Lessons in diversity and inclusion - The story so far
It’s a year since the protests began against our production of The Golden Dragon, so this is a good time to reflect on how Music Theatre Wales and the wider opera sector have responded to the issues raised at that time around diversity in opera in the UK.
The powerful and heartfelt protest against The Golden Dragon opened our eyes to a perspective that we hadn't considered. This was a challenging experience and we knew we had to listen carefully to the arguments presented and do our best to learn and change.
Over the last year we have been working hard to extend our learning, and we continue to participate as much as possible in critical and exploratory discussion around inclusion, including exploring opportunities for women composers and creatives (another critical issue for opera and classical music) as well as for BAME artists and staff. We hope that our willingness to share our experiences will not only enable others to learn with us, but will also open up the debate in a cohesive and non-confrontational manner.
Current activity at MTW includes working closely with the National Opera Studio, and participating in a recent Devoted and Disgruntled session about diversity in opera. We attended the Arts Council of Wales training on diversity offered through their Resilience programme, and we have commissioned bespoke training for staff and Board to build understanding and good practice into all areas of our work. We are also attending many of the increasing number of diversity discussion days that are taking place across the UK. In terms of our own actions, we have engaged a casting consultant who has specialist knowledge of BAME singers in the UK, and we are consciously researching more BAME artists, including composers.
We know that the opera and the classical music sector have a long way to go to achieve genuine inclusion, and we firmly believe that heightened awareness must be followed by concerted action. To this end we are currently working with the London Sinfonietta to develop a programme that will support the creation of new work by artists who might not normally associate themselves with opera or music theatre but might wish to do so if it was more accessible to them.
We were deeply affected by our experiences around The Golden Dragon and realised that we had no processes in place that would have enabled us to question the selection of this work or the creation and casting of the production, and this was clearly a failing. When we selected The Golden Dragon, we were excited by its potential to speak to a wide audience about a very real issue in contemporary society, and we approached this message with sincerity and enthusiasm. Alongside the production, we ran three Make an Aria projects which explored the themes of the opera: The first one took place in Cardiff with some collaboration from the Wales Refugee Council, who not only gave us a clear context for the project in Wales, but also brought two BAME writers to the project and a musician-storyteller who we invited to perform at the public masterclass. The second project in Manchester had the most diverse group of composers and writers to date and the themes explored in their arias were profoundly searching and personal, relating to immigration, identity and lack of status. The final project was initiated in Bangor during the Golden Dragon tour, mid-crisis, for which we selected the theme of Dislocation and Isolation. It was our first bi-lingual project (another inclusivity issue here in Wales) and again brought strong and topical social and personal themes to the fore.
Our current production, Passion, has also presented an interesting challenge – the use by the French composer Pascal Dusapin of a non-Western instrument in the score, the Arabic Oud. The new sound that it brings into the piece seems to represent the moment when music becomes the only means of expression left. A moment of pure music which expresses the soul. Questioning the use of the Oud in this score leads to many other questions about the appropriation of non-western instruments and techniques in the Western classical music tradition. We can’t answer those questions, but we can address the issue we have to face with Passion and have decided that the only way to embrace the diversity it suggests is to do exactly that. We are delighted to be working with a Syrian Oud player who is relishing the opportunity to play in this production alongside the London Sinfonietta. We believe this exerts a new influence on the production and on everyone taking part in it - and who knows where this may lead.
We are also starting to discuss the possibility of establishing a Programme Advisory Group who will explore with us the issues around our programming choices and open the company up to a wider pool of ideas and perspectives, especially those of cultural identity.
We’re inviting provocation and challenge from composers, writers and other artists to help us change the way music theatre is made so that it becomes not only more representational, but reaches out to audiences with work that creates a powerful and meaningful emotional experience. Crucially, we are also inviting comments and critical support from beyond our own circles so that we can really begin the process of developing understanding, engagement and inclusion.
Music Theatre Wales cannot speak for the rest of the opera or classical music sector, but we hope we are contributing to the widest possible discussion about how our sectors not only begin to change our own thinking but also how we provoke wider change. The research being carried out by the National Opera Studio will be shared later this year and we look forward to hearing this. It is also inspiring to see the LSO start its own east London music academy, while Birmingham Opera Company has long stood out as an example to us all, especially to those who want to embed an opera company within a particular location. There are other examples, but clearly it is up to all of us to inspire young and old to want to participate in classical music in all its forms.
As a company committed to creating and touring new work we need to look forward. These burning issues with which we are currently grappling could become the key to how our artform might evolve.