OPERA: Passion, Power, Politics and Diversity?
The UK tour of The Golden Dragon has drawn to a close with a performance of The Homecoming Aria at the V&A as part of the major opera exhibition currently running at the museum.
Given the intensity of the debate that erupted around this production regarding the casting of five white Caucasian singers to perform roles that included Chinese characters, we worked with our colleagues at the V&A and Royal Opera House to contextualise the performance of the aria and open up the debate about diversity in opera. Before the performance, I chaired a discussion panel with three guest speakers:
David Sulkin from the National Opera Studio who is leading on the development of policy for the encouragement, recruitment and training of singers from a much wider range of backgrounds than has traditionally been the case in the UK.
Daniel York, a British Asian actor and film-maker and member of Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members committee and a keen activist regarding the whitewashing of Asian roles in UK theatre.
Richard Baker, composer, conductor, academic and MTW’s Consultant Music Director.
It felt to me that it was a highly informed and considered discussion, if a little brief (we had only 30 minutes). MTW has made considerable effort to reach out and talk to the principal campaigners who protested against The Golden Dragon and we have learned a great deal in a very short time, but the discussion is now more focussed on how the opera sector itself will address the critical subject of diversity, not only in casting but across the industry as a whole.
We think it is important for our experience with The Golden Dragon to be used as a catalyst and model. The furore around The Golden Dragon happened to us but we all have to learn from it. From our perspective we are clear that questions about diversity have to become embedded in our culture and need to be included as one of the foundation stones for any decision we take.
Right at this moment the V&A could not have been a better context for the continuation of this debate, given that the current opera exhibition OPERA: Passion, Power and Politics is all about the social and political relevance and impact of new operas in different cities at different times. All members of the panel felt strongly that this shouldn’t be simply a case of saying all the right words before moving on, so we urge our colleagues in the sector to genuinely engage with this issue. We live in a changing world, and we too need to develop. As a contemporary opera company which commissions and performs new work we have an additional responsibility to explore new voices and new ways of thinking about opera so that the art form itself can be part of this evolution. Opera has an extraordinary capacity to engage with the human spirit and condition, and that means engaging with everyone, not just the lucky few.