Telling our stories in opera

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Several years ago, I attended a performance of a reworking of an opera composed by one of the leading lights of the European avant garde music scene of the early 20th Century. The composer and this particular work are revered by the cognoscenti of the contemporary music world. I cannot say that I share the enthusiasm and passion that is often expressed by folks from this milieu about the music in question, but we are all entitled to our own tastes and opinions.

I was attracted to see the performance because the reworking of the piece was given a Blaxploitation slant. The leading female character in the opera was re-imagined as the type of character that Pam Grier would have played in her heyday as a leading lady of films in the genre. The singer who took on the role sounded and looked fine, but the music was still grating to my ears. One of the highlights of the evening for me was watching audience members, rushing to leave the auditorium in droves.

Fast forward to a few years later and the same singer (who is very good at her job and also easy on the eye) was performing a principal role in an opera from the standard repertoire, in a television broadcast from one of the world’s leading opera houses. Her character portrayal was fine, but she looked out of place amongst the other singers in the production, in my humble opinion.

Will there be a time when singers of that level of talent who are not of Caucasian heritage will have opportunities to connect with singing theatre audiences in ways that simply deal with our shared humanity? Is it likely that the Eurocentric world of opera and lyric theatre gate keepers and makers are going to be interested in making this vision become real? I’m not holding my breath, waiting for that to happen.

My new piece, Afonja’s Minstrel is an example of another way to approach this issue. Catch it at Longfield Hall on November 3rd.