer, decided to maintain her role as ‘Carmen’ at the Arena, with the following words posted to her social media in conjunction with her congratulations to Angel Blue for standing in her truth:
“Part of racism is grouping a race of people together. Anti-racism and equity gives us the privilege of being free to share our individual perspectives and walk in our individual truth!”http://jnaibridgesmezzo.com
As simple as it may be to pit these two women against each other, shifting attention toward the Arena di Verona’s management, staff, and other musicians gives us a look at the bigger picture. The decision for the institution to use blackface, and moreover, to defend their decision, was not made singularly. There are groups of individuals for whom this issue was not a dealbreaker, even considering the broad pushback against it.
Angel Blue and J’Nai Bridges were forced to make their feelings about the decision known publicly; the dozens of other music professionals involved simply sat in silent complacency, which highlights the great disparity between the verbal acceptance of equity and the lack of implementation when an opportunity presents itself.
While race tends to be the most acknowledged subject in DEI spaces, the gap between the conversations about equity and the actions toward equity do not only apply to anti-Blackness in Western classical spaces.
Just weeks ago, the Aspen Music Festival, Colorado’s premiere summer destination for musicians and music lovers alike, staged a performance of excerpts from “The Sound of Music”, which included the hanging of Nazi banners behind the orchestra.
Those familiar with this musical’s narrative recall that it takes place during the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and Austria. Though the use of Nazi imagery was presumably considered a required aspect for the staging, the court of popular opinion disagreed. Among those to make public statements of admonishment about the flag’s display was composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim. In a post on Twitter, Nathalie shared a photo taken of the banners and offered:
“There is no reasonable justification for this @aspenmusic, artistic or otherwise. It’s tone deaf, harmful, unnecessary, and should be under internal review.”@NathalieJoachim
Nathalie was among the many musicians to voice their disappointment with the Aspen Music Festival. As in the debacle at Arena di Verona, this inequitable and culturally incompetent decision was made, not individually, but collaboratively. Additionally, photos from the Aspen performance show that the orchestra sitting on stage didn’t have a problem with the banners either – at least not enough of a problem to cancel their engagement or participation in it.
As think pieces, social media threads, and digital apologies surrounding this event continue, so does the ambivalence and complacency of the majority of musicians and staff involved. It’s safe to say that few musicians would willingly pose in front of Nazi imagery if asked, but as seen at this year’s Aspen Music Festival, there were many musicians for whom Nazi banners were not a dealbreaker. In fact, there were actually enough musicians for whom Nazi banners were not a dealbreaker to successfully execute a full orchestral performance.
As the actions of music institutions and performers continue to be at odds with their words, there must be an acknowledgement of the circumstances that keep these individuals and institutions from being able to act on their goals and statements about DEI. The patriarchal, capitalist systems that keep many forms of activism relegated to dialogue and abstract debate play a huge role in what people feel comfortable doing (and not doing).
Dialogue is an important first step, yes, but acting on the issues in real-time is not only the next step, but the most important one. As James Baldwin famously wrote, “People find it very difficult to act on what they know.” If these hindrances can be traversed by individuals, then groups in collaboration, who ultimately make these decisions, will be inspired to draw the line on instances of inequity. Once those groups are inspired, institutions and systems will change. And once institutions and systems change, the world will change.