7.5 minute read

PART I of III

 

What does it mean in 2020 for an opera company to have the word ‘Canadian’ in its title? Canadian society isn’t homogeneous. Shouldn’t the flag bearer for opera in Canada follow suit? In a country growing more diverse each day, I would like to see a Canadian Opera Company that switches focus from how it could least offend audiences to how it can actively celebrate the multicultural community around it.

To me the idea of Canada is a place where I am enough. Where I can explore and celebrate the cultures and histories I bring with me, and still feel like I belong. Where I am accepted as I am, and have the space to explore who I want to be, with no pressure to assimilate.

This is still only an idea, and Canada has a long way to go in making it a reality for many who call it home — not least for those who have called this land home for millennia. I believe the recognition of this disparity and a collective effort to move toward pluralist agency is a step worth taking. A step toward a paradigm shift that sees Canada pivot from its deeply rooted colonial identity, to a fluid, malleable, and inclusive reality for the multiple cultures and perspectives it currently holds.

From that vantage point it’s easy to notice the disconnect between a performing arts organization that calls itself Canadian, yet persistently pursues a eurocentric ideal of success on and off stage. It makes it easier to notice if a non-profit with charitable status is doing what it must to serve a city and country whose citizenry is increasingly of non-European descent. It makes it easier to connect the dots between the organization’s modus operandi, its failure to resonate with the community around it, and the steady decline of audiences and revenue.

It is a deeply prejudiced rubric that presumes that opera as told from a European perspective is the only benchmark for excellence in the art form. This unwritten guiding principle is what leads to the COC’s 19-20, 20-21 seasons, and many before them, consisting solely of works by European men — none of which is remotely contemporary. The idea that those with European training and work experience are more worthy to perform opera is one of the main reasons for the glaring lack of diversity in casting.  It is the prioritization of eurocentricity that enables the continued tokenization on stage of non-European cultures, regardless of how it alienates a growing contingent of the COC’s immediate and potential audience.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with telling European stories. Afterall, the European tradition is the reason why many of us fell in love with the art form in the first place. However, populating an entire season with only European opera, in a multicultural city and country, thereby choosing to marginalize other perspectives, is colonialist, eurocentric behaviour. When certain shows are offensive to non-European audiences and you choose to perform them anyway, that is supremacist behaviour.

Opera is boundless. To me, it is the most powerful exponent of visceral expressivity. A place where music, art, dance, architecture, and technology can come together in limitless ways, so people from any background can tell stories in a way that best represents them. So why this yearning for opera in Toronto to constantly look and sound like traditional opera in France, Germany, or even New York? Why shouldn’t opera in different Canadian cities be distinguishable from one another, regardless whether they perform Mozart or Sokolović?

Why this uncompromising drive to achieve global relevance when those within a two block radius of your theatre can’t relate to your output? Why the constant elevation of only European perspectives in administrative and artistic leadership when a growing number of your community don’t share those values? How much longer do you persist with this eurocentric gentrification of the art form when it isn’t achieving the bare minimum of maintaining, let alone increasing, your audience? It makes no sense for any opera company in Canada today to be enslaved to the supremacy of a singular worldview.

It’s worth acknowledging that these issues are not exclusive to the COC, and that there is hard work being done at every level of the organization. However,  its position as the country’s largest producer of opera gives it a significant ability to act as an agent of much needed change across the industry, instead of one that maintains a failing status quo.

To acknowledge what isn’t working and shift course is a difficult task at the best of times, particularly when operating at the scale of the COC. So why should it, or any arts organization, consider radical systemic change while fighting to survive a global pandemic? Over the past few months I have found strength in these words by Arundhati Roy, published in April:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Now is as good a time as any for meaningful change.

In this post and the two to follow, I will explore possibilities for a paradigm shift on three fronts:            

– Artistic hiring (dealt with in this post)

– Administrative structure

– Programming 

A TEN YEAR ARTISTIC HIRING PLAN

Commit to ten years of hiring casts and creative teams made up of Canadian and Canadian based artists, with an emphasis on equitable hiring practices so the stories you tell reflect the diverse communities around you.

Hire singers who have made, and are making Canada proud at home and abroad, and surround them with skillful developing artists from all across the country, not only those based in Toronto. 

When producing thematically sensitive work, prioritize hiring creative teams that reflect the communities represented in those stories — including directors and conductors. While consultants are an important addition to productions that deal with race and social justice, their recommendations can easily be overlooked or misinterpreted by directors and conductors who prioritize artistic vision over lived knowledge and important cultural perspectives. 

Make the selection process for the COC Ensemble fair and unbiased. Acknowledge and change the unethical system where core trainers of the ensemble, who also hold influence over the screening process, have already had extensive experience working with several of the applicants. Core trainers should either be removed from the screening and competition process, or should not accept work outside of the COC that exposes them to a select number of applicants in a manner unfair to everyone else. The hard work and skill of aspiring young opera professionals across the country deserves better.

There is an indisputable wealth of diverse Canadian artistry at home and abroad. Every show you present is an opportunity to meaningfully uplift voices that speak to this abundance. If, beyond these ten years, there is a need to hire international artists, let those decisions be informed by this new workplace culture. One in which casting decisions are made on the basis of artistic merit, inclusivity, and socially responsible storytelling. Not in servitude to a European ideal of the art form.

In addition to these steps, consider implementing the following to push for change within the industry as a whole.

Examine how every process, from contract negotiations to the final curtain-call, can be made safe and inclusive for everyone involved. Partner with other opera companies and CAEA to create a framework that will disseminate power in the rehearsal room. It is past time for opera to deal with the oppressive imbalance of power tilted in favour of directors, conductors, and ‘stars’ — no matter how well-meaning they are as individuals.

Publish an annual Gender Wage Gap Report and commit to actionable steps towards abolishing that gap. The fact that there are fewer male singers is no reason for artists singing female roles to get paid less for the same, often more, work. Do away with confidentiality clauses surrounding payment so artists can have open discussions and hold you to your commitments.

Developing an ethically informed culture for the industry should be an important part of the COC’s legacy.

These are a few ideas surrounding artistic hiring that I think would nourish and change Canadian opera. Ideas that could help the company relate to, and reflect, the values of the communities represented in their title. A company that makes a bold commitment to a future that is ethical, inclusive, and respectful to everyone involved. A company that realizes the strongest argument it can make for global relevance is to celebrate the abundance of cultural diversity in its own backyard.

Wouldn’t that make any Canadian Opera Company worthy of its title?

Subscribe and stay tuned for Parts II and III of A CASE FOR A CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY. 

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