This is the question any activist of any stripe will hear at least once in their life. Or, more likely, once an hour.
I mean, their interlocutor will go on to say, there are bigger problems/natural disasters/starving children in $DEVELOPING_COUNTRY/greater social injustices in this country than problematic presentations of women and minorities in the arts. Why focus on that when there’s so much else you could be doing?
You’ve got me with the starving kids in the developing country, imaginary interlocutor. Starving kids can’t eat opera. We can’t sing floods away, either. We’d like to, but we can’t. But I’d like to talk to you a bit about the greater social injustices, because that is something we can change. Yes, even through opera.
There is an age-old saying about history being written by the winners. Who writes the history after the battle is won - when the soldiers have put down their weapons and picked up their tools and started building everything back up again? Traditionally, a ruler would have a group of people in charge of arts and culture, and those people would go and find people they could trust to make the ruler (and themselves) look good, and get them to write things. They picked painters who would tactfully leave out their less attractive features. You get the idea.
And the people who don’t make them look good? The poor people who reflect badly on their ability to provide for their subjects? The ones who are a funny colour and look a bit suspicious? The ones who can’t even walk by themselves? They get left out too; or they get left in with horrible hairy warts and bad teeth, or a fetish for goats. Which is a shame.
Visibility is a big thing for us and a major reason why we exist. Jessie’s going to tell you more about that in the next blog post.
I had a debate with my partner recently about the inclusion of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people in a popular TV series. More specifically, my point was that there were none to be seen. The Barbarian race was portrayed as kinda Mediterranean, I guess, but that was the closest you got. No BME main characters, maybe two or three BME extras. That’s it.
But, argued my partner, it’s set in an alternate-universe-medieval-England type of place! There were no black people in medieval England!
It’s easy to think that, for sure. I mean, the only real evidence we get for BME people being around at that time are people like Othello or Shylock in literature, and Monostatos in opera a hundred or so years later. And Othello was a jealous type who couldn’t master his innate black dude violent streak (who says racial stereotypes evolve?), and Monostatos was a creepy servile type who’d do anything if it meant he could stick it in Pamina, so couldn’t master his innate black dude rapeyness. And Shylock was a dodgy loan shark who would accept a pound of flesh in lieu of cash if people couldn’t pay up, so couldn’t master his innate Jewish love of money and the pain of innocent Christians. Not a great start. But there were others, this much I can tell you with a degree of certainty.
Before I studied music, I studied literature. Before I studied literature, I studied Classics. In Classical times, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the dominant culture du jour and places like Egypt. Egypt was a pretty big deal, actually. It had the world’s biggest library, loads of cash crops, spices, textiles and so on. It was the kind of country you definitely wanted on side. So those places ended up with a colony and an established trade route. So slaves were taken over to mainland Europe, and traders and skilled workers and people hoping for a better life and Roman citizenship would move over there. Some of them would earn some money and go back home. Some of them would have settled; slaves would have been freed and stayed put with the families they already had. By Julius Caesar’s time, there was an Egyptian quarter in Rome. Go figure if some of these guys didn’t eventually make their way over to Britain.
Of course, there’s little reference to them in art and literature that isn’t unflattering and racist. Artists and writers of the time often did their best to pretend that there were no strange and hideous BME or Jewish or disabled people in their perfect, white universe. Art and literary historians might well assume, on that basis, that there weren’t any there. Not so.
By extension, there were almost certainly strong, capable women, LGBTQUIA people, disabled people, people on low incomes and all sorts. They just weren’t talked about. It was more current, and more convenient, for the artists and writers and composers of the time to present them as victims or villains. That fits with their paradigm - all that is good is white, upper (or, later, middle) class, and almost invariably male. Anyone else was evil or needed help; they existed to make the rich white dudes look better.
So, by acknowledging that most opera written up until this point presents a skewed and biased worldview, we are...well, that’s it. We can’t go back and rewrite it, because we are not in the business of censorship. We just think it’s really important that the flaws are discussed openly, so that everyone is aware that things have moved on and must continue to do so. We’re not asking anyone to edit the bad parts out, and above all - and this is important - we are not asking anyone not to like it. The music is still beautiful, and the performers aren’t bad people or bad performers for taking part, provided they can question the message. We talk about its flaws, and we emerge a little wiser for how to think of the people involved, how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and how even ugly sentiments can be made to sound or look beautiful.
As performers and directors, we can also be a little creative with our casting choices. You could put on a Magic Flute where everyone but Monostatos is played by black singers. You could re-cast a fey heroic tenor as an alto. You could employ female tenors and basses (they exist!) and experiment with the results. All kinds of interesting scenarios play out with trans, genderqueer or non-binary-gendered singers. You could experiment with different vocal and body types and see how these impact on a role. You could bother to cast disabled people, you know, at all. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff that can be done here - endless possibilities which Jessie and I are looking forward to playing with as our casting pool grows.
We’re also looking forward to commissioning new opera and music theatre that tells more people’s stories. Everyone has a story. We love stories, and we love music, and there are so many fascinating, heartbreaking, ecstatic and downright strange stories we could tell, and so much music we could tell it with. We’re very excited. Are you?
Hey. Remember our art contest? I bet you're great at art. You should totally enter!