As part of a recent discussion on the question of “colour-blind” casting in Hamilton, the New York Times quoted the playwright August Wilson, an excerpt from his 1996 speech The Ground On Which I Stand.
Wilson’s compelling analysis of the shortcomings of colour-blind casting – “(Black Americans) do not need colorblind casting; we need theatres” – makes disquieting reading for those of us in an opera world which has settled on the comfortable assertion that any singer can portray any character as a straightforward panacea for accusations of institutional racism.
Wilson’s arguments are worth reading in full, as is the article by the poet Maya Phillips in which he was quoted. As a middle-aged white man, my role in these issues is mainly to listen and learn rather than wade in with largely unqualified opinions for the sake of having them.
Having said that, there are particular challenges for opera in this field, and they’re mostly a result of our reliance on a core repertoire which is well over a hundred years old. A contemporary diversity of narrative voices is only possible, even in theory, if the material being produced is also contemporary. Colour-blind casting may limit the ability of stories to discuss historical questions of race (as Phillips asserts about Hamilton), but in opera’s case those discussions, if they exist at all, are founded on a perspective which is centuries out of date.
In his article on classical music and race in this week’s New Yorker, the critic and author Alex Ross asserts that “Classical music can overcome the shadows of its past only if it commits more strongly to the present.”
But there’s an obvious problem here, and it’s this: almost all the best operas were written by white European men between 1780 and 1920.
Most of them were German or Italian. Some of them were French or Russian. A few may have been homosexual. That’s about as far as the diversity goes. You may choose to quibble according to your own personal taste – but if we define “best” as “those that the greatest number of people want to hear”, then the case is pretty much closed. We’ve spent most of this year arguing about how, or whether, to define Beethoven’s “greatness”, and it’s a fascinating discussion: but the bottom line is that lots of people really like listening to his music. (The proof surely being that no-one ever seriously argues that he’s a “great” operatic composer, since Fidelio is hard work for even the most ardent listener.)
It’s right that we examine our use of the concept of “greatness” as applied to composers, and even if we decide it’s valid, whether basing it mostly on large-scale works is in itself exclusionary. But short of the invention of time travel, there are only so many non-white, non-male composers of these sorts of works that we can unearth historically. You can’t rediscover what doesn’t, what was denied the opportunity to, exist.
So where does that leave us? If I were German or Italian and writing this article, I’d probably end it here. It’s not at all clear that the world needs any more German or Italian operas, although I’d be very happy to be convinced otherwise. Singers from other countries can look on with envy at how fundamentally those operas underpin the culture of their respective nations, and more than that, encapsulate their native relationship to language, emotion, and national character. Not that there isn’t always something new to discover about those concepts, but in all honesty, they’ve got plenty to be getting on with, and I don’t envy any contemporary composer trying to slot into that somewhere.
The British situation is different – it’s hard to deny there’s a gap in the market, since even the best-known British operas are hardly core repertoire worldwide, nor indeed even at home. The time is surely ripe for investing to change that. British opera companies are largely still in lockdown, their well-funded facilities lying unused behind locked doors. The idiosyncrasies of the UK’s furlough payments have arguably meant that has had to be the case up till now, but as administrative staff get back to work, surely there’s an opportunity to make use of practice rooms and rehearsal spaces, for composers and librettists to get together with singers and repetiteurs, and see what comes out. Any state-subsidised opera company needs to have some opera to show for their funding, or stands on precariously thin ice in political terms.
If now is not the time for British opera to pick itself up and allow itself to tell its own stories, then when will it ever be? And if British opera is truly concerned about problems of diversity, why should we continue to import many of those problems – from abroad, and from the past?
When I mentioned this idea – British music, British voices, British stories – at the end of my recent post on how opera has treated its composers in recent times, it provoked something of a backlash. That the idea of looking to native resources to produce work that is rooted in, reflects the state of, and has a chance of speaking to contemporary society in Britain is often automatically assumed to be a narrow-minded, insular, exclusionary statement shows how far the task of defining nationalism has been surrendered by those who have a more outward-looking, inclusive view of it.
Make no mistake, it would be far more comfortable for our opera industry to continue to view ourselves as part of a broader pan-European tradition, to argue that the works of Wagner and Verdi and Bizet and Tchaikovsky course instinctively through the veins as the birthright of anyone who lives here.
But the problem is that we’re not bringing anything much to the party ourselves. The recent, largely manufactured, controversy over the Last Night of the Proms at least showed that most Brits have an awareness of the tune and words of Rule, Britannia, and a vague understanding (or misunderstanding) of their meaning. Where is the operatic equivalent?
It’s easy to complain about British opera companies importing singers for their limited performances right now, and it’s certainly a legitimate point when so many British singers, whose taxes subsidise those same companies, are sitting at home at severe risk of going out of business. But the casting choices reveal the truth, if there was ever any doubt, that the British view opera as an exotic foreign art form, best performed by foreign singers if it’s the real thing, and the British version as inferior fare. That this view clearly pervades even at the very top of the British operatic establishment should serve as a wake-up call.
Opera puts words to music, and at its best turns those base elements into stories which speak in the most direct way to those for whom those words are an everyday language. If we truly care about accessibility, it starts right there. And in a modern world where, with few exceptions, operas are performed in their original language, that means producing new operas, now, in our own languages.
Furthermore, the absence of any great historical canon gives British opera a golden opportunity to address all those accusations of racism and misogyny. Opera uniquely gives voice to its characters in the most literal sense, in a way that other art forms can’t. Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Violetta, Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana are the dramatically empowered protagonists of their stories to a degree that their literary counterparts could never be. Opera has the intrinsic power to tell the stories of contemporary Britain, from the perspective of those who live here now, if we choose to embrace the opportunity.
These are honest conversations which Britain desperately needs to have with itself. Few of us would have chosen to live in an era of toxic culture wars, but as artists we don’t legitimately have the option in the long run of ignoring it, nor of planting ourselves on one side and sniping uncomprehendingly at the other, without ultimately making ourselves irrelevant. It’s clear that the stories Britain tells itself, about itself, increasingly fail to make sense in the context of the modern world. We can help with that, if we’re brave enough to tackle it. That’s what stories are for, and stories are what we do.
Neither should we be afraid to acknowledge and embrace the diverse nature of historical British culture. Opera also deals with the fundamental relationship of a culture with emotion – hence German and Italian opera, for example, being very different from each other. As the child of a Welsh and Irish family, who’s lived large parts of his adult life in England and Scotland, it seems to me there’s a stark variance in that relationship across the UK’s constituent nations. Welsh opera, in both of its primary languages, has been largely neglected in recent decades, and the time must surely soon come when that is rectified on a national level. How about a Welsh operatic Mabinogion, Dic Penderyn or Tryweryn? An honest English examination of the Empire from the diverse perspectives of all involved? Hell, how about a Scottish Macbeth? Give voices a place on their own stage and they will tell their own stories.
British singers are among the most well-trained and versatile in the world – the huge numbers of youngsters who come to our music colleges and training schemes from across the globe is clear evidence of that. Look among their ranks and you will find examples of British and British-trained artists who can perform in German, Italian, French, Russian, Czech repertoire as authentically as most natives. May that never change, and may we continue to embrace the wider world, and be embraced by it. That we need simultaneously to find ways of breaking down the increasing social and financial barriers which stand in the way of nurturing operatic talent from all parts of British society is beyond question.
But at the same time, this fundamental British talent – in all its modern diversity – could also be given the chance to engage far more deeply with its own language, history, culture, challenges and opportunities. In other words, with its own stories. So that when our audiences are finally allowed to return, we have something new to tell them – something that speaks directly to them as modern Britons. The opera industry looks with scornful envy at its “crossover” rivals, at how the relatability of their stars with their recognisable back stories invites new audiences in a way that mainstream classical music can only dream of. And yet British opera so often fails to heed the clear lesson when it comes to employing and promoting the talent on its own doorstep.
It might well be the start of a long journey. We’d need to embrace our composers and decide to put them at the heart of the creative process from beginning to end. But our current catastrophic situation could be the chance to sow the seeds of the first real golden era of British opera. All it needs is a small amount of investment, vision and bravery from our artistic leaders.
Britain’s singers are here, her composers and librettists are here; they’re ready, and they’ve got stories to tell. Let’s give them the chance to tell those stories.