Ideas and Answers- PART III of a 3-part series on the Black Classical Singer experience.
"And in so many ways, that never-failing miracle -- the constant work to rise above the bumps in our path to greater freedom for our brothers and sisters -- that has always been the story of African Americans here at Tuskegee. ...But here's the thing -- our history provides us with a better story, a better blueprint for how we can win. It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together -- then we can build ourselves and our communities up. We can take on those deep-rooted problems, and together -- together -- we can overcome anything that stands in our way. ...And here's what I really want you to know -- you have got everything you need to do this...You've got the knowledge and the skills... You've got families up in the stands who will support you every step of the way. And most of all, you've got yourselves -- and all of the heart, and grit, and smarts that got you to this day.
And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God's plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country...
-Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University Commencement Address, May 2015
And in the singer's own words...
" I remember performing with the Philadelphia branch of Opera Ebony in Philly during their heyday in the '80's. They routinely sold out the Academy of Music and Black folks at that time made opera going a real event. It seemed to be one of the highlights of their social calendar.
"You can't develop minority audiences if you're not putting minorities on stage. It just won't happen. I know my partner always says how uncomfortable he feels and the questions he gets from some audience members... It's embarrassing. Opera is elitist. There's no way around that. ... however the liberals that run and support this art form are also supposedly so open and inclusive. I guess it's just to the people they like or can relate to."
"Black people will not go where they do not feel welcome. If we keep treating opera like an elitist art form it will shrink. I sang classical music all throughout my youth in choirs. My mother trained as a classical pianist, but had no idea that I could sing opera until my high school teacher told me about the African American singers that I had no clue about. I knew who Pavarotti was and Domingo, but not Leontyne Price and George Shirley. When Black singers are not promoted, we don't exist. The Black community doesn't know we are there."
"As far as the cost of opera, I don't think that is the problem. Black does not equal poor or lack of funds. They just won't spend that much money to not see themselves or to be treated like "Oooh look at that. She woman scrapped up her funds to come to the opera. Good for her." I have had patrons talk to me like that until I tell them they have probably seen me on that stage. Two ladies spoke to me like that an outdoor concert. Then, they heard me singing the Nation Anthem and they flocked around me like vultures. They actually invited me to there home for lunch once I told them I was singing at the opera. I said to myself, "When was the last time you picked up a Black woman on the street and brought them to your house?" Before that, they were talking down to me trying to explain the show we were about to see, assuming I had no clue."
"When we see our own onstage, we support, as has already been pointed out."
(For an interesting take from a black audience member's experience read
"I returned home just two days ago to find the 2015-2016 season booklets from many arts organization and in many cases there isn't one brown face in any of the brochures. I think we can all name many houses who season after season hire the same artists and never higher minorities. Now they can say that it's an artistic choice. I for one would like to know why their choices are solely white artists? I hope this isn't too forward. I just can't believe that they account diversity with the hiring of maybe three "superstars" a season. I want these articles to gain traction and cause serious productive discussion.
"General directors artistic administrators and, oh heck, development directors... never go for either promoting the Black artists that they have hired nor go after Black audiences or Black patrons...
"I wish that opera companies would reach out to the Black community. They do it for the Latino communities. They would come if the saw themselves on stage. You go to a "Porgy" and the audience is full of Black people because they feel they can relate. Opera is seen as a old White person's thing. They need to stop focusing on just bringing in the young, but bringing in the diversity- in the audience and on stage."
"Some don't take the time to develop or nurture Black/minority talent. They forget about minority audiences and complain about a lack of minority donors. They only go to Black schools when they have a grant. It's shameful. Re: Porgy and Bess,.... they put on lack luster shows ...and no one goes and they use "Porgy" to balance the books. Then they refuse to hire any of those artists for other parts."
"Some companies think Blacks come just because it's Porgy and Bess. Latinos don't only come when you put on a Zarzuela. They come when you put folks that look like them onstage. This is what they need to do. There are lots and lots of wealthy Black families that would support what we do if it weren't so white-washed. I've heard a few of them say it."
"Listen, there are more White people in the audience during "Porgy" than Black. They (Black communities ) don't even know until last minute. I remember the darn show was almost sold before it even really became public. Subscription and donors THEN they make it public."
"One Black donor told me that if she knew there were Black singers in the shows she would be promoting it to her community. It doesn't have to be "Porgy." They need to know we exist!"
"Also, let's stop telling Black women they are the next Leontyne (Price) or Jessye (Norman). Maybe they're the next themselves. Maybe they should be singing Kathleen (Battle) and Barbara Hendrix rep. But that's a whole other issue."
"And there in lies the problem! Marketing! When Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman's parents heard that Marian Anderson was coming to their town, they heard from the church and in their newspapers. Everyone attended whether they were bus drivers or garbage men. THEY all attended in order to hear and support their own. Opera companies could care less about truly going into the communities and educating... Cincinnati has had some success. And again I was told by Black board member that they were left out of certain donor parties, certain meetings, they were called in only when there was need for diversity meetings. One lady was called into a board meeting only cause she worked for the mayor and Barack Obama's campaign.They pick and choose who they want and what they need them for."
"...and the exclusion of certain board members to certain meetings happens A LOT more than we all know..."
"Michigan Opera theater is another company who makes a point to reach out to its African American community. I have never seen as many Black folk at one opening night and donor party than at MOT. I mean it was "Margaret Garner" AND Denyce Graves was the lead but I did hear they have a strong opera following, hire Black artists regularly."
"When a non-Asian woman plays Madama Butterfly, the audience gives her and the production that visual suspension of disbelief. Through the strength of her characterization, she is assumed to be Japanese. The bread and butter of traditional opera repertory is mainly comprised of European characters. Many of these stories become "Butterfly" all over again for an artist of color. We ask the audience to just go with us while it feels that we are trying to sneak by in a role of European descent and romanticized European temperament. I feel that the latter is a large part of the truth why black male artists in particular are not lauded on a larger scale for their gifts. ...We cannot speak for the black experience as a whole, but as an art form we have to allow these idiosyncrasies that are represented by our color to be championed onstage."
"I'll start with the lack of knowledge of the voice and disinterest by MANY Artistic and General Directors... We had recently sung a concert performance of "Porgy" with (sic) one and he was blown away by the talent, and more blown away that he hadn't heard of any the singers before that day. I assembled 12 singers for him and each sang 2 arias, none from "Porgy." After each singer went in, he exclaimed things like "Wow, who is she?", "Why is he not working?", "What else is he doing?" "That's freakin' fantastic", and a few four letter words that I won't mention, but they were used in the affirmative. I use this example because, there are NO management companies who take a huge interest in us, unless it's PORGY and are afraid to put the effort into cultivating a diverse career. ...We have to hold the people in charge to a different standard, level the playing field and let talent and fairness come to the front.
"When one is constantly made aware of the subliminal mindset of those whom patronize and support this art form, one quite naturally questions how influential that state of mind is with regards to casting."
"If the experiences I've encountered are displayed in my face, I wonder how those thoughts permeate and penetrate the board room."
"The mass media obsession to apply a motto or tagline to an issue in order to gain attention has the tendency to only serve the egos of some and further frustrate those at the core of the problem. Being in support of the black community, and minority rights in general, is not on par with choosing to eat organic... there are those who are in search of implementing a solution and not just another tagline. Conversation is key: for moving beyond a tagline and wanting the full and ugly truth behind what many artists of minority status have tamped down, on one level or another, for generations."
I take this approach to our world everyday. Being prepared and knowing my music and singing well are just the tip of the iceberg. The difference happens when I display the entire package that I represent. I keep my nose clean ... I speak articulately ... I'm good on Camera ... I self-market, and in turn help market the companies with which I'm employed by keeping my focus (when doing interviews on camera and radio and in print) on the efforts of the Company to sell tickets and promote their productions. I am VERY aware of the obstacles I face as a black man ... But I can ONLY control my abilities. I tend to focus on my complete package ... My brand ... And hopefully that's enough to surpass all perceived liabilities associated with my being engaged!
"It is interesting that my colleagues keep bringing up marketing. A lot of the people in marketing positions don't know how to access the black community or any other minority community and there exists quite a lack of diversity within those departments. I recently sang in a bilingual opera (Spanish/English) that the company had been trying to market to the Latino community and they thought, if we put it in the newspaper and do our normal forms of marketing, they'll hear about it and come. But despite their best intentions, they didn't, and ticket sales were down. So when I got there I decided to go to church like I usually do and mentioned to them that I could maybe make a quick announcement at the church where I was going. They agreed and put me in touch with a friend of theirs who was a member of the church and filled my hands with posters and flyers. When the member heard about it, she encouraged me to not just make an announcement but to also sing. So I did, I sang, then told the congregation what it was about and that I was singing the lead. That night the audience was almost half Black, the church members had come out to support in full force and the administration was surprised by the outpouring of support. From 5 minutes at a black church they got maybe 50% of their their ticket sales that night. Diverse marketing by culturally aware individuals is key."
"What would happen if the diversity of our physical human experience was invited into the equation?"