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How opera is coming to terms with its racist past

As the world was reeling over the murder of Black men and women, and the Black Lives Matter movement was shining an uncomfortable spotlight on institutionalized racism, The Metropolitan Opera seemed almost oblivious, streaming a 2015 production of Verdi's Otelo – with a White singer in the title role.


While The Met had dispensed with traditional blackface makeup for the Shakespearean tragedy, it was still an uncomfortable reminder of how much still needs to be done.

Kenneth Overton in the title role of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, at Utah Festival Opera, 2016

“Opera's racist history is longer than Broadway’s,” says Kenneth Overton, a celebrated, New York-based baritone, “and it has much further to go. I believe Broadway has attacked the issue in a more progressive way because there are so many big-name, outspoken voices that have taken up the charge. In opera, you don't have as many big names … there is a handful that have gotten through, but it comes with a heavy price tag. You can be blacklisted. You can be labeled as difficult. And so Black performers are less inclined to be as vocal as, say, an Audra McDonald. Nobody's going to blacklist Audra McDonald or Brian Stokes Mitchell or Billy Porter or Norm Lewis.”


"The excuse has been, ‘Well, we can't find a really good Black Otello, so let's just find a white one and paint him to look like he is.’"

Of Otello specifically, he says: “Singing the role of Otello is one that is very difficult. It is a role that, physically and vocally, one must be at a certain level. That being said, the powers that be in opera do not tend to search for Black males who have those vocal powers. And so the excuse has been, ‘Well, we can't find a really good Black Otello, so let's just find a White one and paint him to look like he is.’


“It's the same with Verdi's Aida. We've had more Black women singing the title role of Aida, but what most people don't realize is that the entire story of Aida – all of those people are of color, right? And it's never been done that way. The excuse has been, ‘Well, we can't find them.’ And we can't find them – or they say they can't find them – because there are no managers or agents that are of color, or that have multiple artists of color that can put them up for roles in the bigger houses. So, the system is multilayered with issues and problems.”


Kenneth Overton: "The system is multilayered with issues and problems."

And, like Broadway, the boards of directors of all the major opera companies don’t necessarily reflect the cities and communities they represent. Until that changes, says Kenneth, until there are people of color in positions of power to make the big decisions, “opera is going to continue to be behind the eight ball in regards to being progressive and more racially diverse.”


Back in 2018, Kenneth – along with filmmakers Jonathan Estabrooks and Miranda Plant – started working on a project about Simon Estes, who was part of the first generation of Black opera stars to achieve real success. A direct descendant of slaves – his grandfather was sold at auction for $500 – he discovered the joy of music through the church, and has sung for presidents and popes. But as they did their research, they uncovered a much bigger story they believed had to be told.


“These are American superstars. They have dozens of Grammys, the top musical honors in the country, in the world, arguably, and they're not talked about in educational arts programs."

"We discovered a whole generation of artists that we knew very little about,” says Miranda. “And that says something from myself, who has a master's in the arts and theater, and Jonathan, who has a masters in opera from Juilliard – we didn't know enough about any of these artists."


Artists like Martina Arroyo, who won a competition at the age of 17, and brought the host to tears, her performance was so beautiful; George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to perform a leading role at The Met; and Leontyne Price, who has won 19 Grammys.


“These are American superstars," says Miranda. "They have the top musical honors in the country, in the world, arguably, and they're not talked about in educational arts programs. They really haven't been given the credit that is due to them. So, we were just like, ‘Somebody has to make this film.’ It's a story about American history. Black history. America needs the story. I think everybody needs to hear the story.”


The Black Opera project was born.


“The irony is that we've been working on this since 2018. We’ve been writing to every single person of influence who can help us with this film to collaborate or fund it. And now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement, we don't need to explain to people why it's important.”


Production began in January, then COVID-19 forced the team to be nimble – and plan big.


"The opportunity to do this in a larger format has always been in the back of our minds,” says Jonathan. “We want to give this the grandness that it deserves. The ideal would be a theatrical release, if and when people get back into movie theaters, and to be able to do the film festival circuit, and to have these legends, many of whom are still with us, on the red carpet.”


In the meantime, Kenneth is hosting weekly conversations with today’s Black opera stars on Instagram Live. (Tonight he’ll be talking to Chauncey Packer.)


“I've always been on a mission to demystify opera to the masses," he says. "So often people think that opera singers are stuffy or snotty or unapproachable or not real, living human beings. And so the idea we came up with was to interview some of today's opera stars and to talk to them about their lives and how they're dealing with COVID as active performers, and how they got into music.


“I've done five so far, and they've all been fantastic women. But the common thread was always education; being exposed to opera via a teacher who recognized the gift.”


Simon Estes. Photograph: Gage Skidmore

“Simon Estes was going to go into medicine,” says Jonathan, “and one teacher said, ‘You really should give this singing thing a try.’ So it went from, ‘I'm going to be a doctor’ to, ‘My teacher, Mr Kellis, believes in me, and I'm going to try this opera thing … what's opera?’

“He had no idea what it was.”


“It happened to me the same way,” says Kenneth. “I had no idea what opera was outside of what Bugs Bunny showed us on cartoons, or the woman with the horns on in the head with the breastplate and a spear. That's what opera was to me. I didn't listen to that. My family didn't listen to that, but it was a teacher – a teacher who was not African American – who said, ‘Hey, you have a gift. You have to explore this.’


“And it just so happens that they exposed me to the legend that is Jessye Norman, and it changed my whole world. But, outside of seeing Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, I don’t think they had many examples of what being a Black opera singer would look like, or if it was even possible.”


Art and education have the power to change lives, to heal, he says. And yet they’re under threat, as they so often are in times of financial hardship.


“I think, since the beginning of time, people have turned to the arts, and particularly to the musical aspect of the arts, and then particularly to the voice, for healing. When we celebrate at a wedding, they're singing. When we have a funeral, they're singing. In the time of the 9/11 tragedy, it was music that healed the country. And so for arts and education to be put on the back burner by American society is a battle that I think collectively we have to fight,” says Kenneth. “And I think this pandemic is going to shine more of a light on it, because people are clamoring for artistic content to feed their souls.”


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The Black Opera team

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