HIGHLANDS OPERA RACIAL EQUITY ADVISORY COUNCIL (HOREAC) Established
August 19th, 2020
Over the past several months, we as a community of operatic artists have been faced with many new challenges that these uncertain times have thrown our way. Due to the effects of COVID-19, we have entered a world where live art making has had to be put on pause, with professional engagements and full seasons cancelled and/or postponed, and our income deeply compromised. As our society was put on pause for our health and safety, a parallel rise in xenophobia crept into the public eye across Canada and the US, including the verbal and physical attack on Asian people blamed for the pandemic.
As we waited out this pandemic at home, we witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd by law enforcement, and were confronted with the reality that our culture has allowed the systemic racist treatment of black people to exist for far too long, and, with that, the flood gates opened, revealing how so many facets of our culture have allowed this bigotry to permeate their spaces. These spaces include our own.
Our art form is at a crossroads, and has to now ask itself, “Is opera an art form for all peoples?”
The roots of this musical genre are Eurocentric, and many of our current performance and business practices are steeped in outdated traditions. Up to now, many of us on this Council along with our fellow IBPOC artists who wanted to pursue a professional career had no choice but to fit into white-centric molds, which included being racially cast in the same outdated productions and roles throughout their careers, as well as being overlooked during casting due to their physical appearance.
The vast majority of our audiences are wealthy white patrons. Operatic performance spaces more often than not exude a strong ‘elitist’ feel, unwelcoming to many IBPOC individuals and preventing them from feeling comfortable and safe attending our shows. Many professional companies still choose to create and perform operatic plots which are by contemporary standards, racist and sexist, and within these shows, cast characters of a specific ethnic background with white singers.
Our educational institutions often disregard the difficulties IBPOC individuals have to face just to enter the system. Many IBPOC individuals struggle to have the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts. For individuals from disenfranchised backgrounds, having the opportunity of learning and perfecting skills needed for a professional operatic career can be downright impossible. Young aspiring professional artists are also expected to pay for additional summer stage time/education just to be taken seriously by industry professionals, and that practice is still encouraged and accepted in our present day. Anyone without the means to pay for this ‘required’ additional training is often out of luck.
We would like to thank Highlands Opera Studio for reaching out to all of us, asking us how we should confront these issues in our business collaboratively. Acknowledgement of these issues is a first step. We also thank HOS for being a beacon of representation throughout the programs’ existence. For many of us on this Council and beyond, our summers at HOS were the first situations in which we were all treated fairly and without bias from the first to the last day of the season. HOS as a company has always cast based on one requirement: Vocal excellence, regardless of race, sexual orientation, body size, etc.
For many of us, HOS was our first summer professional training experience where we didn’t have to worry about the societal and financial constraints so many facets of our business still place on our shoulders. As we move forward, we are looking forward to working with HOS to represent Canada visually and vocally through virtual and live representation, and to showcase the work of HOS IBPOC alumni across Canada and internationally. We will be working collaboratively to create platforms for IBPOC artists to be represented, so that we can collectively make our business a better place for all individuals, one step at a time.
– Samuel Chan, on behalf of the Highlands Opera Racial Equity Advisory Council
THE FORMATION OF THE COUNCIL
July 28, 2020
The subject of systemic racism, rejecting complacency, and the necessity of listening to our IBPoC community, learning, and taking action to do what we can to make changes within the white-dominated world of opera has been brought into sharp focus over these recent months, and has been on my mind and in Richard’s and my conversations and intentions for many weeks now. As of yesterday, the online version of Highlands Opera Studio 2020 is underway, and I would like to return to these important subjects, and, with your help and guidance, move toward concrete steps for taking action at Highlands Opera Studio.
I would like to humbly thank those of you with whom I had conversations and email communications around the time of the horrific death of George Floyd and, previously, with the Indigenous members of the HOS community regarding the equally horrifying atrocities committed against Indigenous people for centuries. Thank you for sharing the personal stories of experiencing and dealing with racism in your own lives, in personal and professional contexts. I often felt shocked to hear what I would consider deeply upsetting experiences, but for many of you are daily occurrences and a ‘normal’ way of life.
Although Richard and I have always considered ourselves to be strong advocates of anti-racism and racial equity, the truth is we are white, privileged members of North American society, and because of that, cannot ever truly understand. We are, often, ignorant to racist situations and micro-aggressions that you can face on a daily basis. We can, however, listen, learn, and take action in our personal lives and through Highlands Opera Studio to provide a platform for our IBPoC community to offer their stories, experiences, and accomplishments to our public.
The ideas that have come forward during individual discussions with several of you are as follows:
1) Create a Highlands Opera Studio Racial Equity Advisory Committee, to create a visible presence. Role(s) and responsibilities open for guidance and discussion. The advisory committee would oversee suggestion #2 below. [N.B. This has been formed and is now in place.]
2) Offer the platform of Highlands Opera Studio social media on a regular scheduled basis to share personal life and/or industry stories, career accomplishments, and general news from and about the IBPoC community of HOS. [This is an ongoing and active commitment.]
3) Offer an ‘In Conversation’ session through Zoom at Highlands Opera Studio 2020 (and beyond) to open a dialogue, provide education, share stories, to increase awareness and positive action. [N.B. This idea was approved by the now established HOREAC and will take place monthly.]
Richard and I look forward to hearing from you and to implementing ways, through your guidance, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
With great respect and warmest regards,
General & Co-Artistic Director
After two more private meetings between management and the HOS IBPoC members who came forward to play an active part in this initiative, a group Zoom meeting was scheduled for August 19th during the 2020 Professional Development program to include all participants of HOS 2020. The Conversation/Information Session was entitled ‘Racial Equity in Opera: Realities and Strategies for Change’.
It was extremely important to share the conversations and initiatives with every member, staff and participants, of HOS 2020. This is only the beginning of a long overdue journey for the opera industry. We at HOS are committed to playing our part in listening, learning, and taking action.
This is a new and extremely important initiative and it will take time to formulate and implement details of actions and opportunities."
General & Co-Artistic Director, Valerie Kuinka
During the August 19th group conversation, which was organized and led by the members of the HOS REAC, personal stories were shared by the 5 members of the Council, and comments were shared amongst everyone present. The official announcement of the establishment of the HOS REAC was made by General & Co-Artistic Director, Valerie Kuinka, who, along with Artistic Director Richard Margison, welcomed and expressed deep gratitude to the 5 members of the newly formed Council for their desire to guide HOS in active ways to make a positive difference. The pledge was made by HOS to support and facilitate the agreed upon initiatives and to work together to be part of the solution to systemic racism and not part of the problem.