By Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As the pandemic progressed, so too did more public discussion of systemic racism alongside a rise in xenophobia, in which Asian people faced verbal and physical attacks and discrimination involving blame for the pandemic; the Black Lives Matter movement globally responding to the murder of George Floyd by police and the ongoing brutal treatment of Black people, and the continual injustices faced by Indigenous people, from unresolved cases of murdered and missing women to drinking water advisories.
Last summer, the Highlands Opera Studio responded to these challenges by looking within and having conversations to begin confronting the issue of systemic racism within the opera business.
“The subject of systemic racism is not a new one,” said Valerie Kuinka, general and co-artistic director of HOS. “It is something that has gone on, it has been the dark underbelly of society for many years. I think we are all well-aware of that. The environment of 2020, in all of its difficulty and all of its challenges, also brought to light, through some of the atrocities that we’re all aware of, problems that have been existing in society for years and years and years. Through these atrocities, things have been brought to a head. We have all had a chance to, perhaps, through the lockdown period, a chance to reflect more deeply on how we can make the world a better place.”
In July, the Highlands Opera Racial Equity Advisory Council was formed, with the idea of promoting the work of the Indigenous, Black and People of Colour [IBPoC] community of HOS through social media channels, and conducting ‘In Conversation’ sessions through Zoom, which Kuinka said on the HOS website would “open a dialogue, provide education, share stories and increase awareness and positive action.” HOREAC members are Suzanne Taffot, Andrew Balfour, Samuel Chan, Matthew Gamble and Chantale Nurse, who have all worked with the company during summer professional training programs.
“The roots of this musical genre are Eurocentric, and many of our current performance and business practices are steeped in outdated traditions,” said Chan on behalf of the council on the HOS website. “Up to now, many of us on this council along with our fellow IBPoC artists who wanted to pursue a professional career had no choice but to fit into white-centric molds, which included being racially cast in the same outdated productions and roles throughout their careers, as well as being overlooked during casting due to their physical appearance.“
The first conversation in the initiative, focusing on the importance and role of equity and diversity in opera, took place via Zoom on the afternoon of Feb. 28, with Chan moderating a meet and greet between the equity council and the HOS board and some community members.
Each council member spent a few moments sharing the subjects, interests and topics they wanted to put forth for exploration.
Taffot said a parallel could be drawn between action on the environmental crisis situation and the issue of systemic racism. First, she said, it should be acknowledged that it exists, and second, we should look at how we can, as individuals, work to overturn it by not denying it, or causing fear of victimization for people who share their experiences.
Equity, she said, must be considered. When she auditioned for HOS, she was older than typical singers.
“I remember when I was checking other programs, I couldn’t audition because already my age was a barrier,” she said. One factor within systemic racism, she said is access to education. She was not aware of opera, she said, until she moved from Cameroon to France when she was 23, pursuing it later than many artists.
“Taking into consideration equity in a situation like this does not mean that we are giving a privilege to the person,” she said. “It only means that we are trying to repair something in the injustice. We are trying to repair something that was created before, we are trying to repair in order for everyone to be equal. Because being equal doesn’t mean that we should take away the question of equity. Equity doesn’t mean equality. It’s not giving a privilege. It’s tying to repair an injustice that was created.”
Andrew Balfour, composer of Mishaabooz’s Realm, which HOS commissioned in 2017, said his perspective is unique as a “Sixties Scooper” of Cree descent who was removed from his home at the age of six months and grew up with a white family.
“I was lucky because I was brought up with music and loving and supportive parents, but I didn’t know anything else about my culture or heritage,” he said. “The act of taking children away from their blood and raising them in non-Indigenous families is an act of extreme, extreme systemic racism, apart from residential schools, no clean water in Indigenous communities up north, you name it. Indigenous people have a long, long history of facing systemic racism since the settlers first got here.”
Balfour said that as a composer, he tries to deal with the issues Indigenous people have faced in the past decade or so, but said he feels society lacks the compassion and understanding to address the issues.
“The only way we can really get out of these issues that are so ingrained in our society is through the arts,” he said. “But to do that we need to heal the arts community.”
Instead of the word ‘decolonization,’ Balfour prefers the word ‘transformation.’
He spoke to the hierarchy that is daunting in larger performing arts companies, the lack of opportunity Indigenous people have in experiencing the opera while facing other challenges, the need for education and greater awareness of issues that face IBPoC communities, and that there are not easy answers.
“There’s no easy answers, there’s no possible way, even in Zoom, in the next year or two that we’re going to solve all of these issues, but the discussion is happening and I applaud HOS and Valerie and Richard [Margison, artistic director], Samuel and everyone here – to give us time and voice and respect,” he said. “That makes me feel a little bit better at the end of the day. We’re not going to solve everything but we’re able to listen, and I think that’s the important thing right now.”
Nurse said she hadn’t necessarily thought of systemic racism in opera in the past, but said having the conversation was both instructional and helpful.
“It’s so ingrained, these conscious biases, unconscious biases, people thinking you look a certain way, you have to sound a certain way, and I only cast you for these things because of the way that you look,” she said. “How do you change people’s minds, like that? What can we say – what can I say to somebody, to say, can you think outside of the box? Is that possible? How do we get to the root of that problem?”
Like Balfour, she said she didn’t expect to see a simple solution to systemic racism in opera, or society in general.
“But I think the conversation is important, and I think that people are willing to have the conversation is important,” she said. “It’s not a question of us being victimized and talking about all of the horrible things, or whatever – situations that have occurred that have made us feel aside or less than, different, the other. Those situations, they’ve informed who we are as people, but that’s not what I think we want to focus on.”
Instead, she said the focus should be on “the next step.”
“Acknowledging that these things happen,” she said. “What is the next step? How do we get to a place where we have equity, diversity, inclusion at all levels – not just the artists on the stage, not just the composers, but also the musicians, also the tech people, the backstage people, the directors, the people at the top. Are they having these conversations? Are they aware, or is it just like, OK, we’re going to do one night where we highlight Black composers and that’s it, we’ve done our job.”
She applauded HOS for bringing the ideas to the forefront.
“They’re not easy ideas to talk about,” she said. “It’s not easy for me to talk to you guys about systemic racism, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but the work has to be done so we can all move forward.”
Chan spoke to the topics of education, opera and race, asking how the three topics are intertwined and how they matter.
“When all of the racial awareness started happening within opera in the summer, a lot of the news I was hearing in the community came from the educational level, and the lack of opportunity that specifically performers of colour have into entering the very basic educational system that creates the opera singer, which is the university and conservatory level,” he said. “When it comes to racial representation in these institutions, yes, within classical music there’s quite a diverse representation in instrumental music as of now, and of course I am speaking rather bluntly, not in detail of this, but in opera, specifically in the training of opera, it is still an extremely – I hate to say this – racially biased art form. That is not entirely the educational system’s fault, often it has to do with the access that young people have to getting to hear what opera is, and to get into the interest of what it is.”
He noted the Eurocentric roots of the art form, and said that the history of how race was handled within opera performance as a whole does not offer much to be proud of.
“A lot of it is quite dark and quite hidden and is now being brought to light in a more honest manner,” he said. “Let me put it this way, it is quite, we’ve often forgotten as a community how radical it was for somebody like Leontyne Price, a Black American soprano, to be on the main stages at her time, at a time when Black-Americans in the States were having such a difficult time, even being recognized by their own government as equal citizens with everyone else.”
He noted that Gamble, who was not able to attend Sunday’s discussion, spoke often of how grateful he was that at HOS, the approach focused on vocal excellence, regardless of race.
“And for Matthew, specifically, he was so inspired by his time at HOS in the summer because it was his first experience within a summer institution where his skin colour never affected how he was spoken to and how he was talked to, and he really wanted to make sure everyone knew that, because it is important, that HOS, of course, keeps that mandate of voice first, as the importance behind its existence,” said Chan. “The importance of the education being that of, that you can gain access to wanting to say what you need to say through your voice, through an institution.”
Chan said he was very much looking forward to seeing how having an equity council helped with the educational components of HOS.
Besides the series of online ‘In Conversation’ sessions hosted by Highlands Opera Studio, the company is also working on establishing a mentorship program in which the HOREAC, general and co-artistic directors and professional consultants would “guide, teach and advise” up to five aspiring opera professionals from the IBPoC community. In the meeting, Kuinka said HOS has always been merit-based, and would choose a select number of people based on the best voices heard, not depleting the value of the accomplishment of getting into the program by “changing our mandate to be checking boxes of tokenism.”
Kuinka hopes that, through the program, a stipend might be available to help with educational and or living expenses.
“There would not be an age limit, because we understand often life and practical needs – having a family, working in another field to pay expenses, etc. – can interrupt studies and set back a promising career, but the general goal will be to help those who have already shown exceptional talent and commitment, but their circumstances are holding them back,” said Kuinka.
The program would run for one year for each participant, with reapplication for extended support a possibility.
“It’s very clear that the IBPoC community is underrepresented in the opera industry, and it’s also clear that this situation is not because of lack of interest,” wrote Kuinka to the Echo after the meeting. “On the contrary, members of the IBPoC community who aspire to a professional career in the opera industry both at home in Canada and abroad often do not have the opportunity to develop their talent and interest because they do not have access to adequate resources, either educational or financial, to encourage their interest, guide their education, and develop their talent to the point where they can compete.”
The members of the HOREAC were thanked for their time and energy in sharing and leading the conversation. “We want to continue these conversations, those paths to healing – as Andrew so eloquently put – to transform our society through art in small steps,” said Kuinka. “This is one small step today.”
To learn more about the HOS or future events, visit http://www.highlandsoperastudio.com.