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To ‘have a piece of my true self onstage’ – diversity in recent opera and orchestral music

J’Nai Bridges as Kasturbai in LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Satyagraha.” (Photo: Cory Weaver / LA Opera)

My inspiration for this article came from a blog on the Los Angeles Opera website headed Seven Black Opera Singers Who Are Currently Dominating The Game. The blog cited folk such as mezzo J’Nai Bridges seen recently in LA Opera’s Satyagraha, Russell Thomas who has recently finished a season as Titus in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, and bass Morris Robinson, the former gridiron lineman who played the Grand Inquisitor in LAO’s Don Carlo last September.

The blog also mentioned Taylor Raven, Janai Brugger, Lawrence Brownlee, Pretty Yende, and John Holiday, and could have added Issachah Savage, who sang in Verdi’s Requiem in Melbourne last week, and others. Then I thought of Hispanic singers such as Ana María Martínez and the Korean-American soprano, Kathleen Kim.

Not long after seeing that blog, I read an interview with incoming Australia Council CEO, Adrian Collette which headlined the sentiment that ‘arts companies that ignore diversity are “out of touch”’.[1] It made me want to dig a little deeper into how America is going in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and think about how it might be relevant to the situation in Australia.


At first I assumed that opera was streaks ahead of orchestral music in this area. That was partly a result of having seen several of those singers onstage, and Kim in a stunning YouTube video that I forwarded to just about everyone I know where she sings ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung’ from Nixon in China.[2]

And I could instantly think of ‘diverse’ subject matter in recent US opera – Yardbird, about Bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, Anthony Davis’s forthcoming Central Park Five, about the five non-white youths whose wrongful convictions for a 1989 rape were vacated in 2002 (but not before Donald Trump famously took out newspaper ads calling for the death penalty). I thought of the Bright Sheng/David Henry Hwang adaptation of the greatest Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, and even of Pacific Opera Group’s April co-production (with Houston’s Opera in the Heights) of Madam Butterfly in Japanese and English, the languages the characters would actually have spoken. If American opera automatically dramatises American stories, I thought, American opera will be diverse.

I even had a feeling that I’d read somewhere an explanation for the greater involvement of African-Americans in opera as opposed to instrumental music, crediting church and school choir for the gravitation toward operatic singing. When I interviewed soprano Malesha Jessie Taylor she told me that what got her interested was attending a public high school in Claremont, California, where she sang in the madrigal choir, chamber choir and musical theater chorus. ‘I loved to sing already. That was just natural talent. And I learned that I had a good voice for singing classical music. My choir director gave me my first aria and I started taking lessons and did Elijah and that was my introduction.’ Since then Malesha has created ‘Guerilla Opera’ in Brooklyn and San Diego, performed the role of Annie in Porgy and Bess in the Francesca Zambello filmed production with San Francisco Opera, and appeared with the Boston Pops, American Symphony Orchestra, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Pacific Symphony, among others. (Her TEDx talk What Do You See? gives an account of her project to free people from the notion that African-American people don’t sing opera.[3])

So, with those impressions, I phoned Jesse Rosen, the CEO of the New York-based League of American Orchestras, the American orchestras’ peak advocacy body, to get a sense of what US orchestras are doing in this field. For a start I found myself revising my presumption that opera is streaks ahead. The League’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (‘EDI’) Center provides resources designed to help orchestral administrators better understand and create deeper connections with their community. But there were two concrete initiatives in particular I started to discuss – the National Alliance for Audition Support whereby applicants gain assistance to attend auditions, and the Catalyst program.

Talking to Jesse Rosen

I asked Jesse how Audition Support came about. ‘We held a lot of meetings’, he said, ‘and one of the questions we were asking was “What are some of the barriers to greater diversity in US orchestras?” and practically the first thing everyone said was “the cost of auditioning”. Then following the cost was the need for mentoring and coaching and following closely on the heels of that was the need for preparation and time to prepare because many people who are auditioning are freelance musicians and need to take every job that’s offered to them which makes it very difficult to prepare. That led us to think, “Well we could defray the cost of auditioning, and there’s no shortage of people who can provide mentorship and coaching.” That really was the premise – let’s try to remove those barriers, with no illusions that this was the entire scope of what needs to be done. And it’s an appropriate place for orchestras to invest because we have an interest in having a robust talent pool, whereas working at the level of early childhood education is a little bit to the side of the core work of orchestras.’

The National Alliance for Audition Support is an initiative of the League, the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy and the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization that is ‘the lead program administrator and fiscal agent for the Alliance’. An organisation ‘transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts’, the Sphinx Organization, founded by violinist Aaron Dworkin and headed by Afa S. Dworkin, President and Artistic Director, provides a range of programs from access to music education in locations such as Detroit and Flint, Michigan; partnering with Curtis and Juilliard to provide a summer chamber music and solo performance camp for 11 to 17 year olds; a symphony orchestra comprising top Black and Latinx performers from around the country…The list goes on. The Sphinx Organization is worth a story in its own right[4].

But I also wanted to ask Jesse Rosen about Catalyst. ‘The idea here was to provide support to orchestras so that they could retain practitioners who help organisations develop their own internal culture. There are many other processes beside auditions that are relevant to achieving equitable workplaces, for example board recruitment, staff recruitment, staff retention. We did two major research studies a couple of years ago – one qualitative and one quantitative. And the qualitative research looked at the experience of Fellows from African-American and Hispanic backgrounds who played in symphony orchestras over a 40-year period. Most had very unsatisfying experiences, which made us realise that you have to work on the cultural environment and the extent to which an organisation can be inclusive.[5] Also we heard from many musicians that they continued to experience bias in the audition-process – that’s kind of what led us to wanting to, in addition to the audition programs, support our members through developing their own internal cultures.’

Talking about board structure reminded me of a point that Malesha had made about Non-profit organisations’ boards needing to reflect their communities, of which more later. But first I was caught up on what Jesse Rosen meant by ‘continued to experience bias in the audition-process’. I thought auditions were conducted behind screens so auditors couldn’t see who’s playing.

‘Screens are not used uniformly,’ he said, ‘and they also are not used uniformly throughout the process. Some orchestras use them but they take them down at some point in the process. So that’s where bias can play a role’.

Of course, bringing up the word ‘auditions’ raises a red flag for some, suggesting that EDI means ‘filling quotas’ rather than improving access.

‘I think one of the points of tension’, said Jesse, ‘is that conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion often get conflated with affirmative action. People hear these words and there’s a presumption that the processes by which the incumbent musicians arrived at their jobs is now going to be turned upside down and that people are going to start getting into the orchestra for reasons other than their quality.

‘Those are beliefs that are tough to counter. People call me up and ask why orchestras are paying so much attention to diversity. They say, “Orchestras work on a meritocracy. We hold auditions and we pick the best people.” There is a belief that we have a perfect system and if the best is predominantly white that’s somebody else’s problem.’

Malesha Jessie outlined a scenario in which the development of diverse repertoire, for example, could be impeded by the lack of diversity on a board. ‘If the board is not diverse, then the staff will not be diverse, and if the staff are not diverse then the repertoire won’t be diverse. If the repertoire is not diverse, then the audience will not be diverse. I see it going in that order. The Development Director has to be a connector and know where the money is and who to talk to, and if they keep going to the same 16 guys, then they’re going to do the same stuff because if someone wants to give you $50,000 they usually earmark it for something. So the Development team has to be innovative in their thinking and willing to make that outreach. But the board has to support that.’ The more we talked and the more I researched moreover, I started to come round to the idea that board diversity and other initiatives should not just be measures, but constitutional change.

I asked Jesse Rosen if shortfalls in achieving diversity came down to repertoire because people are playing pretty much a ‘whitefellas’’ canon. Admittedly, I was playing devil’s advocate because, as thatviolakid says in The 74 Million article, ‘Why do people automatically assume that black musicians play jazz or create hip-hop?’ [6] But even there…

Always Beethoven’s Ninth?

JR: ‘I think orchestras are beginning to move in a positive direction, insofar as there is greater appetite simply to get past the tried and true. We’re seeing more work being programmed by living composers, dead composers whose work is less well-known, and more attention being paid to works by women composers and composers of colour. This is a conversation that is definitely happening. At the League we have a program where we commission three women composers every year and that’s been doing really well. To some degree this subsumes race and introduces other questions – the familiar v. unfamiliar and the general reluctance in orchestral programming to take chances on music that hasn’t already demonstrated that it has a strong audience following but, as I said, things are beginning to change.’

GW: Does opera have an advantage in that it has story as a focus for the music?

JR: ‘Text makes a difference. You have the opportunity through language to create instantly topical quality to your work. But there are still many, many opportunities for orchestras with old music and new, imagined in different contexts.’

Jesse mentioned a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth that he heard in Soweto, South Africa. ‘When you hear the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in that setting, it has incredible power. So just by where you play a piece and who you play it for you can achieve real connection.’ He mentioned a forthcoming Tallahassee performance (which has now taken place) of Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, whose text comes from the last words spoken by seven black men (Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford and Eric Garner) killed by police or security. It was paired with Beethoven’s Ninth and in between was a dialogue, facilitated by Village Square, between Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil and Symphony board-members Byron Greene and Patrick Slevin about the ideas expressed in Thompson’s piece. After the concert the audience and performers were invited to ‘break bread’ together. ‘Orchestras have great capacity for connecting with issues of today,’ said Rosen.

I felt a bit bemused because my most recent article for The Podium had asked why Beethoven’s Ninth is always chosen when classical music wants to make a political point[7], but here was a good example of what can be done by careful curation.

So how is opera doing?

In researching this piece I was struck by a report of South African soprano Pretty Yende speaking Zulu during Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment at the Met[8]. There’s a spot in Laurent Pelly’s production where the heroine Marie launches into improvised monologue. In rehearsal Yende instinctively broke into Zulu. You can hear this on YouTube (listen closely for Zulu’s characteristic clicks)[9]. In performance it is reportedly a powerful moment. But what struck me most about The New York Times’ article on this was Yende’s statement that ‘I never thought of having this kind of possibility to be able to literally have a piece of my true self onstage.’

I phoned Brandon Gryde, Opera America’s Washington-based Director of Government Affairs, who established their EDI position.

BG: ‘One of the challenges that can come up [is] you do have members of congress who have a belief that there are charitable organisations that are more deserving of being tax-free and relying on certain tax incentives, organisations that do direct and social services. So we do a lot of story-telling around the fact that while we represent a certain type of art-form – our members consist of all different-sized organisations with budgets over $50 million to budgets that are less than $100,000 – those organisations are doing a lot of work in addition to creating opera. They’re also doing a lot of work on education, they’re working with senior citizens, they’re working to register voters, they’re doing a lot of things that are using the art-form to make the community healthier and more vibrant.’

GW: So what are some of your programs?

BG: ‘A couple of years ago we received funding from the National Endowment under their “Our Town” grants to fund our Civic Action Group. The idea was to pull together opera companies that were doing best practice work in their communities not centred around selling additional tickets or creating future subscribers. It was really about the role of opera companies and becoming good neighbors. We learned a lot from those convenings and were actually able to publish reports about how opera companies have used the relationship with other organisations to develop their future work. We’ve been approaching this as: the relationships should lead the development of work rather than vice-versa. So, instead of playing Porgy and Bess in your season and then reaching out to an African-American community, work should come out of that relationship. It’s actually led toward Opera America’s own investment in developing our civic practice funds.’

GW: Could you tell us a bit about your ALAANA network which, I understand, stands for African, Latin, Asian, Arab and Native American? You’ve got a steering committee?

BG: ‘Part of the focus of that network is to think about ways we can move the needle toward a more racial-equitable field. These individuals are representative of a variety of different positions within opera – trustees, costume design, artistic leadership, educational and community engagement. We really wanted a wide breadth of experience and [our] two meetings so far have given us a lot of meat to think through in terms of our own planning – things like the pipeline for administrative leadership, conversations around marketing to communities of colour.’

I wanted to know about Opera America’s IDEA Opera Grant Program, launched in January.[10] Under this scheme two grants will be awarded annually to composer-librettist teams to advance their work ‘through workshops, readings or other developmental activities.’ The scheme (‘IDEA’ stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access) came about through work with the Charles and Cerise Jacobs Charitable Foundation who have strong interests in supporting composers and librettists of colour.

BG: ‘This was actually something that we had been talking about for the last couple of years – how do we put money toward supporting composers and librettists of colour? And it just so happened that we were able to develop a relationship with somebody who had a similar mission.’

Brandon continues, ‘Internally within our organisation as well as providing support for the field, we have facilitated some conversations among our staff around our own organisational culture. What can we do to address biases that we are bringing into our work and how do we create something new?’

GW: What’s an example of something you’ve identified which you’ve altered, then?

BG: ‘Payment of interns.’

Oh, I thought, that may not sound like much to Australians, but knowing how prevalent and pervasive free interning is in the US, I realised it was significant. As Brandon said, ‘Some people have the means to be interns for many years without any pay and Opera America has made a commitment to provide some type of salary to our internships which increases the opportunity for people to be able to work within the opera field.’ He added, ‘We’ve looked at where we post jobs. And we’ve also just been looking at some of our own biases that we bring to opera as an artform. So we have ongoing conversations around what it means to produce inherited repertoire that might have misogynistic stories, what does it mean to have produced works in the canon that have racially-insensitive stereotypes in them?’

GW: You also work for Dance/USA?

BG: ‘I’ve also had the privilege of watching Dance/USA as a service organisation work on a lot of equity and justice issues. It’s a little bit different in that with dance you have so many different types of genres. Some dance companies have been doing this work for decades. Some were actually founded on addressing issues of equity and justice, other companies are still learning about it, whereas with opera we’re sort of starting at the same point. We’re able to uniformly work together to find some common visions and goals for achieving change in the field.’

But it does sound like EDI in US dance would be another fruitful subject for a future article.

Enriching musical styles through new stories?

I think of how one of the principal benefits that diversity offers our artform is the enrichment of repertoire. If opera, for example, is drama articulated by music, one hopes that the infusion of new musical styles will enrich music’s ability to tell new stories. It’s hard for me to judge how successful this can be when I haven’t seen every opera produced in the US in the relatively recent past but certainly the CD of Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X reveals a classical piece that allows space for jazz to swing, and from what I’ve seen on YouTube, José Martínez and Leonard Foglia’s 2010 mariachi opera, Cruzar la cara de la luna, seems to have successfully brought a new melodic style to opera.

I understand the complexities in creating new work across disciplines and culture. And in Australia creating diversity in repertoire can mean working with Aboriginal people who live very remotely and whose priorities are very traditional. I think of Jandamarra (2014)[11], Ooldea (2006)[12] and Journey to Horseshoe Bend (2003)[13]. When I was arranging for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to perform Richard Mills’ Earth Poem/Sky Poem with dancers from Elcho Island in 1998[14], I was advised that the performers might prioritise Indigenous ceremonies such as ‘sorry business’ (funeral rites) over a concert down south and, if I wasn’t sensitive to this possibility, the best-laid concert preparations could be voided. I therefore drafted Symphony Australia’s contract with the Galpu Dancers without naming specific personnel, obliging the group only to bring one didjeridu player of the dhuwa moiety, one didjeridu player of the yirritja moiety, ‘one (1) singer of the dhuwa moiety, one (1) singer of the yirritja moiety.’ I wasn’t completely sure who would turn up but knew that in this instance I could trust that the tribal repertoire was shared widely on Galiwin’ku.

These are some of the steps we need to take to ensure a diverse culture, and surely the result is worth it if we’re to continue to be vital to the diverse community that is our reality. We also have to realise that the number of people who want to perform opera and classical music is larger and more diverse than we think, and even as I write that I realise that we shouldn’t even be thinking that’s it’s not naturally diverse. As Malesha Jessie Taylor says, ‘I know I look like Whitney Houston but I sing opera because that is where I have a natural talent and gift. My gift determines my repertoire, not my ethnicity.’

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2019


[1] New Australia Council CEO Adrian Collette says arts companies that ignore diversity are ‘out of touch’, Michaela Boland, ABCNews, 19 Feb, 2019 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-18/new-australia-council-ceo-adrian-collette-interview/10820074

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL4WpdoG6Ok&list=RDUL4WpdoG6Ok&start_radio=1&ab_channel=TheGreeneSpaceatWNYC%26WQXR

[3] What Do You See? Malesha Jessie Taylor, TEDx Chula Vista, 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlS7CSefeUM&ab_channel=TEDxTalks

[4] http://www.sphinxmusic.org/

[5] Forty Years of Fellowships: A Study of Orchestras’ Efforts to include African-American and Latino Musicians, Nick Rabkin and Monica Hairston O’Connell, League of American Orchestras, 2016. https://americanorchestras.org/knowledge-research-innovation/diversity-studies.html

These Fellowships were programs intended to ‘help young musicians make the transition into careers in professional orchestras’. Twenty five orchestras had such programs; 11 were diversity-oriented, and this report looked at programs that offered opportunities to young Latino and African-American musicians who had completed their formal training, and become immersed in the day-to-day activities of the orchestras…’

[6] ‘Why Do People Automatically Assume Black Musicians Play Jazz?’: Atlanta Symphony Talent Program Nurtures Young Classical Musicians of Color, the74million.org, Feb 2, 2019


– and this account of Azira Hill’s efforts to increase African-American participation in classical music to a level that reflects the population in Atlanta, a majority black city:


[7] In her TED talk referenced above, Malesha Jessie Taylor talks about Mozart, Beethoven and Bach being the same three composers who always instantly come to mind when classical music is mentioned; then demonstrates music written by someone else.

[8] ‘A Top Soprano Brings Some Zulu to the Met Opera. And It Clicks’, Michael Cooper, The New York Times, Feb 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/arts/music/pretty-yende-la-fille-du-regiment-met-opera.html

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ubtk472g2l8&feature=youtu.be

[10] Press release. January 2019 : https://www.operaamerica.org/Content/About/PressRoom/2019/IDEA%20Grant%20Announcement%20PR_final.pdf

[11] http://www.jandamarra.com.au/singForTheCountry.html

[12] https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/the-screen-guide/t/t/21660

[13] https://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/work/schultz-andrew-journey-to-horseshoe-bend-op-64

[14] in a concert which also saw the premiere of the first work for symphony orchestra written by indigenous musicians. Music is our Culture by Jardine Kiwat, Jayson Rotumah, Kerry McKenzie and Jensen Warusam with Chester Schultz was commissioned by Symphony Australia for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.