By Natalie Barron, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications
Opera’s future evolution and significance depend on representing the stories and cultures of a diverse audience. Many of Houston Grand Opera’s new works have focused on the amazing stories of this diverse city and nation, and the people who are proud to call it home. The power of opera as an art form, paired with the intensity of the human voice, allows us to realize the stories and the struggles we have in common and bring us closer together as a community.
Houston Grand Opera sat down with Lawrence Brownlee, Jamie Barton, Tamara Wilson, and Peixin Chen, all of whom are performing this winter, to discuss the future of opera. The stars examine how the art form is evolving and how the four of them continue to break down barriers surrounding opera. The artists addressed these topics in an early December interview.
What has been your experience in the opera world and how do you think it is evolving?
Lawrence Brownlee (LB): Thankfully, the world of opera is expanding and changing. I think it is acceptable for us as singers to be uniquely who we are and to fully represent our heritages with pride. I have been diligently trying to work on diversifying opera audiences because it is a passion of mine. I try to engage civic entities in the cities I visit and provide interesting programs and experiences, like the Giving Voice concert recently performed at HGO. I hope it will whet the appetites of people who have never been to opera and show them that opera can be young, hip, and cool.
Jamie Barton (JB): My experience in the opera world has been wonderful in most ways, but I’m very glad of the direction I see opera going. I want to see more diversity represented on stage—diversity of race, age, disability status, sexuality, and gender—and I believe that audiences want that too. We all want to see ourselves represented on stage! When I have the opportunity to sing leading romantic roles like Léonor de Guzman in La favorite, the feedback from fans is overwhelmingly positive. They are so happy to see a curvy woman playing a romantic lead, because it makes them feel seen. I truly believe that if the art form continues in the direction of inclusion, we will see more diverse and larger audiences as well.
Tamara Wilson (TW): The opera world itself is becoming more diverse. It’s slow, but it is changing. Currently, it is more noticeable on the stage in the talent being hired, but behind-the-scenes must also catch up and continue hiring more diverse administrators. Opera should reflect the demographics of the populace. Operatic stories are about the main underlying human themes: love, loss, trial, and tribulation. These themes lend themselves to all walks of life, and the productions presented should represent that fact. I am fortunate to be in a place in my career where I am afforded more choice in what productions I accept. While I think it should be the responsibility of opera companies and directors to think about what they want to present to their audience, it is on the singers to stand up and be accountable as well.
Many opera companies are becoming more reflective of their communities through diverse casting and commissioning new operas, like HGO’s El Milagro del Recuerdo and Marian’s Song, that put the focus on cultures that are sometimes overlooked. Why do you think it is important for companies to be more diverse in their casting decisions and through the new productions they are bringing to their stages?
LB: It is true that seeing someone who looks like you on stage allows audiences to experience the opera in a different way. One can imagine themselves in that situation and thus be transported into another world. It is extremely important to tell the unique stories of various communities that are a part of any metropolitan area. I appreciate the diverse casting and programming.
JB: When I see a show where I see someone I can relate to on stage, it makes the entire experience more special. If what is shown on the opera stage is predominantly white, thin, and heterosexual (as it has been for a very long time), then the art form will appeal mostly to those who identify with those traits. On some level, that tells the audience that being white, thin, and heterosexual is what they should hope to be. I simply disagree. Being exactly who you are is a beautiful thing, and opera should work to celebrate humanity in its varied forms.
TW: Adding new and relevant stories to the operatic repertoire is essential; otherwise our artform becomes stagnant. We have a generation that has grown up where music and the arts are secondary or nonexistent in education. The generation coming up is more socially conscious, and we want to see our diversity reflected onstage. The world of opera needs to be inclusive if it wants to evolve.
PC: We’re in an age of diversity now. That is why people want to see diverse and modern operas that represent them, and why it is important to bring in singers that represent the community. It is important to present operas like El Milagro del Recuerdo to tell the story of so many in the Houston area. Bringing diversity into opera will keep the art form alive.
How does your identity and the experiences you have gone through in life inform your interpretation of operatic roles?
LB: I was told many years back that I must use my physical and personal attributes to inform any role that I take on. I am a rather short man of color. My approach to playing the role of a prince is going to be different than someone who is tall, blonde, and white. This, however, allows a totally different experience that can touch a person in a different way. We must be our unique selves because our realities and life experiences will absolutely inform how we inhabit characters.
JB: I am a plus-sized, white, bisexual woman, and not all of those are thought of as good attributes by all people. But, every single one of those descriptors have informed who I am as an actor and singer. I used to try and camouflage my size onstage. I’d work with the costume department to try and make me look as slender as was possible, and I’d do what I could onstage to not accentuate my double chin or my big belly. Those efforts inevitably hindered my ability to really sink into the character. I was constantly concerned with how I was appearing, even while trying to sing in different languages and follow the conductor! I’ve finally arrived at a point in life where I truly love who I am (“flaws” and all). I’ve stopped worrying about if they can see my double chin. Truth be told, in real life, I’m already a love interest and heroine in my own story. It’s easier to play one onstage when I acknowledge that reality in my own life!
TW: An excellent opera singer brings a part of their soul to the roles that they interpret, but at the same time, I do not need to murder someone in real life to know how to play Tosca. Every singer, regardless of background and life experience, should have the ability to use their imagination to bring a character to life. The roles I play are often labeled as "beautiful women" by other characters, and I am not what society deems as a classically beautiful woman due to my body shape. This means that some people do not believe in my character or the plot, but that is beyond my control. I do not consciously try to place my identity into a character. I try to empathize and explore traits we may share or that I have observed in other people to create what I hope is a fully realized character. I know that my body is my instrument and that makes my voice unique. The more performers of all shapes and sizes, races, backgrounds, that appear on stage, the more it becomes the new normal.
PC: Opera singers are emotional carriers. My life experiences have helped me to build up the roles I sing. I was born into a poor family and my father passed away when I was only 11 years old. My mom and I had a very hard time when I was young and we struggled to make ends meet. She worked four jobs at the same time to support my studies at art school and I used the student loans to supplement the remaining tuition in order to finish my degree. I am fortunate that my mom is an optimistic, cheerful, and strong woman that supported me going after my dreams. I learned so much from her. From those experiences, I am the artist I am today and try to bring that emotion to every role I sing.
There are some classic operas in the standard repertoire in which stereotypes are used that are sometimes offensive to modern audiences. With the advent of the #MeToo era and call-out culture, some opera companies are starting to address these tropes so they can present modern interpretations of the operas. What are your thoughts on this movement? Should certain operas be reinterpreted to make them more palatable to new generations of operagoers?
LB: It is not possible to erase history, but we can make bold choices in addressing certain subjects deliberately to show that we want to move forward in a positive way. I think if many of these composers were alive today, they would have different sensibilities. Are we going to stop doing these masterpieces? I hope not, but I think artistic license can be taken in a smart way to allow fresh and exciting ideas without undermining the classic story completely. I have already seen respectable attempts to address such topics, but we need to keep pushing the envelope.
JB: I’m so happy that we’re experiencing this movement in our world. I know that some people find it uncomfortable, but I think it’s necessary in the move towards addressing power abuse in the world, as well as true equality of the sexes. While it’s an old art form, opera has had a long history of reimagining stories to be presented on stage. It’s one of the reasons opera has remained relevant. As long as we want audiences to be interested in coming to shows, then we absolutely have to be invested in speaking to the minds of the people who are in the opera house. I don’t think many people want to see another Don Giovanni where the actions of the title character are glossed over.
TW: It is the responsibility of directors and producers to bring productions to the stage that connect with today’s audiences. It is important to understand that these stories are still in the repertoire because they are universal. When it comes to difficult moments and storylines, we must remember that these were specific to the original audience, just as jokes or stereotypes written in our modern operas may be off-putting to future generations. The stories in opera are not the problem alone; it’s how we interpret them. There should always be a reason behind our choices as artists, and that depends on which aspect of a story the production is focused. Aida, for example, the basic story is about two countries at war shown through the eyes of lovers from opposing sides. It’s Romeo and Juliet. It is love conquers all even in death; a love story that could be set in any era and between any two warring factions. There are many ways to portray love overcoming hate. It is possible for this story and others to hold a mirror up to modern society, but we lose out when we only portray the repertoire traditionally. Whatever the concept, the most important things are to make it clear to the audience why certain choices were made and to tell the story to the best of your ability without intentionally harming a specific demographic of the community.
Diversity and inclusion extend to opera audiences as well. That is why HGO has several programs, like our NEXUS Affordable Ticket Program, which allows first-time operagoers to purchase their first ticket for $15 dollars, and our Pay Your Age program, which allows operagoers 24 and under to pay their age for a ticket. HGOco does great work in this area through their community outreach and by providing student matinees. Why is it important for everyone, and especially young people, to get the opportunity to experience opera?
LB: Opera has changed my life, and I would like everyone to have the chance to experience it. It is not for everyone, but I think the main reason people shy away from it is because they think it is not meant for them. I grew up in an African-American community with gospel, yet fell in love with opera because of my exposure to it. I believe others may have the same experience. The various programs existing to attract new people are wonderful. How we market these programs and to whom we market them are very important. I have always made myself available for engagement opportunities to various groups regardless their race, socioeconomic background, age, or sexual orientation. It is important for us as singers to be ambassadors, working to ensure opera's longevity.
JB: Ok, first and foremost, I want to hug HGO for implementing these discount ticket programs. How incredible! Thank you! It is so important for opera companies to do whatever they can to get new operagoers (of ANY age) into the house, because this art form doesn’t thrive without the audience. Beyond that, it’s important to the human experience to get out of our comfort zones and try new things. That’s what life is all about, right? If someone has never been to an opera, I hope they will try it out. They can’t get that experience on Netflix, trust me! We need to be truly dedicated to producing operas that are worthy of people trying it out for the first time. Luckily, Houston is home to one of the best opera houses in the world, so chances are, the audience will see something they will love.
TW: Young people need to believe that opera is not something for rich people exclusively. As an art form, we have several things stacked against us. Opera is a European art form created hundreds of years ago. It’s performed (mostly) in foreign languages. However, every time I meet a young person who has come to the opera for the first time, they say, “Wow, that was so cool!” People want to experience the spectacle and listen to huge orchestras with unamplified voices soaring above them. They want to experience music with their whole body and not just through headphones. Putting on quality shows with quality musicians will win half the battle. The rest is making sure the door is open to everyone! Art should never be exclusive.
PC: I think that it is great that HGOco has programs that provide the opportunities to see operas outside of the theater. It helps to break down the barriers that surround the art form. By providing affordable tickets, it is bringing a new audience into the Wortham. People don’t know opera very well, because of language barriers or cultural backgrounds. In China, and in America, there is this misconception that opera is too hard to understand and it is only for rich people. But I am seeing changes here in America. The young people are willing to experience opera; so we should give them that opportunity to see a sad opera, funny opera, romantic opera. We need to let them know that opera is not hard to understand. It is exactly like a good movie or book. Singers bring the story to life with their voices—it has the power to make audiences laugh, or cry, or leave them craving more opera.