Why we need more people of color represented in opera


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


People of color have a substantial tradition of building the opera in America, but that fact is often obscured. Contemporary artists are fighting hard to change that.

Opera Grand Rapids “I DREAM”

The art form of opera is about four hundred years old. It originated as an entertainment for the court of Mantua, the modern capital city of the province of Lombardy, Italy. Many Italian cities during that period were cosmopolitan; craftsmen, textile workers, and spice merchants from all over Europe and the Muslim world visited and lived in Mantua. And where there was trade during that era, there were slaves, usually taken from Eastern Europe, Greece, and Central Asia.

Given the mores of the time, people from foreign lands (not to mention slaves) were not generally allowed to perform for the court or the public. Unsurprisingly, opera was a largely Italian affair for its first few decades of life. Then, in 1627, the German opera tradition was born with Heinrich Schütz’s Dafne. Soon, traveling troupes would acquaint the Russians with the art form. France, Spain, and China would develop their own operatic traditions during the following centuries.

Opera evolved during the same time as the Enlightenment planted the first roots of a humanism that would ultimately destroy slavery, but the process took centuries. As a European artform, performed in countries where ethnic minorities were usually slaves, serfs, or scarcely tolerated, it is tragically predictable that people of many backgrounds were never afforded an opportunity to be part of opera’s evolution. Notable exceptions do exist, however.

Joseph Bologne

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George, was a celebrated French violinist, composer, and champion fencer in the Age of Revolution. He was also the son of a planter and a slave. A prodigious musical talent, Saint-George composed, conducted, and played in the most prestigious musical institutions of the day. He nearly took the helm of the Paris Opera in 1776, but racism and fear of his rigorous methods caused divas among the company to protest his bid, and he withdrew. Not content to be a landmark figure in cultural circles, Saint-George went on to become a colonel in the French Revolution and lead Europe’s first regiment of black volunteers.

America was recovering from another war, in 1873, when the city of Washington got its first opera company. Only eight years after the end of the Civil War, The Colored American Opera debuted at Saint Augustine Roman Catholic Church. It was not unusual for black Americans to sing in church at the time, but an all-black choir singing sacred and classical music for the public was a rare thing indeed.

On February 3rd and 4th, 1873, The Colored American Opera Company staged its first and only production, The Doctor of Alcantara. One can imagine the skepticism of the local critical elite as they walked into the hall, especially considering the CAOC members’ lack of formal training. But newspapers of the day indicate the production soared past expectations. “We do not exaggerate when we say that this is one of the best choruses we have heard for some time,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer.

 In 2008, the story of the visionary singers of The Colored American Opera Company was told in a contemporary work: Free to Sing: The story of the First African-American Opera Company.  The production was conceived and performed by the Music Center at Strathmore, near Washington, DC, in Bethesda, Maryland. The production used narrative and musical elements, including opera, to explore the tale of former slaves and soldiers creating a musical institution amidst a hostile culture.

Of course, the story of American music in the twentieth century is largely the story of black music. Blues, jazz, funk, soul, gospel, and hip hop are the pillars on which much of our national musical identity is built. Today, some of the most visible and financially successful musicians in the world are black. But opera, and classical music generally, has been much slower to include people of color in its ranks. Still, we are seeing more librettists, composers, and singers of diverse backgrounds in the opera world than ever before.

Baritone Robert McFerrin

Some luminaries have lit the way for contemporary artists of color: the ninety-one-year-old Leontyne Price became a star at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1950s. Robert McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin’s father, was the first African-American man to sing at the Met, in 1953. Mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett sang for the Met for thirty years, from 1961 onward. Jessye Norman dazzled audiences at La Scala, Stuttgart, and throughout Europe in the seventies, before moving her career stateside.

People of color have a substantial tradition of building the opera in America, but that fact is often obscured. Contemporary artists are fighting hard to change that.

Lawrence Brownlee, artistic adviser at Opera Philadelphia, is intent on creating work that is about the black experience in America. Brownlee commissioned Cycles of My Being, a work about a black man who dies while in police custody, to put his anxieties about race relations front and center. Composed by Tyshawn Sorey, with lyrics by Terrance Hayes, Cycles goes to places that will make many people uncomfortable. But Brownlee is cautiously optimistic about the contemporary opera scene, in regard to race. But he still finds hurdles, even if they have taken subtler forms. As he told The Guardian last month, “You can’t blind-cast with opera. No one has ever turned me down for a part and said ‘Because he’s black’ or even ‘Because he’s small and black!’ but there’s a code I’ve come to understand – ‘We have a different idea for the role’ is a common one.”  He says that change is happening, however slowly, and that truly color-blind casting isn’t appropriate for the art, either—he quickly recuses himself from consideration for the title role of Verdi’s Otello, based on his vocal register.

Those interested in contemporary black contributions to opera—whether of the black history or European pastoral variety—can find a handful of New York companies working to increase visibility. The Harlem Opera Theater, Opera Ebony, and Opera Noire of New York are all creating and performing innovative work in the opera space and giving people of color opportunities to take center stage. By performing works about Malcolm X, Robert McFerrin, and the modern racial landscape, these companies are leading the charge in making opera an accessible art form for people who are looking for something other than Rigoletto. The efforts of contemporary African-American composers and performers are giving America a timeless gift: they are using American voices to tell quintessentially American stories.

 


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.

 


SUPPORT OUR NEXT 50 YEARS

As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.

Showmance: Finding love on the opera stage


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


In the industry, they call this phenomenon a “showmance.” It’s such an established idea that performers who become infatuated during a show are often skeptical of their own feelings.

Real-life wife-and-husband Anne-Carolyn Bird and Matthew Burns

Opera and romance have a fraught relationship. Between the heartbreak, kidnapping, imprisonment, and worse, opera narratives are not an easy place to find love. Since conflict is at the center of all storytelling, there is no end to the tribulations onstage lovers must endure. For opera characters, a successful first date is one that finds each of them still standing by the end.

After weeks of long rehearsals, staring longingly at one another, and dying in each other’s arms every night, opera’s amorous intensity can find its way backstage and into the lives of the actors themselves. In the industry, they call this phenomenon a “showmance.” It’s such an established idea that performers who become infatuated during a show are often skeptical of their own feelings.

“When he walked into the room, it was like all the lights came on, and my heart pounded in my chest,” said Anne-Carolyn Bird in a 2008 MLive feature about her opera romance. “It’s called a ‘showmance,’ and we wanted to be sure we weren’t falling prey to it.”

Bird met her husband, Matthew Burns, when the two played the parts of young lovers navigating The Marriage of Figaro’s “day of madness” together. In the opera buffa tradition, the two had multiple run-ins with one another, including an accidental one on the street in Manhattan. Their chemistry during the show was apparent to all. Bird recalls that an audience member told him she had “never seen two people look so much in love on stage as you two.”

After Figaro concluded, the two actors went their separate ways. But, as fate would have it, they found themselves together again three weeks later—in an Ohio production of The Barber of Seville. Deciding not to try and thwart the wiles of destiny any longer, the pair rendezvoused when they returned to their homes in New York.

“When we had our first date, there wasn’t any tension about that first kiss,” said Burns.

The Opera Grand Rapids stage is no stranger to flying sparks. Alto Barbara Osburn and bass Mark Mullinax met in the chorus of the 1993 production of Carmen. When they saw each other again, it was as onstage lovers, in Romeo et Juliette—four years later. As soon as the production ended, they went on a date. Now, the married couple continues to sing together.

Art and Ashley Wallace met in 2007’s Carmen. Ashley—then a Zentmeyer—won Opera Grand Rapids’ 2008 Collegiate Vocal Competition, and met Art during her first run on the OGR stage.

The shy Art was reluctant to approach Ashley, but enough time singing together brought out his natural humor. By the staging of The Flying Dutchman, at the end of the season, the two were getting along swimmingly. They went on a date, and in 2009, they got married.

For our characters, romance tends to be a series of tragedies or farcical mishaps. We’re overjoyed when their offstage counterparts find real, durable love and bring it from our stage into the world.


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.

 


SUPPORT OUR NEXT 50 YEARS

As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.

Remembering trailblazing opera singer Catherine Barrow-Williams


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


Catherine Barrow-Williams, Opera Grand Rapids first African American opera singer, established herself during a time of unprecedented racial tension.

Marriage of Figaro feat. Catherine Barrow-Williams

Catherine Barrow-Williams first performance with Opera Grand Rapids took place during the long hot summer of 1967, when American cities would be decimated by race riots, and interracial marriage was a legal issue to be decided by the Supreme Court. As Grand Rapids’ first African American opera singer, Williams established herself in an overwhelmingly white art form during a time of unprecedented racial tension. She sang in The Marriage of Figaro, the very first performance by the organization that would eventually become Opera Grand Rapids. The entire production received enthusiastic reviews and put opera in Grand Rapids on the map.

Catherine Barrow-Williams

While unquestionably a trailblazer, those who knew her remember her as much for her compassion as for her courage. Known as “Mama Cathy” to those in her congregation, Catherine often opened her home to those in need. She and her husband, Bishop John, were known to provide food, transportation, and spiritual guidance to anyone who fell into their orbit.

Cathy’s zest for life can be seen in a video uploaded to Youtube by a member of her congregation. Taken just a month before she passed away, the video shows Cathy and members of her ministry on the way back from a conference in Cincinnati. As an elder of her congregation, Cathy was a spiritual leader, but that didn’t stop her from setting an example in other ways; in the video, taken in the early A.M., the bus is full of laughing, light, and singing, but it’s Cathy that stands up, claps her hands, and starts to dance.

Despite the often-fraught race relations in the late sixties, especially in her hometown of Detroit, Cathy said she always felt welcome in Grand Rapids. “God knew best. He brought me here. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, raising my kids here in Grand Rapids,” says Cathy in an interview during her final months. “As an adult, I went to Grand Rapids Community College, and I went to Grand Valley. I was a music major in school. And that was my life, singing. I was the first black opera singer here in Grand Rapids. I have been treated like royalty here. I love this town and I love the people.”

Cathy’s love for her eventual home didn’t stop her from seeing the world. As a missionary, she used the incredible gifts of her voice and her kindness to help hungry children on many continents. Said Cathy, “I’ve had the opportunity, as a missionary, to travel to over thirty countries. It’s been a wonderful life for me.” She described herself as an “instrument of peace,” and that was apparent in everything from the way she smiled to how she spent her time on earth.

Opera Grand Rapids is lucky to have had the honor of Cathy’s presence, both onstage and off. She secured her place in our history and our hearts.

 


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.

 


SUPPORT OUR NEXT 50 YEARS

As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.

Haworth CEO Franco Bianchi on opera as an immersive experience


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.

 


 

Haworth President and CEO Franco Bianchi reflects on why he loves and supports the art form.


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.

 


SUPPORT OUR NEXT 50 YEARS

As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.

The Evolution of Opera Storytelling


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


An openness to new experiences among the young, emerging economic models, and a wealth of stories unique to the pace of life in the fiberoptic age are producing fascinating, original work for the stage. Whether your sensibilities tend toward the traditional or the bleeding edge of weird, this is the most exciting time for opera storytelling in four hundred years.

Diva Plavalaguna walks onto the stage, alone. Each tier of the house is packed to capacity with music lovers, but there is hardly a sound. Everyone present has traveled very far to see this. The orchestra, unseen, makes a few melancholy gestures as Plavalaguna takes three small steps from the shadows into the light. Her thick blue head tendrils hand in neat bunches over her shoulders. A colossal viewport behind her reveals the planet Fhloston, all ocean blue and cloud sworls. As she begins an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, her expression is beatific, as if she can see the music before her; accordingly, she scoops and caresses the air as she sings. Her skin is the blue of a child’s bedroom, and she is beautiful. The audience is enchanted.

Elsewhere on the pleasure barge, grotesque alien mercenaries are blasting their way through softly lit halls in search of their quarry. As the action escalates, so does the music. But the crescendo Donizetti aficionados expect never comes. Instead, the audience is treated to a burst of clearly-synthetic orchestra blasts. A skittering electronic drum track enters the fray, and Diva Plavalaguna is swaying like an alien flower in the breeze as her voice weaves its way through a series of impossible notes. Each melodic flourish now resembles the music of an electric violin. Her movements range between those of a sorceress and a hip-hop dancer.

The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi romp, The Fifth Element, was a crossover moment for contemporary opera. Its particulars suggest Besson was creating an “all-things-to-all-people” film; in 126 minutes, moviegoers are treated to the ineffably charming and often scantily-clad Milla Jovovich doing cartoonish martial arts, Bruce Willis in action mode, Chris Tucker playing a role designed for Prince (yes, the Prince), rubber-suited aliens, flying cars, and Gary Oldman rhapsodizing about the virtues of chaos in a southern accent. But ask someone about The Fifth Element today, and the extraterrestrial diva’s stirring performance is likely to come up immediately.

It was a crossover moment for opera, both musically and culturally. For many millions of Americans, the film marked the first time they had sat through an entire aria, however brief. Albanian soprano Inva Mula’s haunting rendition of Il dolce suono, a “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor, was doubtlessly an entry point into the art form for many; the soundtrack sold well in the United States and elsewhere. One need only peruse internet music forums and reviews from the period to learn the techno-aria was the reason for most listeners’ interest.

The story of The Fifth Element may be riddled with robots and techno-Macguffins, but the scale and spectacle are sheerly operatic. In the twenty years since the film’s release, we have seen an explosion of fresh stories—interstellar and otherwise—told in the opera house. (As well as news operas in bars, parks, and on the internet.)

When it comes to the evolution of opera storytelling, the twentieth century was hardly conservative. After three hundred years of comparatively traditional narrative norms, worldwide upheaval and new art movements birthed avant-garde composers and librettists; they brought their sensibilities to the stage in droves. Philip Glass’s minimalism found its operatic apotheosis in 1976’s Einstein on the Beach—an absurdist five-hour production with no story whatsoever, based loosely around the titular scientist’s life.

In 1986, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff gave us The Mask of Orpheus. A meditation on truth, myth, and narrative itself, the opera takes place along multiple mythic, personal, and heroic axes; in practice, this means a labyrinthine production involving singers, mimes, and puppets acting out multiple versions of the same storyline simultaneously.

Die Hamletmaschine, a Wolfgang Rihm opera based on the postmodern play of the same name, is an exercise in ritualism, sensory-overload, and interpretation. Whether “The Hamlet Machine” is spiritually profound or difference borne of desperation is the audience’s decision, but no one can accuse this intentionally fractured piece of theater of playing it safe.

The storytelling sensibilities of opera have evolved alongside the rest of humanity’s conversation. Postmodernism, cinema verite, social justice movements, and a critical appraisal of opera’s own traditions are just a few factors that birthed the art form’s twentieth century mutations. In its constantly evolving modes of expression, opera becomes predictable.

Anna Nicole Smith, The Opera

The advent of the digital age is changing the way we tell stories, and the nature of the stories themselves. Rainy Park Opera’s The Tinder Opera is an internet opera about romance in the era of the dating app. Two Boys, an opera by composer Nico Muhly and playwright Craig Lucas, is ripped-from-the-headlines story about a murder that blossomed from an internet chat room encounter. Anna Nicole is an operatic take on the life and times of tabloid icon Anna Nicole Smith.

An openness to new experiences among the young, emerging economic models, and a wealth of stories unique to the pace of life in the fiberoptic age are producing fascinating, original work for the stage. The opera enthusiast (or the casual pub-goer) can see a five-hour opera epic on the weekend, or a 10-minute opera on their phone any day of the week. And the nature of those stories includes a gamut from an operatic adaptation of David Lynch’s Lost Highway to the timeless story of The Minotaur. The narrative landscape for our favorite art form is rich, broad, and sparkling with new ideas. Whether your sensibilities tend toward the traditional or the bleeding edge of weird, this is the most exciting time for opera storytelling in four hundred years. In its varied voices, the grandest story is that of opera itself—a tale of the total work of art, sustained by passion, and ever-changing.

 


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.

 


SUPPORT OUR NEXT 50 YEARS

As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.