Re: Opera is a white man’s game

Sometimes in journalism, just as in politics, it’s easiest to go for the lowest-hanging fruit. And a few days ago, for Sam Ostrowski, that fruit was the arts — specifically, opera. In “Opera is a white man’s game,” Ostrowski belabors the fact that opera is written by, performed for and only about white people. Ostrowski couldn’t be bothered by pesky things like facts and research. But that doesn’t matter to him. He has only his pre-conceived notions about rich white people going to the opera — that elitist, snobby genre — and keeps classical music right in its place as the easy target.

He starts from a basic observation (he’s been to five operas here), and then generalizes the entirety of the art form as only about upper-middle class white people and only for upper-middle class white people.  

There is a lot of truth in his initial premise. The majority of the standard repertoire was written in the Western European tradition by Italian, French and German composers. But did he even try to discover the brilliant masterpieces that weren’t? Last summer, Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered “Terence Blanchard’s Champion,” dealing with race and sexuality in the story of Emile Griffith. Last season, Chicago Opera Theater produced Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie.” Next season, Chicago Lyric Opera is producing “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina,” a world premiere by José Martinez. Last year, San Diego Opera premiered the first ever Mariachi opera, also by José Martinez, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.” There’s also Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” William Grant’s “Still’s Troubled Island,” Leslie Burr’s “Malcolm X,” “Vanqui,” and Anthony Davis’s “Amistad,” just to name a few.  

With about 10 seconds of research, Ostrowski could also have discovered dozens of operas in the standard repertoire about race and culture that were actually written by “dead white men” (as Ostrowski calls them, as if being both dead and white discredits everything they accomplished). Verdi and Rossini both wrote operas on Shakespeare’s “Othello,” dealing with aspects of race. Gershwin wrote “Porgy and Bess,” dealing with issues of race and poverty. Puccini wrote “Madama Butterfly,” observing collisions of race and culture in turn of the century Japan. Verdi’s “Aida” is a story set in ancient Egypt dealing with aspects of race in a story of love and loyalty.

When IU Opera Theater presented a Vietnamese opera by composition faculty member P.Q. Phan, “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh,” Ostrowski was still not satisfied, complaining that everybody in the cast was white, moaning that “We realized once the production was set into motion that we’re at IU, in the Midwest.” So Ostrowski’s problem with the entirety of the operatic art form is that he’s seeing opera in Bloomington, where the city is 87 percent white and the University is 76 percent white. Yet, if Ostrowski had done his research, he would discover that 65 percent of the principal artists in “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh” were American students of Caucasian descent. Sounds to me like IU Opera Theater and the Jacobs School of Music does better to attract and retain people of other races, ethnicities and cultures than IU does as a whole. But, that doesn’t fit into Ostrowski’s idea of opera as a rich white people activity.

He might like to think that opera is just for rich people. But unbeknownst to most, you can get opera tickets here for as little as $10, and the most expensive student ticket is just $27. By contrast, the resold IU basketball tickets on OneStart range from $25 to $150, and the Little 500 tickets range from $35 to $45. A handful of drinks at any of the downtown bars would set you back at least $10 to $15. If his idea of getting “bougie every once in a while” is going to be one of the cheapest forms of entertainment in Bloomington, I think he’s a little misinformed. He criticizes IU Opera Theater for needing to sell tickets and doing classic operas, but if next season had Joplin’s “Treemonisha” or Blanchard’s “Champion” on the lineup, my hope is that he would be there.

If Ostrowski’s column were merely about perpetuating the stereotypes of opera as a snobby, elitist art form, only for rich white people, then Ostrowski has discovered absolutely nothing about the changing face of the opera world, the actual prices of the opera tickets here or the meaning of opera as a human emotional experience for all ages, races, religions and sexualities.  

If, however, he wants to challenge the Bloomington arts community into wanting and attending more interesting, rarely done operas on the Bloomington stage — those that represent a diverse multiculturalism and are relevant to a modern audience — then he deserves the classical music world’s respect and applause, and I sincerely hope he succeeds.

Jeremy Johnson
Executive Director,
New Voices Opera

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