Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Historicizing the Diversity Problem in American Classical Music

The Howard University Orchestra in 1940 (taken from Dial M for Musicology)

It's 6 am and my brain is up and I (Kira) have about an hour to write this before I pack up my bags and fly to Vienna for the weekend. My brain was thinking (against my will at 5 am) about the article we posted on facebook (follow us on facebook, y'all!) listing that less than 2% of orchestral musicians are black and that only 1.5% of the music on an orchestra program is by a woman.

For the sake of time, I'd like to focus on that first number: 2% of orchestra musicians are black. This doesn't mean I don't care about the problems other underrepresented groups face in classical music, or the crazy-ass sexism women face in classical music, either. It's because it's 6 am and I need to get this post done in under an hour.

I think we like having this narrative of progress in our lives. We might look at that first number and think, my goodness! If only 2% of orchestra musicians are black today, how terrible was that number in the past?

And this is where we might consider checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Because here's my suspicion, based on my research in different American and European archives: counting for population growth and all that jazz, I suspect that the number of African Americans in the world of classical music has either not budged over the last 100 years or has actually declined.

It's going to take me several years to find the data on this, and it can't happen until after I publish my first book. But here's what pops into my head when I hear conversations about representation in classical music today:
* The Italian tenor Eduardo Ferrari-Fontana asking in 1925 if there were any black women who could sing the part of Aida for the Met, only to have over 250 singers request an audition.
* The formation of several "National Negro Symphony Orchestra" projects in the 1930s and 40s (prior to projects like the Sphinx Orchestra or Chineke Orchestra today!)
* The number of black students from the 1890s-1950s studying classical music not only at places like the New England Conservatory of Eastman but also HBCU's like Fisk University, Howard University, Spelman College, and even the Tuskegee Institute for crying out loud (my own personal records).
* The number of African American opera singers, opera companies, and opera-related projects from the early 1900s until the 1970s/80s. In the postwar period, the Vienna Staatsoper had more African American than white American opera singers performing there. Think about that for a hot minute. More African American than white American opera singers performed at the Staatsoper in 1950s and 60s Vienna than white American singers.
* The number of black conductors with permanent positions with orchestras in Europe (but not in the States!)

Outside of the world of elite concert music, there were tons of black piano teachers, music educators, etc. since the 1870s as well.

I've been calling the 1920s through the 1960s the "golden age" of classical music in African American life, and I think other books and articles that I've been reading lately would probably back me up on that claim.

If I'm right, if my suspicion eventually gets confirmed, then what does that tell us about diversity in classical music education today? Being a historian, of course I'm going to say this: we need to look to the past to see where/when/why African Americans began to move away from classical music. Above all, we must acknowledge black agency in all of this as well as the greater systemic problems they faced trying to perform the music they loved.

Some, like Nina Simone and Will Marion Cook, got pushed out of classical music and ended up in popular music. Many went to Europe and never came back (that's my project!).
African American opera singer Anne Brown, who moved to Norway in the 1930s and later became a Norwegian citizen

In the world of opera, many were (and still are!) frustrated by the lack of roles available to them, being told all the time that they'd make an excellent Bess (Porgy and Bess) or a fabulous Othello, even when the person is a light Mozartian tenor. Um, what?

Others began to question the popular notion at the time (1930s and 40s) that performing classical music uplifted the black race and showed their advancement as people of color in America. Langston Hughes, for example, became critical of African American involvement in classical music for this reason.
The Ways of White Folks (1934) is pretty critical of black performances of classical music.

Outside of the professional world, black musicians also faced economic challenges. Over the past several decades, the erosion of public and private funding for music education has led to fewer full-time music teacher gigs. Becoming a music teacher became a less secure way to entering and then maintaining a comfortable middle class lifestyle, no? There's a decline in general of the full-time piano teacher who can support his or herself through that kind of work. Working as a K-12 music teacher anywhere has also become a less financially rewarding (and more frustrating!) career. Church organist jobs have also declined over the years.

So. Instead of thinking about diversity in classical music as a contemporary phenomenon, instead of doing this weird victim-blaming thing ("why don't underrepresented groups like classical music? Why can't they appreciate it?"), let's look for its origins in the past. Let's find ways to celebrate amazing black talent who sang Verdi or performed Buxtehude during a long history of Jim Crow while also thinking more seriously about the long-term repercussions of this unique history of racism and discrimination. Which pathways were open for black talent and which ones were not? If you're a talented young pianist in 1940s Ohio, what do you do with the choices that you have?

I need to go pack. But I'll be thinking about this later. What might it mean if the number of African Americans in classical music hasn't really changed or might have actually grown smaller? How might this knowledge change how we talk about diversity in classical music today?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Hey everyone, it's okay to like Lil Wayne

Before I get to the main topic of this post, I want to make it clear that it's okay to like any kind of music that you like. Far be it from me to judge what you enjoy listening to, as I frequently find myself unable to resist the lure of Britney Spears' siren song 'Break the Ice' when YouTube suggests it and I'm secretly--now not-so-secretly--hoping for a Skee-Lo revival (it would likely be very brief, as the link there was pretty much the entirety of his oeuvre). But I suspect that I am not the only person in Schenkerian Gang Land who occasionally has qualms about some of the music that I enjoy, specifically when the lyrics refer to women in derogatory terms. Perhaps this reaction is particularly strong when it occurs in hip hop. Those with less power in disenfranchised groups are often the most disenfranchised. More specifically, those railing against authority in hip hop often denigrate those who have even less power: the women around them. There is a much bigger discussion here about how misogyny continues to surround much of hip hop, but I am not the person to do this crucial issue justice. However, I am aware of it, and it is a problem that I wrestle with often in terms of my listening choices.

[As an aside, we do have an almost infinite tolerance for the culture of misogyny when it comes to other genres, even 'high art' ones such as opera, so let's not pretend that this problem is unique or limited to hip hop]

Here is where we come to Lil Wayne.  In a song such as 'Steady Mobbin,' where the chorus repeatedly talks about 'pop[ping] that pussy', it sometimes causes me to reflect about why I am listening to this for the umpteenth time and whether I can (or more importantly, should) simply relegate these seemingly chauvinist lyrics to the realm of entertainment. Well I am here to say that I have reconciled this issue, and not only because I think 'Steady Mobbin' has a great hook that involves this climb to an octave that never quite makes it decisively (a similar trick can be found in Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence,' although I suspect this is a coincidence. If anyone has any evidence to suggest that Depeche Mode has influenced Lil Wayne's production style, kindly send it my way).

Why do I think it's okay to like Lil Wayne even though he has another song with the less-than-subtle title 'I'm Goin In'? First, it's worth noting that many of his lyrics are quite clever; one of my favorites is from his collaboration with Drake, 'The Motto,' in which he declares that 'money talks/and Mr. Ed.' A Mr. Ed the Talking Horse joke! Who expects that in modern-day hip hop? Later in that verse, he makes a direct reference to 'Baby Got Back,' one of the most novel of all novelty hip hop songs. There are plenty of scatological jokes scattered throughout Lil Wayne's works, several of which are pretty funny (go check out 'Steady Mobbin' for a particularly great line about how Lil Wayne plans to commemorate the size of his giant house. Hint: there are a lot of bathrooms). Even the manner of production makes it feel as though Lil Wayne is having fun as we frequently hear him laughing, a rarity in today's tracks. Second, and maybe this is more important, Lil Wayne tosses around a lot of words that are potentially offensive, but the overall ambiance in his songs are remarkably less so. While relistening to 'Lollipop' in preparation for this post, I realized that there is an awful lot about what the Unnamed Shortay in the song wants. We may not agree with Shortay's Weltanschaaung, but she wants a thug, and Lil Wayne is there to provide. So while there may be elements of misogyny, Lil Wayne is less committed to them in his songs than his lyrics might initially suggest (for contrast, go check out 50 Cent's contribution on a related theme, 'Candy Shop,' which is far more authoritarian in its demands).

That Lil Wayne means to make us laugh points to his role within hip hop: he is a trickster, an archetypal figure from African folk culture that has been integral to black American culture (I am not even going to pretend to be an expert here, but will refer you instead to Henry Louis Gates). Arguably, he is one of the few who has the talent to turn language around in a unique way combined with his trickster-like treatment of topics. Although virtually all rap is in some way engaging with what Gates identifies as signifying, Lil Wayne does it best in his manner of combining rhymes and humor.

Early hip hop was steeped in exactly this combination; going back to 'Rapper's Delight,' much of that track is quite silly, particularly the part where they get going about collard greens. But as hip hop became more tied to activism, the trickster element began to disappear. Perhaps the most memorable figure in this regard was Flava Flav as part of Public Enemy.

I'm going to assume that you don't need this picture as reference, but you do need it because a Viking helmet???
At first glance (and possibly many subsequent glances), Flava Flav seems like little more than comic relief to Chuck D's far more serious persona in songs such as 'Fight the Power.' Why is there a guy with a giant clock asking about the time? But his occasional contributions can also be understood as signifying. 'Fight the Power' begins with Chuck D's pronouncement that it is 1989. Sure, prominently stating the year of the song is a hallowed rap tradition that goes at least back to Big Daddy Kane's 'Ain't No Half Steppin', but Chuck D is raising another point: that in 1989, racial issues persist that have been around for centuries. Flava Flav's references to time, then, are better understood as reminders that the time has come for change. His other exhortation is to 'get this party started right,' which seems like little more than a throw-away line (and a reference to Strafe's 1984 song 'Set It Off'). But 'party' has a second meaning, specifically political, and as the video for 'Fight the Power' makes clear, it is time to take action.

[I have no answer for what happened on 'Flava of Love'. I am not even going to try.]

If Lil Wayne is hip hop's current trickster, then his most significant contribution to date is 'Mrs. Officer,' an R&B-esque song that chronicles Lil Wayne's arrest and subsequent seduction by his arresting officer. The implication is that even when he is totally helpless, Mrs. Officer is unable to resist his sexual energy (worth noting: this song also features the best example of the Renaissance technique of word painting that I know of in the modern age with the depiction of the police siren in the vocal line). On the surface, this song seems like little more than an amusing diversion--it gives another meaning to the phrase 'fuck the police,' if you get what I mean--with great text painting, but there is more here. Lil Wayne hints at one of the justifications that white society concocted for persecuting black men: sexual misconduct, a trope entrenched so thoroughly in American race relations that it is at the core of the widely-read To Kill A Mockingbird. The fear that black men would rape white women was, in part, a fear that white women would succumb to the allure of black men; in 'Mrs. Officer', this is precisely what happens, as Lil Wayne is irresistible. It's not known if Mrs. Officer is black or white here, but on some level it doesn't matter. Lil Wayne has 'infiltrated' (or penetrated, if you get what I mean) the white power structure that is manifested in the police. But this is, naturally, fantasy, and Lil Wayne brings back the reality of what the police can do in an unusual moment when he references Rodney King not once, but twice in a row, as a quick reminder of how dangerous Mr. Officers can be.

So yes, I like Lil Wayne. And upon some reflection, I no longer have any qualms about enjoying his music. His voice is a unique one in the world of hip hop and it is one that should be taken seriously--or at least as seriously as any other trickster.

"GET THE F&CK OFF STAGE!" Nationalism, Racism, and Sexism at the Deutsche Oper's Production of Mozart's "Abduction from the Serail"

- The Deutsche Oper, Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I (Kira) am in Berlin for the summer, pretending to do research in archives but mostly trying to write my damn book in the few hipster coffee shops that have wi-fi here. And while I'm here, I do what I always do in Berlin, which is go to the opera. It's almost like I'm a carrier pigeon. The homing device in my brain beeping towards the Deutsche Oper kicks in pretty much instantly once I land at Flughafen Tegel.

I've only seen two productions so far in the week that I've been here (Richard Strauss's Elekra and Mozart's Abduction from the Serail) but the second one (Abduction) that I saw was by far the most disturbing. And it's taken me some time to figure out why I found Tuesday's performance so traumatizing and strange. But I think I've figured it out (mostly) and I'd like to share my thoughts with you all about it.

I'd already been told that the Deutsche Oper's production was a wacky staging of Mozart's opera, The Abduction from the Serail/Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It's an exotic opera (as most of you already know), set in a palace in the Ottoman empire. It is, as critic Edward Said argued back in the late 60s/early 70s in his famous book, Orientalism, an imagining of the Orient. Europeans imagined that harems (the section of the palace where women lived separate from men) were exotic, erotic, sensual, glamorous, and forbidden. That's not what harems were actually like. But that's not the point. It's how Europeans imagined them, and we've been living with the consequences of Europe's imagination for some time now (ugh).

Anyway. A few things about the plot that are necessary to know before I explain what I experienced: Belmonte (dashing young tenor) is in love with Konstanze (despondent beautiful soprano), who has been kidnapped by the scary Pasha Selim (male speaking role). Guarding the harem is Osmin, a brutish baritone who's not the brightest crayon in the box (bless).

I've seen this production many, many, many times. I've seen different DVDs of it. I've seen it at the Staatsoper. I've seen the crazy Calixto Bieito staging that everyone hates.
Calixto Bieito's staging of Die Entfürhung aus der Serail at the Komische Oper (

But this evening, my naive opera-going self did not know what she was getting into.

Where do I even start????

With the booing. There was so much booing. Loud booing. Enraged booing. Shouting back and forth, people saying nasty things to the singers on stage (directly calling them out by name!), saying nasty things to each other. The booing started pretty much instantly and did not let up for about 20 minutes. I'm not kidding! And the shouting was so full of outrage, anger, and venom that I honestly worried I was in a Rite of Spring moment (note: people rioted at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring in 1913. Booing, fist fights, and everything. Fighting poured into the streets). It was so intense that my heart wouldn't stop beating quickly. It was so intense that a woman about ten rows behind me passed out and the ushers had to call for a doctor as she was carried out of the theater.

Why were they booing? Because the director changed all of the dialogue from German into English. This enraged a woman in the balcony so much she just wouldn't stop screaming about it. Every time a singer opened his or her mouth to say something in English, she howled. "DAS IST DIE DEUTSCHE OPER!/THIS IS THE GERMAN OPERA!" Everything should be in German!

My first thought when I started realizing that people were outraged because the singers (most of whom were American, actually) were speaking in English was of African American mezzo-soprano  Vera Little's debut as Carmen at the Deutsche Oper in 1958.
People were absolutely shocked by the audience's response to her performance. The booing was so vociferous that stories appeared about it in the news for several days after her debut. People wrote in also explaining why they had booed her. It was not (entirely) because she was black, but rather because she was foreign. And they wanted to keep The German Opera House truly German. One local opera-goer wrote,

"In reference to your 'Carmen' critique, I would like to say that the booing did not refer to the singer Vera Little herself, to her achievements, or to her being a Negress. The protesting is focused on the fact that more and more good German [male and female] singers are being laid off. Instead, foreigners are engaged who are not better, but at best just as good. I would be interested to hear how the intendant of the City Opera justifies this fact." (Not naming the source - my own private stash, and I have a book to publish!)

Another separate letter also lays this bare:

"There are only five soloists in the ensemble of the State Opera, who have world-class status and who are beloved by opera visitors: Ms. Grümmer, Ms. Trötschel, Mr. Greindl, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau, Mr. Suthaus. But how much longer before these last great talents will also leave? None of these soloists were engaged by Intendant Ebert, but rather underused. Who does he engage? Names like Parabas, Lane, Pilarczyk, Konya, Heater, Roth- Ehrang, and Neralic."  (same deal here)

What do all of those names have in common? They're all, of course, foreign names.

What's great about this Vera Little example is that it reminds us to historicize our contemporary experiences. The fear or suspicion that the Deutsche Oper is becoming a little less German was palpable on the stage that night, and it's also entered German politics. The far-right, racist, xenophobic hate group PEGIDA, for example, recently denounced avant-garde stagings that don't celebrate German values and the hiring of non-German singers as well. Hm. 

But these fears of foreignness infiltrating the German opera world aren't new. And you know what? It's pretty obvious that the "foreignness" of the Deutsche Oper hasn't made it any less "deutsch" over the years. The world hasn't collapsed. People still buy tickets. We rejoice and we will continue to rejoice over good singing, irrespective of who it was who opened his or her mouth to sing the aria we love deeply.

So in other words: the Germanness of the the Deutsche Oper has always been a sticking point amongst fans of the Deutsche Oper. They see themselves as the vanguards and gatekeepers of the best opera house in Germany (they'd say) and the one most representative of what German opera is capable of. But the irony here, of course, is that the Deutsche Oper excels because it hires the best singers from around the world. Some homegrown (Diana Damrau), some foreign (Joyce DiDonato). 


So here's to Part II of this blog post, The Production Itself, Which Was Indeed A Hot Mess.

Because I was so distracted by the booing and the shouting and the fighting in the audience, I honestly didn't have much time to think about the opera production itself until the second half, when things had calmed down a bit more.

And guys. I think I pretty much hated it. I'm not against provocative stagings of opera. I loved Barrie Kosky's staging of Rigoletto from a while back, and that one had evil clowns dancing around everywhere in it (my best friend, Connie, and my husband, Joel, still haven't forgiven me for taking them to see it):
Verdi's Rigoletto at the Komische Oper, 2010

But it was a cohesive staging that enhanced (and did not detract away from) the story of Rigoletto itself.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper, 2016

Everyone in the opera - including Belmonte and Konstanze, who are supposed to be in love with each other (he travels thousands of miles to rescue her!) - were completely debased, unfaithful, and just all-around terrible human beings. The harem itself was a site of just sheer debauchery. Everyone was on drugs, making drugs, taking drugs, sleeping with each other, etc.  As Belmonte sings of his love for Konstanze in the first act, a film played in the background showing him having a threeway with two other women. True, Mozart always pokes at fidelity in his operas (I'm looking at you, Cosi Fan Tutte), but he does so with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge. From the perspective of director Rodrigo Garcia, however, everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer. Subtlety just completely went out the window.

That didn't bother me so much as the outright sexism of the staging. All of the women in the harem (dancers mostly) were the same shape and size. Skinny. Big boobs. Flat stomach. You get the gist. 
And I don't think that the director was using them to critique how society defines beauty and womanhood. I think he honestly just thought that this was the model standard of beauty and went with it. 

My other big problem with the staging was that he hired a black woman to play the Pasha Selim, the Sultan-type character who abducted Konstanze to his palace. It's not that I'm against hiring black women in opera (obvs). But it's that he deliberately sought out a stereotype.

The casting call stated that he was looking for tall black women who could play basketball. The woman who won the part, Annabelle Mandeng, jokingly said she got it because she could dribble the best on stage. Um, what?
Annabelle Mandeng as Pasha Selim in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper 2016 

Even this I was willing to look past if I thought the director was going to do something interesting with her part. But no. Again and again and again, black female sexuality stands for something deviant, titillating, strange, and debased. How do you want to make Die Entführung wacky? Make the Pasha Selim a black lesbian who leads a sex-crazed, drug-obsessed harem. You know what? I'm over it. So, so over it.

Of course, director Rodrigo Garcia and others are patting themselves on the back for their progressivism, for supporting artists of different "migration background" in their work. But we see through that, right? What kinds of roles are different artists of color being assigned? What do these roles signify? That matters just as much as the act of hiring someone who doesn't look like a traditional white German.

It was her monologue, told in a repetitive, Gertrude Stein kind of way ("I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you...") that drew the most ire from audiences. Professed in English from the body of a tall, amazonian Afro-German woman, it made the whole evening all the more strange and, because of the audience's reaction to her, disturbing. 

The singing was beautiful in this production. Gorgeous. Kathryn Lewek (Eastman alum, what whaaaaaat!) was a phenomenal Konstanze! Oh my goodness! Girlfriend can SANG. But the production and the audience's response to it just bothered the hell out of me. Opera is alive, yes! But so are racism, nationalism, and sexism. And they were all on display that evening.