There’s a moment in Mike Volpe’s stunning documentary Hip Hop to Opera where his group of teenage schoolkids from south London get treated to an aria by Simon Shibambu – the first time that most of them have heard an opera singer live. (Six minutes in if you click on the link, but take the time to watch the whole thing if you haven’t seen it already.) They’re asked for their reaction, and once the initial shock has settled down, the first thing they want to know is, how did he end up standing there in front of them as a professional opera singer at the Royal Opera?
Down the road at English National Opera, their new chief executive Stuart Murphy has been giving the industry a public self-flagellation on its lack of diversity in casting, promising to redress the balance via some positive discrimination. For some reason he appears only to apply this principle to the company’s singers, no mention being made of a similar policy being applied to the orchestra, technical staff or administrational team – perhaps his offer of resigning in favour of a BAME chief executive went unreported – but I’m sure he didn’t intend to give the impression that the important thing is that the company is seen to be diverse, rather than actually being so at every level.
Unfair of me to pick on Mr Murphy – at least he’s been brave enough to raise the issue. So let’s be just as courageous and bite the bullet: is the UK opera industry racist?
First things first. If you’d stood here in 2015 and told me that British society in general had reached a hermetic state of benign enlightenment, then if you’d happened to catch me in an optimistic mood I might well have been tempted to believe you. After the ongoing events of the last three years, maybe less so now. And it would be a brave soul who claimed that the opera business is somehow immune from the malaises of society as a whole.
That broader topic is for another time though. Apart from society’s prejudices, and those of individuals in positions of power within it, what is it about the opera industry in particular which places barriers in the path of Black, Asian and other non-white Minority Ethic (BAME*) singers?
Talking to British BAME colleagues, those barriers very often seem to point back to something else, which tallies with my own experience of the business: class.
In that scene from Hip Hop to Opera, Simon Shibambu answers by saying that he started singing at 8 years old at home in South Africa, with choirs as a boy soprano. He says there were challenges – that in South Africa classical music is not something many families would want their child to start singing. “Same here” replies one of the south London lads.
The thing is this. Now more than ever, with the current state of the education system in this country, I find it easier to envisage a black South African 8-year-old ending up twenty years later as a professional opera singer than I do an innately talented 8-year-old at a typical British state school. That’s not directly to do with ethnicity – although I’m taking the liberty of assuming that if I put on a production of Dido & Aeneas with an entirely BAME cast, and it turned out all of them had wealthy parents and had studied at expensive private schools and St John’s Cambridge, you wouldn’t be congratulating me on solving our problem.
At the same time as demanding more young people from less privileged backgrounds climb the long, steep ladder which leads to a professional opera career, we’re hacking away at the bottom rungs of that same ladder by cutting back, and often cutting altogether, the provision for music education in state schools. Anyone who is serious about tackling this issue as anything more than superficial virtue-signalling will surely be looking at that end of the process first and foremost, and, given that developing opera singers properly takes at least 20 years, will be setting goals for diversity which are long-term – that is, a process over decades rather than months.
That’s not to say that more immediate steps can’t be taken, and if UK companies are minded to back the many excellent British BAME singers they already have available to them then that can only be a positive thing. In terms of providing inspiring role models to future generations, if that’s what we’re after, a home-grown singer surely carries a lot more weight than one who grew up abroad, since their answers to the question “How did you end up here?” have far more chance of being directly relevant and applicable. Opera companies the world over are notorious for being inclined to import solutions to their casting challenges, but there are rewards in the short and long-term for those notable exceptions who strike a balance by investing in local artists too.
Last week I raised the need for UK companies to back home talent in general, especially given the current perfect storm of uncertainty facing UK artists hoping to work anywhere abroad in the near future (not to mention the need to minimise carbon footprints). The hackles of some non-UK singers were immediately raised. There’s an instant assumption that more work for UK singers means less for others. Need that be the case? Must we always be a bunch of bald men fighting over the last comb? Backing home-grown singers could mean devising new, additional projects, perhaps addressing Britain’s cultural relationship with the rest of the modern world – Lord knows, we could do with examining that somehow. I recently workshopped Guto Puw’s new piece for Music Theatre Wales, written in Welsh for two singers and a 12-piece orchestra – hardly prohibitive in budget allocation, therefore – and it’s one of the few times where I’ve felt part of an artform embedded in my own culture, that the concept of ‘Welsh opera’ meant something significant and tangible, in the way that Italian, German, French, Russian singers must presumably feel every day.
There’s something fundamentally important in this process of producing new works in the overcoming of the cultural barrier which stands between British state school kids and traditional opera. Singing ability is, to some large extent, transferable between genres – is it legitimate to insist that, for instance, a talented young black vocalist sings music written by dead white male foreigners, rather than something with a far more direct connection to her own life experience? New music has a critical role to play in bridging that gap – or could have, if we assume that we’re interested in producing new pieces that are genuinely useful to contemporary society.
Let’s raise another factor, which is that training as an opera singer continues to become ever more eye-wateringly expensive, even compared to other forms of higher education, while the potential financial rewards of the career at the end of it decrease in both size and stability. My sincere advice to anyone thinking of pursuing it as a career, unless they are of independent financial means and/or have a passport from another EU country is: think again, much harder. We’re turning what was the most working-class field in classical music into a rich kid’s pastime, and no-one seems to be lifting a finger to change that.
A word of warning too for young singers who have managed to make it through to the professional world. The opera business is a machine which is more than capable of chewing singers up, spitting them out, and forgetting about them. And the time to be most on your guard is when the industry decides that it needs you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take advantage when it does – we’re the ones who sail the boats, and assuming they’re seaworthy we’d be foolish not to launch them whenever we find that the tide is in our favour. If, in the interests of ‘authenticity’, the machine were suddenly to decide that Mr Gedge the vicar had to be played by a middle-aged Welshman, I’d have my diary open before you could say “but you’ve always hated Albert Herring”.
In actual fact what you should be saying is “are you sure that’s the right role for you vocally?”, because these days it certainly isn’t. Experienced colleagues won’t need me to tell them this, since they’re best-placed to make the call themselves, but younger singers should be wary: don’t assume that because you’re offered a role, you must be capable of singing it right now – in practice, it’s not a casting director’s job to be the impartial judge of what’s in your long-term interests. The industry has suddenly decided that it needs non-white faces on stage – that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to damage your long-term career and vocal health by pushing your voice into things it shouldn’t be doing. Look after yourself, take care, and good advice from a handful of people you trust. You don’t owe the machine anything.
Let’s leave Mr Gedge to one side for now and consider the role of Otello. Ever since Shakespeare’s version of the character became largely – and quite correctly – the preserve of black actors, there’s been a clamour from the industry and outside for the same principle to be applied to Verdi’s.
The problem isn’t that the role that Verdi wrote isn’t singable by a black tenor – it’s that it isn’t really singable by a mortal human being: it’s a notorious voice-wrecker, and if a tenor can avoid singing it they probably should. But the machine is desperate for a black Otello, and so any young black tenor immediately has this burden of expectation thrust upon him as soon as he sets foot on stage with a degree of promise – even when he might well be a more suitable Cassio or Roderigo in the same piece. Being a tenor is hard enough as it is, or so they tell me, persistently and loudly.
For the time being the machine has, it seems, decided to solve the problem by casting non-ethnically-specific Otellos, without any hint of “blackface” make-up. Since Verdi’s opera is really far more about jealousy than race – much of the subtlety of Shakespeare’s treatment of the latter subject is lost in the inevitable contraction that happens when a long play is adapted as an opera libretto – it’s probably a legitimate solution of sorts. That only leaves us needing to find answers to the issues presented by Aida, Butterfly, Turandot, Carmen… Perhaps we’re going to need a bigger boat.
A colleague recently recounted to me that, when about to appear as Wotan for the first time, he’d received some pretty intimidating correspondence objecting to the idea of a black man portraying a character based heavily on Odin. (Who was, it seems, unambiguously Aryan. I suppose man creates all sorts of gods in his own image.) Humanity being what it is, we need to take care about well-intentioned initiatives – it rarely takes much for less benign souls to pick them up and use them as a stick with which to beat their customary targets.
Diversity on British stages. Let me return to two questions, both of which boil down to equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity.
If, as a quick fix to diverse casting, the non-white singers on stage are all imported, does that solve our problem? In the context of British opera, how inspiring is a cast of – for example – Americans, Chinese, and Oxbridge choral scholars in terms of laying the foundations for future generations? Ethnicity is a factor in relatability, sure – but if the message we’re sending is that BAME singers can make it in opera, as long as they’re not born in Britain, then are we any further along a road which leads anywhere useful?
Even more importantly: any competent casting department could quite easily put together an ethnically diverse team from current British talent for most standard operas. That might well inspire a new generation of youngsters to pursue training in classical music. But if we then send them back to schools where we are at the very same time removing most, and in many cases all, of the already inadequate training in that very field, is it not just another example of us asking young people why they aren’t climbing a ladder which we’ve already chopped up for firewood?
* – I’m using this term for want of a better one, while being aware that its use is not without its controversies.