There have been a lot of discussions lately about diversity in opera and how, particularly, race and gender are represented in very limited and problematic ways, especially in the canonical operas of the long 19th century. The latest to come my way is a very good panel discussion hosted by the COC (on their Youtube channel) and moderated by Aria Umezawa. This one tackled gender issues but, inevitably broader questions came up and that’s what I want to explore here. You might want to watch it either before or after reading the rest of this piece.
The only revolution to ever start in an opera house….
Lets start by making a few statements about the state of the opera world (at least in North America):
- Our stages are dominated by a small number of operas from the long 19th century (Mozart to Puccini). Take the last ten complete seasons at the COC as an example. There were 66 shows in that period. 6 operas were done twice, another 5 were warhorses like La Traviata and no less than 25 others were from the long 19th century. That’s a total of 42 out of 66 shows or pretty much 2 out of 3.
- Modern performance practice allows directors a fair amount of freedom but considers the text and music to be sacrosanct. It’s worth noting that this was not always the case in opera.
- The opera world is hierarchical with its management hierarchy very (white) male dominated and its boards dominated by the wealthy.
- The current opera business model is failing. Each year the population rises but the opera audience falls. Desperately trying to lure the traditional audience back with “traditional” productions of canonical operas hasn’t worked anywhere. Neither has anything else though I would argue that all we have seen is a bit of tinkering such as “festival seasons” rather than radical change. The business is heading off a cliff; faster for small, regional companies than for the big boys but heading there nonetheless.
So now let’s make some statements about what the advocates of diversity are saying:
- We should be telling stories that relate to the lived experiences of our audiences and potential audiences.
- We need to expand our audience to reflect the increased diversity of our communities.
- We will only get diversity of culture, gender and race in or productions if a diversity of race, gender and culture can fully and safely participate in the creation process.
- The canon doesn’t need to be scrapped but it needs to be interrogated intelligently to explore ways of dealing with the problematic issues.
- We should reconsider whether the text and music should be thought of as sacrosanct.
- All of these issues have been explored much more fully in spoken theatre and maybe there are lessons to be learned.
Now, I’m very well aware that many people will disagree with a good deal of, at least, the second list here but let’s run with it for now and talk about implications and how some of these aspirations might be realised.
What might a strategy for dealing with the issues in the second list look like and what implications would it have for the existing opera business model? Allow me first to make a few generalisations about strategy. I’m made quite uncomfortable when I listen to some of these well meany conversations that there is a lot of talk about aspirations but not much concrete about how to realise them. It’s a problem that’s not unique to opera. Most organisations are not particularly good at strategy. So, strategy is about choices. It’s about what one does and, perhaps more importantly, what one doesn’t do. Every organisation has finite resources so going on doing the things it has always done means, essentially, that there will never be enough time, money and energy to do the things it should be doing. The implications of that are clear. If two thirds of your resources are going into “sacrosanct” productions of long 19th century works there’s not much left to spread over the rest of the existing repertoire plus new works plus radical reworking of old ones. The first step must therefore be to defrock the canon. A company serious about diversity would have to set a much lower quota for canonical works and be much less rigid about performance practice. Resources could then be redirected to shows designed to tell new stories and reach an expanded audience.
Here’s one proposal for how that might work for a six production season. It’s not intended as a blueprint but rather as a starting point for a much needed conversation and obviously it gets adapted depending on the size of the company:
- One opera from the long 19th century done in a fairly traditional way.
- One canonical opera handed over to a diverse creative team to do with it what they will.
- One new piece addressing a contemporary issue.
- One other work from a living composer.
- One production of an opera from outside the long 19th.
- One production targeting an identified non-traditional audience produced with extensive participation of artists from that community. This could be an existing, even canonical, work. Think how Shakespeare is used to do just this in spoken theatre.
This has obvious implications for what happens off-stage. It would require a seriously revamped marketing and donor engagement approach for example. It would also require the traditional hierarchies to give up quite a lot of control but that’s essential anyway. Almost my last thought is to point out that hierarchies are rarely changed “bottom up”. Appointing “disruptors in residence” is great PR but it’s meaningless if they aren’t allowed to disrupt! And “disruption within strictly defined bounds” is nonsense. So the commitment to real change will have to come from boards and general directors or it won’t happen.
Now to be perfectly honest I don’t actually see any company doing anything remotely like this. It’s far too risky. I expect we’ll see the sort of “diversification” that we saw in management consulting in the 1990s. More women and PoC will be hired so long as they have the exact same mindset as the white men they are replacing. More workshops and seminars on diversity will happen. A few cosmetic (literally) changes will be made such as getting rid of black/yellow face. But the canon will remain over-represented. Production practice will be largely unchanged. Marketing will remain largely focused on the (literally) dying traditional demographic. The audience will continue to shrink by a couple of percent per year. But most general directors will reach retirement before the company goes bust so why take (very real) risks?