It’s pleasing that 2018 was the 10th anniversary of Parliamentary recognition of Black History month and the year that Jessye Norman was awarded the 12th Glenn Gould Prize. February is both Black History Month and the month in which the Glenn Gould Foundation celebrates its laureates, so the iconic opera star and civil rights activist’s presence in Toronto provides the occasion for the daylong symposium Black Opera—Uncovering Music History.
Co-sponsored by the Toronto Public Library and the Glenn Gould Foundation, the symposium welcomes eminent scholars, performers and musicologists who are experts in the history of the black musical experience in opera. Foremost among these is Dr. Naomi Andre, author of Black Opera: History, Power, and Engagement who will tackle the challenging topic of cultural appropriation in a public conversation with well-known writer and broadcast Robert Harris.
“Appropriating is a complicated word,“ Andre told us in a phone conversation recently. “It’s an issue that hasn’t been addressed in opera until quite recently, unlike in other art forms.” Andre points out that in theatre, on television and in film, the practice of white performers playing black roles by using blackface makeup has virtually completely ceased. “But not in opera,” observes Andre. “Verdi’s Otello is about a Moor and Aida is about an Ethiopian princess, and they are both regularly performed by white singers wearing blackface makeup. Nobody seems to talk about this.”
To get a stronger sense of how dissonant it is for white singers to perform in blackface, imagine a black performer playing a white character wearing whiteface makeup. Imagine Oprah Winfrey playing Blanche Dubois, for example. Or Denzel Washington playing Willy Loman. Whether or not we thought it worked dramatically, it’s highly likely that we would comment on it. Andre feels that discussion about these situations is important.
In her conversation with Harris, Andre will refer to other works with racial content discussed in Black Opera, such as Porgy and Bess, as well as more recent operas that feature black experience such as Winnie: The Opera by Bongani Ndodana Breen. Her study of black opera is interdisciplinary, drawing on musicology, ethnomusicology, African Studies and cultural studies. The complexity of the black contribution to opera as performers and composers, as well as the complicated experience of being a black audience member will both be under discussion.
The symposium will open with a concert featuring Nadine Anyan, Tristan Scott and Korin Thomas-Smith accompanied by pianist Angela Park, and conclude with a conversation with Jessye Norman. This event is but one of a series of events that begin February 11. Check www.glenngould.ca for details.
Toronto Reference Library, Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, 789 Yonge Street
Saturday, February 16 from 11 AM to 5 PM.