Opera and inclusivity on stage

– Bill Bankes-Jones is AD of Tete-A-Tete Opera and is a fantastic champion of inclusivity and access. TaT has been going for years and has been amazing at being accessible and inclusive, before it got trendy and hip.
Useful article: Diversity is a white word 
This TEDx talkWhat’s left of you? Performance, decolonisation & self-determination by the incredible Jules Orcullo, founder of international company The Joy Offensive, looks at how all too often we are stuck at the level of tokenism. Have a good look at Arnstein’s Ladder that Jules refers to:
My points below may seem radical and controversial but with each item, I wonder what the real barriers are. Money or fear? Of course, I am aware that sometimes we feel we have to get in there with those who wield power, we need to get a seat at the table, to get invited behind closed doors in order to change things from the inside. I hear you. I understand this. How then do we stay courageous, honest, transparent and true to our goals? Are we checking our status, privilege (we ALL have privilege, and this shifts depending on the context), and calculating the trade offs? How many dodgy decisions can we make or support as part of our work towards a future benefit?
These are some current views of mine and not of any organisation I am part of:
– if you don’t have performers “good enough” for the role, then
a) don’t do the show
b) train some up
c) do the show and announce that that it is a work in progress/training show
d) cast the white people but then organise conversations, forums, which accompany the show so that everyone is aware of the situation, so that audiences know what they are spending their money on, performers know that they are taking on roles that are problematic, and that producers bear the responsibility of choosing to stage it anyway
e) all of the above
– it is NOT enough to have an inclusive ensemble or supporting cast, and in a way it’s worse, to have poc or any other marginalised group serving the white leads. No one “has” to take on contracts or jobs, choice is always present and YES, of course we all have to pay our rent. But please, please, let’s own our decisions. Honesty goes a long way, inspires others to take action we ourselves may not be able to, and acknowledges the difficulties. Being inclusive IS difficult. Let’s get as much support from each other as we can by talking about that.
Organizations sometimes hide behind inclusivity across programming e.g. a wholly poc show in their season, which has problems in terms of keeping poc as Other and separate, in both space and time. Do poc and other marginalised groups only exist in special episodes, in historical settings, in foreign settings? This is the messaging we are giving out and receiving.
Also, referring to the TEDx talk above, tokenism is something we need to own up to and address. Time and time again we are told that there are NO people qualified for the job. What we really mean is that it takes time and money to look for the right people, and working with people unknown to us are risky. And so the systems of production we have set up for ourselves DO NOT SERVE US. But hey, we can totally change the systems. It’ll be difficult, but not always, and it’ll be strange, but will soon normalise. What do we honestly want?
Complicity in the flawed patriarchal and capitalist system is really damaging. Existing is damaging. How do we do less damage? How do we grow more beauty, joy and supporting, nurturing, environments?
– If you can’t do yellowface or blackface in theatre, then you shouldn’t in opera. Opera is not some holy, sacred art and any claim that we don’t understand it, or that it has access to get out of jail free cards is elitist.
– If you absolutely CANNOT find folk of the “right” colour to perform, then hire any other marginalised performers to fill these roles and then organise the requisite support and public discussion around this
– the exoticisation of foreign lands, the Orient, etc. really needs to stop, even and especially in opera. Designers, composers, producers, everyone, it isn’t great to be exoticised. No really, it’s not. Look up the negative effects of positive stereotypes. The nobel savage myth is as damaging as the angry black woman trope. The “all Asians are rich and skinny” myth leads to us being blind to the Asians living beneath the poverty line, ignoring the high numbers of suicide, and shaming any non-skinny Asian. Etc. etc.
To end on a positive note, I return again to Jules’ TEDx talk. Find and legitimise the people and spaces that bring you joy. Spend your time there.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s