Diverse and Inclusive Casting Is an Artistic Breakthrough of Operatic Proportions
We all have our stories about what drew us to opera in the first place – what it is about opera that first got a hook into us and began leading us down the path to adherent and fanatic. For me, it was that contained within an opera performance were all of my artistic fascinations to date, packaged together and concentrated. At 16, when I attended my first opera, I was playing trumpet in a concert band, marching band, jazz band and community youth orchestra, acting in plays, singing in choirs, and singing and dancing in musical theatre and a show choir. Opera felt like it encompassed all of that and more. I was obsessed.
Now, 26 years later, my love of opera has deepened, not because of all the things it contains that are familiar to me from other art forms, but because of what makes it unique – the expressive power it has that is unrivaled by any other form of theatre. In short, opera tells stories with an immense emotional payload that is conveyed to the audience through the cry of the human voice. At its best, opera connects its performers to its audience in a way that is almost shockingly intimate. A singer whose technique and skill has unencumbered them from physical entanglements can create a sound that encodes and freely expresses their moment-to-moment internal emotional landscape. A skilled composer places that sound at the optimal range, intensity and duration to convey the emotional truth of the libretto they set. When that sound is subsequently absorbed and decoded by a receptive and open audience member, a powerful connection is formed that elicits an intense emotional catharsis. The singer’s emotional landscape is an essential component of opera’s gift to us all. It is poured out as an offering; an offering as informed by the life that singer has led as it is by what that singer is singing.
I believe this is one of the primary reasons why operatic masterpieces are able to stand the test of time. They would stale quickly were it not for the endless reinterpretation they receive at the hands of new generations of artists. Their lives and experiences become the emotional carrier wave that allows an audience of their peers to decode and appreciate the work afresh. They hear and feel their own story subliminally embedded in an archaic tale. Their pain and longing and joy are there. They are represented. They are seen.
I want to tell you a little bit of my story. I am a hemophiliac, and concealed this from my colleagues and employers for most of my adult life. I had no real concept of what aspects of my personality and behavior were in any way indicative of my hemophilia, but crafted a character that I imagined would not betray my condition and told his story instead of my own in my day-to-day interactions, all the while afraid that my deception could be discovered at any moment.
I kept this up until August of 2014, when I disclosed my hemophilia to the Metropolitan Opera, my employer at the time, followed by a public disclosure in an interview I gave to Classical Singer that was published in October of 2015. At long last, I began to give myself permission to tell my story, not just in a letter and an article, but in every waking moment of my life. I was no longer in hiding. It’s been nearly three years since I made this decision, and while I have suffered some professional setbacks as a result, I would never go back to concealing my condition. I had no idea how much it was weighing upon me until I set that weight down.
You see, hemophilia is a congenital disorder. I’ve been living with it all my life. Denying that part of myself deadened my voice. Now that I am living openly, I am both singing and acting with far greater skill. I realize now that hemophilia is the unremovable lens through which I see the characters I portray. My take on a character is not just informed by my hemophilia – it is fundamental to my understanding of any motivation or emotional state. Now, I’ve never portrayed a hemophiliac on the operatic stage, and until someone writes an opera with a hemophiliac character to be sung by a bass, that opportunity will continue to elude me. So, why is this in any way relevant? Simply put, the experiences of my life allow me to offer to my audience unique inroads into familiar characters. I can show you facets you’ve never noticed, because I’ve had a constellation of experiences unlike that of any other interpreter of a role I undertake. Diversity of experience directly results in diversity of interpretation. It is for this reason that not only do I advocate for diverse and inclusive casting, I believe it is essential to the survival of opera as a compelling and visceral art form.
I think it is worth taking a moment now for me to attempt to define “diverse and inclusive casting”. It is a concept that defies reduction, and any oversimplification can have disastrous consequences on civil discourse. To understand the concept of diverse and inclusive casting, one must first understand the concept of social privilege. In order to have this discussion, we must accept that social inequality exists, that it is possible to identify a privileged class and thus those who do not possess a specific privilege represent a marginalized class, subjected to discrimination and oppression.
Opera is an art form that is strongly linked with Western European culture, as a consequence of where it was created, where it is popular and the stories it tells. Let us take that as our default and assert the following:
In that culture:
Men are privileged, and women are marginalized.
White-skinned people are privileged, and people of color are marginalized.
Christians are privileged, and non-Christians are marginalized.
Heterosexuals are privileged, and homosexuals are marginalized.
Cisgender people are privileged, and transgender people are marginalized.
Non-disabled people are privileged, and people with disabilities are marginalized.
There are several other available binaries as pertain to matters of age, economic status, social status, etc., and not all human traits fit into convenient binaries (for example, juxtaposing cisgender and transgender as a binary proposition ignores the gender-fluid and non-binary identities which also constitute a marginalized class) but the above list is sufficiently illustrative to facilitate this discussion. All of these binaries are interactive. One person may belong to multiple marginalized groups, compounding the discrimination to which they are subjected.
This is not just the culture that informed the stories of opera, it is the culture of our present day. We are grappling with it constantly, and those of us who are working to create a more equitable society seek both to uplift those who are marginalized and relinquish the privilege we possess. The same groups who are marginalized in the stories of opera are likely to be marginalized in the casting of performances of those operas. Diverse and inclusive casting is in part a way to substantively address that marginalization, but its value and impact goes far beyond issues of social justice.
I think of diverse and inclusive casting as having two distinct components: one that moves towards greater authenticity and one that moves towards greater representation. They must be addressed separately, as conflating these two components can give rise to significant misunderstandings and unwarranted animus.
Here are my tenets for diverse and inclusive casting in opera. The first seeks to achieve greater authenticity and the second seeks to achieve greater representation.
1) As a general rule, when a character in opera is a member of a specific marginalized population, seek to cast a performer who has relevant personal experience of that same form of marginalization, and rule out this possibility before considering alternatives.
2) When a character in opera is either explicitly privileged, or the question of privilege/marginalization is not directly addressed in the content of the role, seek to cast both meritocratically and diversely, achieving a cast that is reflective not of the society that existed at the time of a work’s composition or of the era depicted in the story but of the society to which we aspire.
Diverse and inclusive casting requires that both tenets be considered. This is why giving preference to a black tenor for the title role of Otello does not mean that we must therefore cast the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, a character awash in about as much privilege as you’ll ever see depicted on the operatic stage, with a white tenor. Whiteness is massively overrepresented in opera, and diverse and inclusive casting helps to correct for that overrepresentation. If opera singers who are members of marginalized populations are only ever cast to perform characters that are similarly marginalized, there simply are not enough of those roles to go around to give them any hope of a viable career.
When the trans community objected to Scarlett Johansson accepting the role of a trans man in a film, they were objecting to a failure to observe the first tenet. They were being denied visibility. Someone who did not live their stories was asked to tell their stories. When Jamie Clayton, one of the stars of the television series Sense8, tweeted, “Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU,” she was objecting to a failure to observe the second tenet. She is being denied opportunity.
Casting that observes the first tenet requires nothing of an audience. As it increases authenticity, the value to the dramatic content of an opera is self-evident. Casting that observes the second tenet requires suspension of disbelief, something opera audiences are already quite adept at. An opera audience has embraced a world in which everyone is singing all of the time. Next to that, embracing Jessye Norman as Sieglinde in the same production where her son Siegfried is portrayed by Siegfried Jerusalem is, and ought to be, a trivial concern.
It is because opera audiences are so adept at the suspension of disbelief that I believe opera is the art form that should lead the way in diverse and inclusive casting. We should be trailblazers, breaking new ground and shattering boundaries everywhere we can. But I do not suggest this strictly as a means to achieving a social good. Diverse and inclusive casting is not a charitable cause. Diverse and inclusive casting is vital to the reinvigoration of a 400-year-old art form that is under constant threat of stagnation and struggling to captivate new audiences.
Diverse and inclusive casting results in a wider array of personal experiences informing the actions and motivations of the characters portrayed. This is of particular value in opera, where in addition to the creation of new works there is a standard repertoire of pieces that are so frequently performed that avid fans may well see a dozen productions of a single work over the course of their lives.
When I sing Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni, in my interpretation he knows for certain he is physically overmatched by the Don. He has no illusions about whether he is going to his own death. Trapped by honor and convention, he has no choice but to observe this ritual, and the fact of his impending death is something of which Donna Anna is all too aware as the fight commences.
When I sing John Claggart in Billy Budd, I seethe with envy at the form of Billy, a full head taller and possessed of strength and grace I will never know. His very presence causes my reputation to suffer in comparison.
My Sarastro is desperate to avoid the spotlight. Having been content to give counsel to the throne, he now finds himself embroiled in a civil war that fills him with doubt and the recipient of adulation that rings hollow in his ears. In Pamina and Tamino lie his hope of casting aside the responsibilities he abhors.
I cannot know for certain how much my hemophilia informs the dramatic choices I make, but I can say that it always plays some role in my choices. It is an inextricable part of who I am as a person and as a singing actor. I want to share my stories with you. I want to see and hear new stories in this art form that I adore, told by singers who have endured countless struggles to insist that their voices be heard. The film industry has already discovered that films with diverse and inclusive casting make more money and win more awards. I cannot wait to discover what lies ahead for opera if we make the same commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
Praised for his “extremely sensual and almost impossibly deep tones” by concerti, operatic bass David Salsbery Fry is the grand prize winner and reigning laureate of the Bidu Sayão International Vocal Competition. In the 2016-17 season he created roles in three world premiere operas: Scott Wheeler’s Naga, Louis Karchin’s Jane Eyre, and Chaya Czernowin’s Infinite Now (“World Premiere of the Year” in the 2017 Opernwelt critics survey). He has also performed in four workshops for The Metropolitan Opera and given the world premiere performances
of several solo and chamber works, including the song cycle ten songs of yesno by Osnat Netzer. Other notable engagements include Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail for St. Petersburg Opera, Don Basilio in Il
barbiere di Siviglia for Vero Beach Opera, Truffaldin in Ariadne auf Naxos and Wuorinen’s Never Again the Same at
Tanglewood, Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande and Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte in Tel Aviv, his Mostly Mozart debut in Stravinsky’s Renard, and Olin Blitch in Susannah with Opera at Rutgers.
Mr. Fry studied at Juilliard, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins and apprenticed with The Santa Fe Opera. His recordings are available from Albany, BMOP/sound, Navona, Naxos, VIA Records and WERGO. David is a proud member of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), and serves his union as a member of the Board of Governors and as Vice Chair of the New York Area Committee. More on Mr. Fry’s life and career can be found at davidsalsberyfry.com and in the October 2015 issue of Classical Singer Magazine.