We are not yet free of institutional racism

Mezzo-soprano Katia Ledoux, whose career began at the International Opera Studio in Zurich, fights for diversity and against discrimination in opera houses. A conversation about the experiences and hopes of a black singer.

Katia, I would like to talk to you about discrimination and diversity in the world of opera. You belong to a young, critical generation of female singers for whom these issues are important. Let's start with the works: how discriminatory do you find the material you encounter in your daily life in opera?
So far, I have been lucky enough not to encounter so much of this material directly in my daily life in opera, because I move a lot in Baroque and contemporary repertoire. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are a lot of problematic works ranking high in the statistics of the most performed operas.

Mozart's Magic Flute, for example.
Exactly. Works like Madam Butterfly or Turandot are also difficult. But you can't get past The Magic Flute. When I read the libretto, I could spend hours being angry about it.

«When I read the libretto of «The Magic Flute», I could spend hours being upset»

What upsets you?
Sexism, racism, heteronormativity... Pamina is kidnapped because Sarastro thinks the Queen of the Night cannot raise her alone as a woman. Monostatos sings a «funny» aria about how he wants to rape the beautiful white woman «because a Black man is ugly» and she would never love him voluntarily. Meanwhile, in the audience sit little Black children or children of families that may not look traditional. What does it do to a child to see and hear something like that? It takes an extreme amount of directing work to adapt this material in such a way that it can be performed as a children's opera, for example.

How do you deal with it? Do you refuse to perform in The Magic Flute?
I wrote my bachelor's thesis on The Magic Flute and had actually made a deal with myself never to sing in it. But I have already broken that deal twice. Once in Zurich in a very clever production by Tatjana Gürbaca and once in Vienna in a beautiful production by Mason Henry. As a young singer, it's not so easy to say, «No, I'm not singing that!»

How do you think opera houses deal with delicate material today?
I have the impression that many theatres now react sensitively, things have changed in recent years. My own experience is that I can bring up my reservations and talk about them with the director or the dramaturge, and they take it seriously. So far I have always found a way not to have to be in a production that makes me feel uncomfortable because it goes against my deepest convictions. Maybe it's because I dare to address the issues head-on. But maybe I've just been lucky. Of course, there are directors who are not open to objections and would never change anything. Then you probably have no other option but to drop out of the project.

Are you arguing that The Magic Flute should no longer be performed?
I'm not saying that the opera should be banned from the repertoire. The music is incredibly beautiful, that's obvious. I understand that you can't take this opera away from people. But I think it can only be performed today in a production that is aware of the problems and finds solutions for them. On the other hand, what would be so bad about not playing it for a few seasons? There are so many other exciting works with beautiful music. It is sometimes said that opera is in danger of dying out if it does not reach new audiences. My experience is that you create new access mainly with pieces outside the traditional repertoire, in which you tell stories where people who have never been to an opera house before can find themselves. A year and a half ago I was involved in a new opera at the Amsterdam Opera House, where I succeeded in doing just that. It's called How Anansi Freed the Stories of the World, by South African composer Neo Muyanga, and it tells a story I knew from the Caribbean fairy tales of my childhood. I didn't know that almost every Black community in the world has its own version of the spider-creature Anansi. When the opera posters went up in the city, the community in Amsterdam said, 'Oh, that's a story we know, we'll go to that.' And the theatre was full of people who normally don't go to the opera.

Where are the opera houses at, in terms of diversity?
I have the feeling that a lot is happening at the moment, and I hope that is not just my subjective perception. There have been huge steps in the past two years that have also made some forms of discrimination impossible. For example, in 2020, the Black Opera Alliance was founded in the USA. This has set a lot of things in motion. Until now, the answer to the question as to why it was almost exclusively white people who sang in opera houses was: «There are no good Black singers.» Now the Opera Alliance immediately puts a very, very long list of very, very good Black opera singers on the table and says: they exist. You just have to hire them. The old arguments are no longer tenable.

Did the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement give a boost to this development?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement was actually founded in 2013, after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer. In recent years, the movement has repeatedly organised protests to draw attention to the killing of innocent Black people by police officers, racial profiling and police violence. The most famous cases brought into the spotlight by #BlackLivesMatter have been the murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Aiyana Jones, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown, whose killing brought about the huge protests in Ferguson. But the full list is much, much longer and full of utterly horrific stories. There was a video of the murder of George Floyd, and it woke the whole world up. Racism against Black people has been discussed on a new scale ever since. The Black Opera Alliance was founded in 2020. Initially, it was intended more as a community for networking and mutual support. But it quickly developed into a strong political force that carried the momentum into the opera houses: let's finally change the situation! And in the USA, a lot has actually happened since the Alliance was founded. The Alliance demands fair representation in the houses. Exactly the same percentage of Black people living in a city should also work at the opera. The Alliance showed that in many cases the discrepancy was incredibly large.

«The exclusion of singers from Asia makes me very angry»

What is the situation in Europe?
Things are happening there as well. An increasing number of opera houses are making an increasing effort to reflect the diversity of the cities they are in, also with regard to their ensembles and repertoire choices. It is far from perfect, and we as a society are not yet cured of institutional racism or microaggressions, but we are on a good path.

In Zurich, people like to say that there are not that many Black people living here.
The reality of my life in Zurich was different. It just depends where you go. I experienced a distinct Black community with restaurants, Afro shops, hairdressers, but perhaps this is not noticed in some circles.

Are the opera houses still cultural institutions of the white upper class?
For the moment they are. It's hard to get into them. For all young singers, it's also a question of finance. Without the financial support of my parents, I would not have been able to start a career. To get to auditions, you have to travel a lot, you have accommodation costs. As a freelancer at the beginning of your career, you don't earn much and have high costs. That alone limits access to the opera world. I know many young colleagues with beautiful voices who don't make it onto the stage because they don't have the financial resources. The visa barrier is also a big problem. You can't just apply for a visa without a permanent job, in the hope of getting nice engagements in a country. Let's take South Africa as an example: that country has produced an unbelievable number of great voices in recent years, which have also been successful in competitions. And where are they all now? Most of them don't get through because they lack the money and a residence permit. That's why opera can't get away from the wealthy white milieu. This is just as true for Asian singers. Their exclusion makes me so angry. We had many Korean people at the conservatoire, superb voices, some of them really to die for. But they just can't get a job afterwards and have to go back home. At the same time, when it comes to casting Asian artists in Asian roles, the continent seems hardly to exist. You hardly ever see an Asian Turandot. For me, that doesn't fit together.

Does it actually annoy you that you are always being asked to take a stand on the issues of discrimination and racism? The director Tatjana Gürbaca once controversially said that she is constantly being questioned about her position as a woman, while men are allowed to present their great staging concepts. As a Black woman, do you feel the same way?
Yes and no. What annoys me is when people only want to hear spectacular victim stories from me: what is the worst thing that has happened to you? It is different if people want to talk to me as an expert on these issues, because then I am not being addressed in the role of a victim. I am not a victim at all. I have been incredibly lucky in my life. That's the reason why I can talk so openly, and wish to do so. I have had tremendous privileges. I have been spared a great many problematic situations.

What privileges do you mean?
I am certainly Black - I write that with a politically-assertive capital B - but I am very light-skinned. That's why I've experienced much less discrimination. And that's another reason why I'm keen to talk about the issues, because I can. In my education I was often told not to speak publicly about things like feminism, queerness and racism, otherwise I could forget about my career. It would scare people, I wouldn't be cast, etc. Do you really have to define yourself as Black? Don't make it unnecessarily difficult for yourself. But it would have been completely absurd for me not to. During my singing training in Vienna, I was advised to keep it to myself that I was together with a woman. That would not go down well at all in the company. Now I stand at the opening night receptions, look around and ask myself: is there actually anyone here who is not gay? I am lucky to work in opera houses where I can be who I am and do what I love. But that's exactly why it's important for me to stand up for the people who don't have that privilege, and try to make the path easier for the coming generations.

We also have to talk about blackface, the use of black make-up on white people on stage. What expectations do you have of opera houses on this issue?
Blackface is not acceptable. It is discriminatory and hurtful.

«I have yet to hear a plausible reason why blackface would make sense»

You expect theatre managements to respect that?
If they continue to hold on to it, they are just too lazy and uncreative to deal with it any other way. I have yet to hear any plausible reason why blackface would be useful or important.

There was a prominent case of blackface at the Verona Arena last summer that created a big stir. Anna Netrebko appeared as Aida with black make-up, and the soprano Angel Blue subsequently cancelled her performance as Traviata because she did not want to be identified with an organiser who allowed blackface.
There you could see how much aggression the issue triggers. Angel Blue made the very difficult decision to give up her dream role to demonstrate her stance, and received such nasty hate comments on social media for doing so that she had to shut down her channels. Meanwhile, the organisers are still proudly advertising blackface pictures on their website.

The organisers have made the excuse that it is an old Luchino Visconti production that cannot be changed.
There would have been other ways to deal with it. In 2019, for example, soprano Tamara Wilson refused to be painted for the production, making a strong statement. Three years later, you can see that the organisers have learned nothing. The case has virtually become a glorification of blackface. Perhaps the opera world is not yet as tolerant as it likes to pretend. The problem is not the art form, but the institutions in which it takes place, the structures in which it is embedded. I'll give another example: gender fluidity is a big topic at the moment. Opera is hailed for being so open to it - women appear in male roles, men sing female parts. But at every opera house there is very strict gender segregation as far as wardrobes, costumes and make-up are concerned. I sang in a production of Rusalka at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, where cross-dressing plays a big role conceptually, and it was very complicated to organise who did the costumes for whom. Is a drag queen costume now the responsibility of men's or women's tailoring? Are we really still at that point? It's only a minor example, but it shows how entrenched the structures are. It's still deeply ingrained in many people's minds: I remember a production where a man was praised in the opening night speech for kissing another man on stage. Wow, how brave. As a queer woman, I have never been praised if I kissed a man on stage.

When you were in Amsterdam, you posted seven tips to your younger self as part of a Black Achievement Month. One was, you should always be ready and able to do your own make-up. What did you mean by that?
There are still make-up departments at opera houses that don't know about non-white skin and non-white hair. I have sat in the make-up department and heard comments like: whew, this is going to be complicated. We don't have anything suitable for this skin colour. We'll have to improvise and mix something together. Should I apologise for that? Then I say: it's not my job, but I suggest the following. I always carry my own make-up, just in case.

Your number one tip was: Stay angry. Stay kind.
Yes, because there is so much in the world that makes me angry, especially in opera. I could spend hours being angry about it, because I love opera so much, and I don't want to accept that it is made difficult for people to work there, or to find access to it as an audience.

What strikes me more in our conversation, however, is the second part of your tip - the friendliness, the good humour, the positive way you talk about issues that trouble you.
Because I also think that you can't make much of a difference with anger alone. Anger is important. If you're not angry, you haven't been paying attention, you're refusing to see the pain of others, or you just don't care. But anger alone can only destroy. Not build. I love opera. I want to create a world where opera is better, more accessible, more beautiful, more affordable, more open to all. Therefore: stay angry, but stay kind.

The interview was conducted by Claus Spahn.

This article was published in MAG 98, February 2023.
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