I remember back when the New York Times had its own classical musical station. The Times was always toxic, but there was a time when there was more to it than viewing every damn thing through the lens of its political agenda. Which, at the moment, is race.
“With their major institutions founded on white European models and obstinately focused on the distant past, classical music and opera have been even slower than American society at large to confront racial inequity.”
A genre whose high points occurred centuries ago is, get this, “obstinately” focused on the distant past. Why can’t it just go Skillrex?
But we are dealing with progressives here. And being focused on the distant past, as opposed to the unreachable utopia at the end of the socialist rainbow, is a bad thing. A thoughtcrime. Wrongthink. And, considering the current racial lens on everything, racist.
Nine Black performers spoke with The New York Times about steps that could be taken to begin transforming a white-dominated field.
Some are reasonable. Most involve affirmative action. And some go beyond that.
“The first step is admitting that these organizations are built on a white framework built to benefit white people. Have you done the work to create a structure that is actually benefiting Black and brown communities?”
Classical music is meant to benefit people who like classical music. That’s a minority of white or black people. The community it benefits isn’t racial, it’s based on affinity.
Anyway let’s cut to the Unmake Classical Music section of this.
I would like changes to be made in how we train musicians in conservatories and universities. A lot of our thinking, and our perceptions of what’s good music, becomes indoctrinated at that stage. I say this because even though I’m a person of color, I was guilty of not being accepting of new voices and styles outside of Beethoven, Schumann, all the usual music of the past.
There are plenty of classical musicians who enjoy rock, jazz, hip-hop, and assorted musical styles.
Being a classical musician does not mean rejecting all genres of music, but it does mean focusing on one. Dismissing it as the “usual music of the past” is, like the “obstinate” jab, revealing of a mindset which is hostile to classical music.
“If we reinvent what the opera or classical music audience is, we won’t have the disparities in people hired, people attending, even what’s presented, because you will have different people coming up with new ideas.”
Audiences invent themselves.
People decide what they want to listen to. That is their job. Any functioning adult develops his or her own tastes. There are things that can be done to introduce children to classical music. But that’s really a job for parents and schools. The burden isn’t on institutions, many of whom are already struggling, to launch some sort of giant outreach programs.
When we did “Champion” in New Orleans, this African-American guy in his 70s said, “If this is opera, I will come.” That’s a new audience member we didn’t have before. “La Bohème” doesn’t mean anything to him. But these contemporary stories do.
Good for him, but contemporary opera is frankly terrible. Doing it, white or black, means lowering quality and, inevitably going to political messaging. The great operas were written in the past. Trashing them because the past is now bad would kill classical music.
Some people see a Black tenor, and they think Otello. Or they see a Black soprano and they think Aida. “Who wants to see a Black Cio-Cio San?” You’ll hear that. But yes, opera is a suspension of disbelief. When someone does “Eugene Onegin,” they will often cast someone Russian or fluent in Russian. It doesn’t have to be who you expect. There are other people who can sing it.
One of these things is not like the other. You can have someone of any color sing a role. But being fluent in the language is obviously important. Russian is hard for anyone who isn’t Russian, regardless of their race. Learning to do it is a commitment.
Paul Robeson, a Stalinist and execrable human being, but a talented singer, learned to sing in Russian, when he was doing his endless tour of the USSR. Like anything else, it takes hard work and discipline. It’s not about color, but learning to sing in multiple languages is part of the job.