THE BLOG

PART 2: The Black Classical Singer Experience

06/03/2015 04:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

In Their Own Words Part 2: Attitude

Some of the Black singers with whom I have been conversing asked why I chose to write about the topic of the Black experience and classical music.

I am not a sociologist. I am an opera singer and a teacher. I am an arts advocate, and I have this platform where I can speak out about my field. My choice is to occasionally write on issues of substance and not just the light-weight side or curiousness surrounding my field.

Frankly, I am so tired of seeing people in our country so marginalized because of their color and/ or gender. Our president opened a Twitter account last week and immediately got racist hate messages. This, along with the killing of innocent young black men, has outraged me. As for human rights, I do not know when skin color was considered so "non-human." And for the Christian community out there, if we are "made in God's image," then shame on anyone who does not recognize the rights of people of color. I am angry about the stupidity and ignorance of racism, not to mention the arrogance. There are so many problems in the world, and this really does not have to be one.

So, I was reading a Facebook posting by one singer who happened to comment on how he customarily looks, from the stage to the audience, for other Black faces. This struck me because it is an added dimension to the singer experience that I never thought about, which led me to start a very frank discussion with quite a few singers.

In their words: attitude.

But, eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God's plan for me.

...I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself -- and the rest would work itself out. And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I've always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. 

Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting -- all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn't change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn't hold me back.  I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values -- and follow my own moral compass -- then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.

... I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse.  They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose. 

- Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University Commencement Address, May 2015

And in the words of the singers:

I have experienced, time and again, an almost unanimous and immediate respect and solidarity between classical artists of color that transcends racial, ethnic or national background. At the root of this response is the unspoken hope that the presence of two black faces on a stage might encourage the audience to view us within the course of the drama for who we are, skin tone and all.

The excitement comes from the understanding that one black face onstage could have been happenstance, but two artists of color in the same production is seen as a choice, and a positive one: as seen clearly given the press behind Philadelphia Opera's Don Carlo and Houston Grand Opera's Magic Flute.

I've been lucky mostly because I am also confident in my own ability, and have mostly been working with people who respect my artistry and individuality, rather than letting their own ego dictate an entire situation...

Even in those cases, I don't know that race has played into many of the dealings with performers that I know. However, it is still a very elitist field, and while many audiences are used to seeing people of color on stage, the industry has a problem of bringing in people of different economic classes into our fold.

 

...But the arts can be so subjective and the people in charge are savvy enough that they're able to couch their decisions and actions in such a way as to not appear racial.

I've been very blessed in this business, yet I feel that I'm affected by the proverbial "glass ceiling." I truly feel that if one's talent level is such that it usurps focus from the one influential patrons want to illuminate; the undesirable talented few become liabilities and are expendable.

The first time I sang an operatic character who was actually created to be Black was the most liberating experience. Through that contract, I realized that this character was near to my heart, not because he was so much like me -- I grew-up in a home with classical music and attended a boarding arts school, and this man I was portraying was a reformed gang leader from a troubled family life.

What made it such a revelatory moment was I was being given license to be Black on stage in an opera. This revelation made me further wonder, "What if these men I portray in the traditional opera repertory weren't just Black as a result of my having to play them?"

"What if my color and all of the beautiful nuance that comes with a life spent as a black man was intended to be something I folded into the role?" "What if I could re-experience those moments that are fundamental to what it is to be a person of color in front of an audience?"

I used that moment to realize that I didn't have to apologize for my skin-tone, or allow it to blend into the background of the show in order to tell the more traditional story...

It then dawned on me that prior to this opera I was asking the audience to see past my color and look to my artistry solely. Approaching the art form with this mentality sounds like a good and noble cause, only it comes with a big downside.

After years of performing in front of predominately white audiences with predominately white casts, I feel that we encourage both the audience to view a person of color with a sort of visual suspension of disbelief.

I have to say as it pertains to keeping my antennae up, I tend to think of them being more in a neutral place and not necessarily at full attention all the time. For me it's just makes my day to day a bit easier.

It can be a bit much to be constantly on the lookout for slights real or imagined. But if there is a slight or something that can affect me in any negative manner then I will and have in the past dealt with it.

But, ultimately, people's negativity towards me speaks more about the person or institution and not about me. My father told me a long time ago that it's not what they call you but what you answer to.

I was blessed with a teacher that heard past the "Black" sound and her a light lyric. There is a "Black" sound that confuses teachers, agents and opera companies. Most of us have a color and a beat in our voices that sound like out voices should be in a certain Fach (voice type).

Teachers could help singers by...checking in with them and making sure they are maintaining a path to success. Mentoring them. This could be an invaluable relationship. Not just a voice teacher, but a big brother or sister in the business that can help them along the way.

And when the offer comes in for that young lady who's not right for a Mimi (in La Boheme) at 25, she can have someone to talk to that knows the difference and cares about her well being.

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On the other hand, minority singers need mentors and guides so that Zerlinas (lighter soprano role) aren't singing Dalilah (dramatic mezzo role)... So their languages and musicality are at an acceptable level.

Some just have no clue and no one is telling them what's missing. Why? I don't think they care enough. I was very lucky to have people advising me and on my case. I wish more of us had that.

I was told by an old boss in corporate America how to handle some Southern accounts where I faced a little tension and pushback. He actually pointed it out to me. He was a Northerner... Boston guy...

And when he would talk to the distributor with whom I was calling, they would try to lure him into racial jokes about me. He told me that you can't control what people think of you with regards to their preconceived ideas and mind sets.

But you can CHANGE Their minds by proving yourself to be a valuable asset to their business. If you help them close deals? And you show them how to make money? They won't care if you're ORANGE... They will respect your abilities and be more than happy to work with you.

Sometimes I think that people find it easier or perhaps more socially acceptable to reference someone's weight rather than their race as it pertains to casting decisions. Though the same folks that would disqualify someone for their appearance would probably do so for racial or other reasons.

Could you imagine the whole Debbie Voigt scenario at Covent Garden playing out the same way if it was about race or color?

What options do we have but to sing on. I'll never forget many years ago an agent asking me if I had the "Black man's burden?" If I was angry and had a chip on my shoulder? I answered no because I know that ultimately I'm not served by harboring any bitterness and I can't let other's folks limitations define me and my existence.

I walk out on stage in between the second and third movements of Beethoven's Symphony 9. I take my seat and put a serious and focused look on my face. I then scan the audience for Brown faces (Black singers know what I'm talking about. First you look to see if the folks you gave tix to actually came to the show.

...or we are tagged as bitter and angry. It's disappointing, but I'm not angry about that. I get angry about Michael Brown and Baltimore and Staten Island.

Reading about the experience of my colleagues brought tears to my. So often, we think we're going through this stuff alone only to find out it's the entire system that is the problem.

Next week: Part III- Ideas and Solutions