2020 Archive

Opera is Racist: Confronting the Canon

Westley Montgomery

April 1, 2020

Westley Montgomery

Westley Montgomery (he/him/his) is a singer, multidisciplinary artist, and academic whose work explores race and gender in performance. Westley is currently a PhD student in the Department of Theater & Performance Studies at Stanford University.

In response to this summer's international outpouring of grief and outrage over the systematic theft of Black Lives, calls to come to terms with opera's "racism problem" have been in no short supply. Since June, the Instagram account Opera Is Racist has anonymously shared dozens of stories recounting micro and macro aggressions suffered by Black and other POC performers: Voice teachers who told students that Black performers are biologically inferior, conductors who made racist jokes and demanding a laugh in return, a vocal coach who tried to convince a Black singer that their lips were too thick to pronounce French correctly. Opinion pieces have been published and re-shared, offering context and descent on operas' continued use of blackface, it’s lack of representation, and the racist history or its casting practices. A statistical survey of Black artists at the Metropolitan Opera shows that only 3% of MET regulars are Black and that Black performers give far fewer performances on average than their non-Black colleagues, have shorter tenures at the MET, and have fewer early career opportunities. These collective calls for change confirm and make visible what many BIPOC performers of opera have always known—racism in the industry runs deep.

Opera is facing a long-overdue reckoning. It is many ways significantly behind the rest of the theater industry. It is clear that the current global pandemic will force major changes to theater, including opera. To be sure, the unavoidable nature of this large-scale upheaval will present many challenges. It will also equally present many opportunities to consciously decide what the future of the art form will look like—to imagine and construct an anti-racist opera theater. This begins with addressing the operatic canon. During the Metropolitan Opera's 1919/20 season, the average opera in the repertory was 40 years old. This season (before its cancellation due to COVID), the average opera performed on the MET stage was more than 150 years old. This grounding of the canon as a fixed historical object poses two critical problems for any anti-racist work to be done. Firstly, the canon as it stands inadequately represents Black and other POC composers. Secondly, the uncritical and un-contextualized presentation of many of these works perpetuates and normalizes the systems of oppression that are, in many ways, the cultural legacy of the periods in which they were composed.

Reading through a list of the most commonly performed operas, it quickly becomes apparent that they share a key trait. They are all, without exception, written by dead white men. Absent are the voices of 19th and 20th-century BIPOC composers whose work was kept out of the spotlight due to the systemic racism they faced during their careers. Absent too is the work of living BIPOC composers whom the canon continues to exclude, and those who choose not to compose operas due to the apparent ambivalence shown to composers of color by evidence of their exclusion. The age of our canon is a problem. Limiting the works we perform to those premiered on average less than a decade after the abolition of slavery in the United States, automatically and unnecessarily reproduces the systemic barriers of that time. Still, this racism is not contained in the past— I have personally heard far too many patrons and donors claim that the blinding whiteness of opera is an example of the superiority of "western civilization" and that white composers are just "better." This attitude, so obviously and deeply rooted in white supremacy, is further normalized through the portrayals of non-white people in many of the works in the canon itself. Expanding the canon, as necessary as it is, does not erase the profoundly racist nature of these works which, when presented un-contextualized and for entertainment, perpetuate systems of domination and racial violence.

These comments from an article on anti-racist work in musicology on music blog Slipped Disc demonstrate some common reactions to anti-racist work in opera and classical music more generally that are rooted in white-supremacy.

Some have suggested that works in the operatic canon featuring blatant racism be treated as historical artifacts, staged in “traditional’ ways that don't attempt to hide their flaws, and contextualized through lobby displays, program notes, and the like. This would certainly be an improvement. The problem remains, however, that the purpose of theater and museums differ. People do not visit the Jim Crow Museum to have a good time. To attend historically accurate, and therefore transparently racist, productions for entertainment poses as many problems as attempting to erase their racism through modernized stagings. Others have made attempts to present "culturally accurate" stagings of these works which, while well-intentioned, obscure the fact that the works themselves are not accurate representations of BIPOC or their cultures, but are rather white (and often racist, orientalist, and colonialist) fantasies and fetishizations of them. These depictions are not positive or meaningful representations and have done historical harm. What then might the solution be?

Productions of racist works that are actively anti-racist must both reveal and contextualize their problematic elements on the stage through the work of dramaturgs, designers, directors, and performers—they must be visibly self-critical, visibly anti-racist. What exactly this will look like, and whether it is possible, depends on a wide range of factors contributing to the context of individual productions and stagings. What background does an audience come to the work with? Are they in need of comfort or challenge? How do the identities of the production team and performers intersect with the work and its characters? Do those identities problematize or legitimate the work's racist nature? What are the histories of the performance space and land on which the performance is taking place? Can the context in which you present the work be separated from or intersect with histories of (settler) colonialism and racial violence where you are? There are no easy solutions here. There are, however, endless opportunities—to imagine, to experiment, to fail, and to learn from our failures. The work that needs to be done is difficult, and contentious, and necessary if opera is to have any place in our collective future.

This essay was commissioned in collaboration with SideLight, an ongoing series of curated essays from a contingent of the next generation of artists and arts leaders. As the theater and entertainment industry rebuilds and reimagines, these pieces speak directly to our present, yet also seek to envision our future.

Banner photo: Famed Russian soprano Anna Netrebko performing the titular Ethiopian Princess in Verdi’s Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. Aida was commissioned By Khedive Ismael of Egypt as part of an ongoing project to present Egypt as more European and less African. Like in the operas plot, Egypt attempted to colonize Ethiopia only a few years after the operas premiere. As seen here, the role is often still performed in Blackface.

Join Our Mailing List

Thank you! More views are coming your way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
A Project of The Lillys
Web Design and Development by 
FAILSPACE Design Services