A rainbow graphic features seven headshots of artists and arts workers of diverse races and gender presentations. Text reads, Making Opera Accessible – during the pandemic and beyond. An online panel in English and ASL. Tuesday, December 1, 2020 at 2 pm PST / 5 pm EST as a Zoom webinar. www.operamariposa.com At the bottom are stylised text logos for Opera Mariposa, Creative BC, and the City of Vancouver.
A rainbow graphic features seven headshots of artists and arts workers of diverse races and gender presentations. Text reads, Making Opera Accessible – during the pandemic and beyond. An online panel in English and ASL. Tuesday, December 1, 2020 at 2 pm PST / 5 pm EST as a Zoom webinar. www.operamariposa.com. At the bottom are logos for Opera Mariposa, Creative BC, and the City of Vancouver.

Earlier this month, I wrote about a panel discussion put together by Opera Mariposa, Canada’s first – and so far, only – entirely disability-led and run opera company. The event brought together a panel of D/deaf and disabled artists and advocates to discuss accessibility in the opera industry during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. In my first post about the discussion, I shared some of the panellists’ strategies for inclusion and accessibility in the industry. In this post, I’ll be unpacking some of the panellists’ insights on storytelling and tradition in opera. 

In opera, when we see characters from marginalised groups on stage, their representation is often bound up with tropes and stereotypes that we now recognise as problematic. Female representation has perhaps seen the most attention in musicology, with the most notable examples coming from Susan McClary (Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality), Catherine Clément (Opera, Or The Undoing of Women) and Mary Ann Smart (Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera). There was recently a great Twitter thread filled with recommendations for other resources on feminist opera studies, including the more recent contributions of Naomi André (Voicing Gender) and Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss (The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century). There have also been some important contributions to discussions about the representation of race and ethnicity in opera in recent years, including Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan and Eric Saylo’s volume Blackness in Opera and Mary Ingraham, Joseph So and Roy Moodley’s Opera in a Multicultural World

These works share a tendency to interrogate opera in its socio-cultural and historical contexts while incorporating the insights of contemporary identity politics. One of the questions put to the Opera Mariposa panel my moderator Robin Hahn brought this line of thinking into the sphere of disability representation:

“How does opera, which is an art form rooted in centuries of tradition, and therefore of many problematic tropes, embrace the future of storytelling – particularly against a backdrop […] of global reckoning with systematic inequalities?”

— Robin Hahn

There were two key ideas that emerged in the panellist’s responses. First, the suggestion that problematic depictions of disability found in the so-called ‘canon’ should be balanced with new representations that centre the disabled experience. Karen Lee-Morlang reminds us that around 20% of the population are disabled and that these people ‘need to be reflected back in our art’. Stephanie Ko draws on her experience as the General Manager at Opera Mariposa, stating that, while the company sometimes puts on canonical works, the disabled-led projects that are about disability always sell out: ‘it’s very clear that the disability community is very hungry for shows that centre us and for shows that are accessible’. It’s not unusual to see these kinds of shows in disabled-led opera and theatre companies (recent examples include Graeae’s The Paradis Files and Toria Banks and Amble Skuse’s We Ask These Questions of Everybody). However, there’s the argument that a diversity of talent goes hand-in-hand with a diversity of engagement, and Stephanie suggests that so-called ‘mainstream’ companies could take this on board in their efforts to boost engagement with the art form and create opera that speaks to everyone.

Such a suggestion might raise the hackles of some opera traditionalists, but all of this is not to suggest that we start censoring works. Christie A. Pollock uses the example of the operatic ‘mad scene’. It’s now commonly accepted that these scenes often represent both women and mental illness in a negative light, and Christie highlights the relationship between mental illness and violence as a particularly problematic facet of these kinds of depictions. One the one hand, she suggests the need for “more complex, more representative, non-violent examples”. But we don’t need to stop performing the mad scenes that we already have: we just need to create productions that engage with the social, historical and political contexts in which these scenes were conceived (something that I’ve explored in a past post on Lucia’s mad scene). In Black Opera, Naomi André provides a compelling summary of this idea:

“As a genre, opera is not inherently flawed with racist sexist negative stereotypes. Instead, it works as a mouthpiece, a conduit, through which a reflection of a society’s cultural ideology – which may include those stereotypes – can be heard and seen.”

— Naomi André

This is a principle that’s central to my own research. Disability studies has, at its core, the notion that representations and interpretations of physical difference reveal and underwrite the culture in which they are created. Bringing disability’s social and historical contexts into the sphere of a performance can create richer and more meaningful depictions. Beyond the stage itself, programme notes provide an outlet for this kind of dramaturgical engagement, providing creators with an opportunity (in David Levin’s words) to ‘extend and embed the interpretative work done in the production, affording a further forum in which to elaborate the ideas presented onstage’ (Unsettling Opera, 6). Pre-show talks provide another platform for dramaturgical engagement with an opera’s mobilisation of disability. 

That being said, meaningful engagement rarely happens without real-world perspectives. Robin invokes the adage ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’, stressing the need to consult with those who have directly encountered the lived-experiences that we’re seeking to portray. 

Panellist Ophira Calof recalls a period during her degree in opera performance when her disability became more visible and she had started wearing a neck brace. She had been unable to wear the neck brace while singing, but one day, she lost consciousness in rehearsals.

“I put on my neck brace and all of a sudden, I could sing again! It stabilized my spine. And I remember for a moment being so excited that I could sing. And then realizing – oh, I’ll never be able to be onstage with a neck brace on; I can’t even wear my glasses in an opera, I’ve never been allowed to. Not just because of the way the lights reflect on them, but because they’re not accurate to the period. And so with that… and then I get my power wheelchair… and I’m like, well that’s certainly not era-appropriate. I guess there’s no way forward in this industry for me.”

— Ophira Calof

Ophira eventually shifted away from singing as a career path for fears that she wouldn’t be able to succeed in the industry. In the experience she describes, she was learning the role of Antonia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, who has a beautiful voice but cannot sing because of an illness. She jokes in the discussion that the experience was ‘all levels of meta’, and her experience could have certainly enriched the production’s portrayal of Antonia. 

It’s easy when discussing disability representation in the arts to find ourselves stuck between tradition and innovation. Disability doesn’t always need to be a ‘problem’: there are ways to avoid perpetuating negative disability stereotypes and create richer dramaturgical engagements with disability in the process. André describes opera as an art form with the potential to be a ‘site of critical enquiry, political activism, and social change’ (Black Opera, 195). Thinking carefully about how we both mobilise and contextualise disability in the stories we tell is an important tool, and conversations like these provide a crucial starting point.

You can catch up on the recording of ‘Making Opera Accessible’ on Opera Mariposa’s YouTube channel.


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