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REMOTE | Jonelle Sills: ‘There Is No Excuse For There Not To Be Diversity In Every Area Of The Industry’

By Michael Zarathus-Cook on June 8, 2020

Soprano Jonelle Sills (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Soprano Jonelle Sills (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Soprano Jonelle Sills joins us for this episode of REMOTE to discuss her experience of the pandemic thus far, and share a message that echoes Andrew Adridge’s contribution to this series: diversity needs to happen from the bottom up. As Jonelle points out, so much of the focus on diversity is on what is visible on stage, which brings to mind the performative allyship that we’ve been seeing online. True diversity means that every aspect of the performing arts is accessible to minority artists and creatives; a black artist shouldn’t have to be Artistic Director material in order to make a living in opera, ballet, or classical music.

How have you been coping with this lockdown?

Overall, I have been doing a lot better than I thought I would. I am an extrovert and I love people, but it’s been a really refreshing time to tap into my introverted side and be okay with taking time for myself. I realize that it’s been nice because I am with my family, we’re safe, and we have enough to eat. Life in a pandemic definitely puts things into perspective and I’ve made it a priority to be grateful for what I have.

What sort of digital initiatives have you been involved in or planning, in lieu of live performance?

Against the Grain Theatre and Banff Centre re-broadcasted the CBC live stream a little over a month ago. It was nice to relive that amazing experience and do a live interview. Other than this, I am making it a priority to have virtual lessons with my teacher when possible and to simply sing for fun.

Any specific books, films, or TV on the go?

Right now I am reading two books: Caruso and The Art of Singing by Salvatore Fucito and Barnet J. Beyer and Get out of Your Head by Jennie Allen. I love food, so I’ve binge-watched the Netflix docuseries Somebody Feed Phil, Ugly Delicious and Street Food: Asia.

With everything that’s going on in North America in regard to race and #BlackLivesMatter, what are some of the changes you’d like to see in the performing arts community in Toronto when it comes racial biases and problems with inclusivity?

I am so grateful for the opportunities that I have had in Toronto through my professional and educational training. I am still pretty new to “the game” and don’t have all the answers but one thing that I would love to see changed is the level of diversity behind the stage.

From what I see there is slowly more diversity on Canadian stages but I think that the effort needs to be holistic. Maybe it’s already happening and I haven’t been exposed to it, but I believe that we could combat bias if people with different experiences were involved in every department of the arts industry. From the singers on the stage, administration, the donors, conductors, orchestra pit, stage managers, directors, hair and makeup, etc. There is no excuse for there not to be diversity in every area of the industry. Start from the “top” and diversify the people who fund and lead opera companies. There needs to be a variety of life experiences in rooms of influence.

For more chats with artists in social isolation, read on HERE.


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Michael Zarathus-Cook
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