Author: Lidiya Yankovskaya

“Shut up and play”—Musicians as Activists in the 21st century

orchestra in a concert hall

Shut up and dribble.” On February 16, 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized NBA players Lebron James and Kevin Durant for being “political” after seeing footage of the two expressing the view that the President “doesn’t understand the people” and that many of the President’s comments are “laughable and scary.” Ingraham’s commentary created something of a firestorm, and a talking-head debate ensued about whether or not sports figures should be advocating certain “political” positions.

Few would deny the power sports figures can wield in conveying social justice messages, whether in the form of a raised fist or the seemingly simple act of kneeling during a football game. But what about the role of classical musicians in this context? Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education? When we see discrimination in the world, when we see injustice, who are we to be the ones to speak out? Should we just “shut up and play”?

Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education?

Amid the current proliferation of nativism across the industrialized world, musicians are uniquely positioned to convey the following simple message that we should all, as artists, understand: no matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have, or what language you speak, you have inherent worth.

We know this because we live it, every day. Musicians come from, and interact with, people from all walks of life. In our career trajectories, we often start at the very bottom of the economic ladder, barely able to make ends meet. Gradually, most move into the middle class and a small number go well beyond and join higher economic brackets. We go to dinners with donors who are the richest of the rich and then partake in outreach programs with the most at-need in our communities. Our work crosses linguistic barriers and we regularly interact with people from myriad cultures. We often travel to remote corners of the world to share our craft. We find ourselves performing at symposiums thrown by the intellectuals of academia as well as crossover pop-culture events. We work in schools, and most of us have taught people from across the cultural spectrum. We are given a unique window into the world and are provided the opportunity to escape our own echo chambers, whatever those may be.

And we work together. In a single concert, we may have a 10-year-old treble singer making music with a conductor or instrumentalist who is well past 80; they perform as equals. We delve into work written by people from around the world, during a span of many hundreds of years—through this music, we get to know those who have long been dead and those whose voices are just coming to the fore. We find ways to empathize with and interpret the work of people we will never meet. We create, and hope that, long after we are gone, someone will see our world through the music we leave behind for posterity.

Consider opera: stage crews, academically minded dramaturges, white-collar administrators, and superstar artists all work intimately together, in the moment, to create a single organism. Each contributor is absolutely essential to the process, and to the product, that we deliver to our audiences.

In this way, music is enlightening: It allows us to have a wide, kaleidoscopic view of the world, and to see beauty in every corner.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is the musician’s responsibility to remind the world of this beauty. Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis, and we must make an effort to fight this hatred. It is the duty that comes with the incredible gift of music.

Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, most of us are not policy experts, and many specific political matters are outside our purview. Yet, when it comes to matters of inclusion, collaboration and cultural understanding, musicians are better positioned than people in just about any other field. More importantly, there are some matters that are purely political and others that—in a democratic context—should never become political at all.

In spring 2016, when the Refugee Orchestra Project had its first concert showcasing the contributions of refugees to American culture, the performance was an activist, but not politically divisive, undertaking. While anti-immigrant sentiment toward particular groups seemed to be growing, it was still typically accepted that the United States had been built as a country of immigrants and could reasonably be expected to continue accepting refugees and other groups. Over the last three years, the political climate changed dramatically, and any positive attitude toward immigrant—especially refugee—communities is now viewed as an incendiary political statement. Our programming choices—featuring refugee performers and composers—were suddenly seen by some as contentious, even antagonistic. We received both hate mail and accusations of questionable patriotism. (Never mind that ROP concerts typically end with a performance of “God Bless America,” written by refugee Irving Berlin.)

I formed the Refugee Orchestra Project because the divisiveness that was taking shape in our country had a direct relationship to my own life. I then used my experience, together with my professional connections, to create a platform for change. But we do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it. Yes, it can be challenging to speak genuinely and authoritatively about the experience of an underrepresented group to which you do not belong, but every one of us can be an ally by supporting organizations that promote acceptance and plurality within our world. And the value of this plurality is something we, as classical musicians, actually understand.

We do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it.

Organizations currently fighting for positive change include those promoting diversity, like Sphinx Organization and Castle of Our Skins in the U.S. and Chineke! Ensemble in the U.K. All three of these organizations use music to increase the plurality of voices in our field (see last week’s article for more on this topic). There are also many organizations working to support a very specific marginalized group within a given community—like Eureka Ensemble, which provides a musical experience for homeless women, or the numerous musical initiatives that work within prison systems. Large-scale programs like Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra and André de Quadros’s choral projects in the Middle East help foster peace on an international scale. Chicago Sinfonietta has recently gone the direction of impacting social change more widely within its mission, and has dubbed itself “an activist orchestra,” with programs that address inclusion, diversity, and environmentalism, among others.

Lidiya Yankovskaya conducting the Refugee Orchestra Project

The very first concert of the Refugee Orchestra Project took place at First Church Cambridge in Cambridge, MA on May 10, 2016 (Photo by Scott Bump, courtesy Verismo Communications)

All of these organizations have been built by musician-activists—artists who wanted to see a better world and were willing to work to make it happen. All of us can make a difference by seeking out organizations that promote causes that matter to us, taking part in their performances, and volunteering our time to spread the message. We all have personal resources – time, money, expertise, connections. I have chosen to invest mine in ROP. This includes everything from covering my own travel to/from performances, drafting press releases, seeking potential partners, and spending hours organizing parts and marking in bowings. The ROP staff are highly qualified arts leaders who have decided to volunteer large swaths of time outside of our primary careers to this undertaking because we want to make a difference. Many of the musicians who play with us have given the organization extra time on the administrative or marketing side, and some, who have the flexibility, have donated their concert fees to the refugee aid organizations which our performances support.

Organizations that do not have a specific activist mission also can and should do more. Those of us in a position of power can use our musical experience, connections, and public position to promote a message of inclusion and acceptance. It can be as easy as taking a moment to reiterate a simple and powerful message that is inherently a part of our art: we all matter. Some organizations are doing this by ensuring that their programs are inclusive of many voices or by organizing new initiatives within their organizations. An example is the Oregon Symphony’s “Sounds of Home” series, which brought attention issues such as homelessness, immigration, and the environment.

If we focus solely on overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener.

Of course, many of our musical experiences will not be activist in their primary mission—and that explicit intent is not required to make an impact. Music for its own sake is immensely valuable and has the capacity to move people on an individual level. If we focus solely on art as a means to overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener. Last week, I sat on a lawn with hundreds of people, listening to a free performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival. It was powerful to simply experience the massive forces of Mahler 2 together with the many families and individuals—music lovers and those who just happened to stumble onto the lawn of the public park.

That being said, when we see the society around us moving in the direction of hatred, we can and should—at least occasionally—look outside our regular programming and use our skills to do more. We can join in the ceaseless fight to make our world more interconnected through mutual understanding (for more on conductors’ role in affecting change, see “The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as musical leaders for the 21st century”).

Last fall, the Refugee Orchestra Project performed a feature concert at the United Nations as part of the annual U.N. Day. As I sat in the small green room just behind U.N.’s Assembly Hall, I felt the weight of the many people who have sat in that very room, likely on that very chair: national leaders both revered and hated, cultural icons, makers of peace and of war, artists, politicians, scientists, and more. On stage that day, we brought together the classical music tradition of India with that of Europe, in THE American City, to a truly international audience. Next week, I have an opportunity to perform with ROP again—this time in the country of origin of North America’s first European settlers, in London. When I perform with the musicians of Refugee Orchestra Project, the deeper meaning behind the music-making gives great focus and intensity to the musical experience, often rendering it more meaningful to all involved. There is nothing more exhilarating than sharing this experience with audiences across the world, hopefully making a difference in the minds of some, and helping others feel a sense of community as they partake in our music-making.

If the recognition of every human being’s inherent value is political, then the creation and performance of classical music is irrevocably political. It is important for all of us to remember this, and to remind others—the next time we are presented with the opportunity to do so. We should never just “shut up and play.”

Working to Create a Plurality of Voices Within Classical Music

Audience members in large concert hall

When I was a 17-year-old violinist and pianist, a committed music educator asked me if I’d ever considered conducting. He invited me to lead from the piano, and eventually, to properly conduct a movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in performance. As soon as I was on the podium, I realized that this was my path. It was exhilarating to serve as a conduit for my peers’ music-making, to focus on the big picture, and to shape sound in this exceptionally collaborative way. By thoughtfully identifying potential in me and continuing to give me opportunities once I demonstrated aptitude and drive, this caring educator ensured a strong start to my trajectory as a conductor and musician. Without this early encouragement and experience, I likely would never have picked up a baton.

When I did not yet have the knowledge, connections, or awareness to pursue focused opportunities, this active encouragement steered me toward a professional career. With few female conductors in the public eye to serve as role models, I was exceptionally fortunate to have champions who intentionally propelled me forward. Today, I often still find myself the sole female voice in a room, and I see an even bigger lack of other types of diversity within my profession. How can we all work to bring a plurality of viewpoints to every area of our art form?

The American classical music industry’s funding and governance model makes us exceptionally averse to risk. In a typical season—3-4 mainstage operas or 6 subscription symphony programs—there is very little margin for error. Audience disappointment could very quickly mean the death of a donor-reliant organization, and industry leaders are under pressure to make choices that are perceived as safe and reliable. Often, this means hiring artists who fit the mold, adhering strictly to approaches that have worked in the past.

Compounding this conservative strategy, top-level hires are often chosen by board members, who generally are not industry experts and may feel insecure in their ability to select the right person. This uncertainty encourages safe choices that remind us of what we already know, further constricting the viewpoints represented in our field. In order to break this cycle, we must make an effort to go outside it.

The need for a plurality of voices within our field has become dire. If we do not begin to represent our communities and the world around us, our institutions cannot continue to evolve. As organizations across the nation attempt to deal with this issue, many continue to face roadblocks, despite incremental efforts. How do we break the cycle and move the culture of classical music into the 21st century?

I’ve had many wonderful conversations on these topics over the years, and would like to offer particular thanks to Jim Hirsch at Chicago Sinfonietta, Tracy Wilson and Julie Heard at Cincinnati Opera, and Afa Dworkin at Sphinx Organization for sharing their thoughts with me as I worked on this essay.

The Value of Diversity

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a diverse group of employees and leaders creates more successful – and profitable – companies. Studies within the corporate world have shown that a business model enriched by a variety of outlooks and experience can capitalize on more creative ideas, a deeper understanding of a wider range of consumers, and the introduction of new problem-solving methods. However, the traditional classical music industry faces a particular challenge: our model is largely built on finding individuals who can fit within an existing structure—musicians with particular technical skills, adhering to very specific stylistic conventions. This often means that musicians coming from outside an established training background must fold themselves into existing practices. As a result, rather than encouraging new ideas—as might be the case in a typical business model—non-conformist behavior is discouraged.

Jim Hirsch, CEO of Chicago Sinfonietta, has endorsed the value of bringing new styles of playing to the concert hall. One approach to tackling issues of diversity is simply acknowledging that there is not just one valid way to perform a given work. Consider the new interpretative ideas brought to standard repertoire by culturally specific organizations like Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. We tend to choose a single type of interpretation and believe that it is the only approach, but great art can come in different forms. We can see a clear representation of this by hearing performances on period instruments, or by comparing today’s practices to historical recordings. The way Mahler’s music was performed one hundred years ago is very far from our approach to it now. That older approach may be more ‘authentic,’ but it is not necessarily better. We have found something that speaks more clearly to our time and to our audiences, and that practice may continue to evolve.

Start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music.

Another, simpler way to increase a diversity of viewpoints in our performances is to promote and proliferate new work—to start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music. If a work of art embodies plurality from its nascence, it will likely continue to encourage diversity throughout its existence (see last week’s article on Shaping the American Operatic Canon).

The Porgy Problem

Opera companies have begun to make a concerted effort to promote a wider range of stories on their stages. Recently, operas about black baseball players and boxers, the wrongfully-accused Central Park Five, a black seamstress in New York, and the civil rights movement have necessitated the hiring more of more diverse on-stage talent. There have also been popular operas that feature gay and trans protagonists, individuals fleeing war in the Middle East, and more. It is wonderful that these new stories are making it to our stages. However, they are often accompanied by “The Porgy Problem”—the hiring of artists only for a racially specific project such as Porgy and Bess, while continuing to pass these artists over for standard work. While attempting to exercise plurality, companies are inadvertently creating a segregated environment within the artistic product.

The importance of actively battling this segregated approach to programming became apparent during the casting process for Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season. COT’s audition announcement always includes a statement of interest in artists from underrepresented backgrounds, but this season also features the world premiere of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride, which follows a young African American woman during the Civil Rights Movement. The audition pool leading up to Freedom Ride included more superb artists of color than I had heard in the last several years combined. Sadly, artists’ or managers’ assumption that we would only want them for this project often limited the audition repertoire presented or included on their resumes.

As we were casting a leading role in Freedom Ride, a manager reached out to us about an outstanding singer who turned out not to be the right fit for the proposed role. At the time, I was actively seeking someone for a Russian-language project down the line. This singer seemed ideal, but since the agent did not propose her for anything other than Freedom Ride, I assumed she either was not available or did not have the requisite Russian language background.

I found the singer exceptional and decided to inquire. I am glad I did – not only was she available, she had sung this very Russian role before. This incident confirmed the importance of making a concerted effort to seek out diversity for every production.

16 members of the cast of Freedom Ride on stage in costume, some carrying suitcases.

The cast for the 2013 Marigny Opera (New Orleans) showcase of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride which will receive its premiere with Chicago Opera Theater in February 2020 with conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and director Tazewell Thompson. (Photo courtesy Dan Shore)

Intentionality

In conversation with colleagues who specialize in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) issues, one theme surfaced again and again: intentionality. This idea, of going out of one’s way to create opportunities for diversity, resonates strongly for me. My own career was greatly affected by others’ commitment to this concept.

The conductor who first pushed me onto the podium, college conducting teachers who generously gave me lessons at no cost, mentors who came to my rehearsals and performances to offer feedback – all allowed me to try, to fail, and to learn from the experience. Established conductors overlooked my youth and relative inexperience, giving me opportunities to lead and to learn. They put me in front of major ensembles, in positions for which I would never have deemed myself qualified, and would never have sought out on my own. In every case, a leader’s intentional choice to give me an opportunity to prove myself allowed me to move forward in my career. Without these opportunities to work in environments that pushed my musical boundaries, I would never have grown as an artist.

Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.

Now, as I seek out young artists for various positions, I try to make a point of looking outside the box. Though it is impossible to be aware of the entire field of options and some of the best candidates may fly under the radar, it is our responsibility as artistic leaders to anticipate this and seek out those individuals whose plurality will make them an asset to the room, even if their differences give hesitation. Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.

Intentionality in Action

Alongside individual industry leaders, institutions can ensure that intentionality is at the core of their practice. At Chicago Opera Theater, we have taken some basic steps as an organization to put this concept into action. The first has been to include diversity initiatives in our strategic plan, which forces us to regularly examine and track whether our staff, board, artists, and audiences represent the diversity of our city. We have engaged in active dialogue on these issues by joining a cohort of companies, including Minnesota Opera, for annual conversations and sharing of ideas. We are actively working to recruit a highly varied pool of applicants for staff positions, our Young Artist Program, and our Vanguard Composer Residency. We believe it is important to make the changes from the inside out—focusing not only on who is seen on our stages, but also on ensuring that behind-the-scenes decision-makers represent a variety of communities. To ensure that our progressively diverse team is able to communicate and work together productively, we are including cultural sensitivity and harassment training in this season’s activities.

These actions are a start, but there is still a long way to go.

Programs and Initiatives

Albeit slowly, the field is trying to change. Organizations like Sphinx and Opera America, initiatives like Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion and National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, and programs like The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship are all moving the needle. In addition to grants and mentorships for women and people of color, these programs meet three critical needs: institutional recognition for those who fall outside institutional norms, the creation of a sense of community for those who feel marginalized, and training for groups that have been denied access to certain resources.

The greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition.

Of these, I feel the greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition. When I took part in The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute, I already had a decade of highly varied experience under my belt, but was having trouble getting noticed by larger organizations and agencies. In searching for new management, I reached out to many individuals and institutions, only to be ignored or quickly brushed off. It was understandable—managers get hundreds of emails from artists; I did not fit a typical profile and they had not heard of me. However, the Hart Institute resources included mentorship by a retired leader from a major artist management firm. He was impressed by my resume, and immediately asked why I wasn’t represented by a bigger agency. When I told him that, lacking connections with major decision-makers in the field, I was having trouble getting management agencies to notice me, he suggested I write again, but this time including his name in the subject line. Suddenly, every agency I had emailed before responded—to messages with the exact same materials and content. Within a few weeks, I was choosing between four leading management companies.

Those of us in a position of power can easily make a difference by serving as references for emerging artists, making an effort to actively advocate for artists from a plurality of backgrounds. For an under-appreciated artist deserving of recognition, intentional advocacy and acknowledgment from a leading institution can make an enormous impact.

Six of the female conductors participating in the Hart Institute posing in tuxedos with batons for a photo shoot as two others help them adjust their positions for the camera.

Participants in the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute. (Photo by Karen Almond / Dallas Opera, courtesy Verismo Communications.)

A Sense of Community

For me, one of the most valuable results of programs like the Hart Institute has been the opportunity to build a community of other conductors who have had similar challenges and experiences. The camaraderie that forms among a cohort can help build an essential network among artists. The existence of a cohort also ensures that an artist does not feel the constant pressure of being “the other,” or the burden of representing an entire race, gender, or culture. Building a supportive community allows an artist to flourish.

The importance of community-building goes beyond what we see on stage. In some of my earliest leadership roles—as Music Director at Harvard University’s Lowell House Opera and at Juventas New Music Ensemble—I worked in partnership with incredible female directors on the administrative side. These were women my age, whom I admired and from whom I learned a great deal. My colleagues were my role models and my biggest champions. In all levels of our organizations, ensuring that our artists find individuals who are like them—people with whom they can immediately find common ground on a visceral level—is essential. The more inclusive our environments, the more connections can be created among administrators, boards, audiences, artists, and our immediate communities.

Building Networks

At Cincinnati Opera, along with several other companies, this concept of community is also used in a broader sense. By hiring affiliate artists who are well-connected within a certain cultural sphere, an organization can use that artist’s network to identify and attract top talent. In Cincinnati, bass Morris Robinson emerged as a regular collaborator with a knack for establishing rapport with just about anyone—whether an opera connoisseur or a total novice. Robinson is also seen as a major role model for many African American opera artists, and is very aware of the top emerging talent. The company hired Robinson as Artistic Advisor—a role that involves him in many aspects of the organization’s artistic vision and outreach.

Eric Owens serves in a similar role at the Glimmerglass Festival, where the company benefits from the combination of his exceptional experience and expertise in opera with his access to a larger network of artists who may otherwise be overlooked. Both Robinson and Owens are operatic giants, who would be assets to any organization regardless of their race, but their backgrounds serve additional benefits—bringing new perspectives, new networks, and greater access to new communities for these organizations.

Networks can also be built through lasting institutional partnerships. At Chicago Opera Theater, we are using the shared thematic goals in the opera Freedom Ride to partner with Chicago Sinfonietta, who will serve as the orchestra for this production. The hope is that this partnership will expose us to new players whom we can bring back for many future productions.

The responsibility is on us all

Though the need for institutional changes can feel overwhelming, there is much we can do as individuals. Artists can use their influence, experience, and knowledge of various networks to make a difference. We can make a point of encouraging and mentoring emerging professionals who face the same challenges we faced early in our careers. We can recommend our colleagues to others in the field. We can promote and perform relevant and forward-thinking programs.

Consider your own daily artistic choices

Consider your own daily artistic choices:

What is the makeup of the students in your private teaching studio, and have you made an effort to seek out students who are representative of your community?

When programming a recital, are you (and your students) including works by composers of varied backgrounds, just as you would make sure to include works by composers of various periods?

If you are a stage director, when deciding on the place and time to set a standard work, do you consider non-traditional narratives, and do you take the time to present these narratives in an informed way?

As a librettist or composer, do you seek out subject matter outside mainstream narratives?

When making recommendations of artists for gigs, do you include individuals of varied backgrounds, just as you would include individuals of various strengths, so those hiring have a fuller gamut of choices?

About which artists do you speak to non-musicians?

Whose social media posts are you sharing?

Think of your personal network of colleagues and friends – is it representative of our world?

To whom do you go for advice or to share your latest achievements?

No single action will be enough. However, if each one of us takes ownership of these issues, committing ourselves—intentionally—to a diverse industry on every level, we can make a difference. Symphonic and operatic performance are examples of revolutionary artistic achievement. If we actively choose to work, again and again, to create plurality within our art form, we can ensure that this momentous artistry has the widest reach possible, and continues to captivate audiences through relatable, relevant and meaningful experiences. Homogeneity will alienate us from our constituents and push us into elitist obscurity. Plurality, on the other hand, has the potential to build a lasting link between creators, artists, producers, and audiences, ensuring that the awesome power of our art form persistently resonates across all social, cultural, economic, regional—human–boundaries, allowing music to fully embody its greatest strength—the ability to unify.

Shaping the American Operatic Canon

Two actors in chairs during a stage performance

The last decade has seen an explosion of new American opera. In 2010, productions of American operas written after 2000 represented 5% of total productions by Opera America Professional Company Members; by 2018, this number more than tripled to 18%, and is on track to rise.

We are entering a time of opportunity to develop an American operatic canon and leave a musical legacy for future generations. But how do we discover and train the next generation of composers and librettists? How can we shape a legacy that represents the many voices within contemporary American society? Given the exceptionally high level of training necessary for operatic composition, how do we ensure that limitation of opportunity does not hinder a diverse pool of creators? While we are moving in the right direction, I believe that professional American opera companies and leaders within the field can take a more active role in cultivating the next generation of opera librettists and, more specifically, opera composers. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to this Golden Age for American opera.

Gaining the Skillset

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings.

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings. In addition to being masters of shaping sound, opera composers must be exceptionally skilled at writing for the voice, impeccable at setting text, and in full command of large-scale form. Just as importantly, they must be people of the theater—actors and stage directors—able to shape dramatic timing, impetus, subtext, and flow seamlessly through music. Furthermore, opera composers must understand the operatic creative process—the enormous collaborative mechanism essential for the work to reach the stage successfully. For the rare composer who manages to come by all the necessary knowledge and skill, understanding the business side of opera poses another hurdle—writing a great work is not enough to ensure it is performed. In the end, many qualified composers are disillusioned, and others not ready for the challenge find no opportunities to develop the necessary tools.

There is no traditional path for opera composers and no clear training ground. University programs must focus on the general skills composers will need before they even begin to think about writing opera. Many of the skills that are essential cannot be taught in a traditional classroom, and must be gained through observation and experience. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the most prolific and skilled composers on the scene today have had unconventional paths that allowed them to obtain the necessary tools. Many of them came to opera only after years in other artistic areas. Jake Heggie’s background in theater—as pianist, coach, and even administrator—contributed to the varied skillset necessary to become America’s preeminent opera composer. Mark Adamo and Ricky Ian Gordon also have backgrounds that combine theater and composition. That multifaceted background is also a defining characteristic of the now long-established Philip Glass, who had worked in film, dance and experimental theater.  Up-and-comer Dan Shore likewise came to opera as a playwright, composer, pianist and coach.

In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.

These composers all had exceptional opportunities to gain the skills necessary for writing opera, but they represent a very narrow sliver of American culture and society. It is essential for any composer who wants to write opera to have an extensive background as a dramatist, wordsmith, orchestrator, and musician. But currently, this expectation is also impractical, unreasonable and highly exclusionary. In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.

The state of training for opera composers

Over the last decade, a small number of composer training and development programs in the American Northeast have emerged to fill this training gap. American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), the most comprehensive of these undertakings, provides a three-year certificate course to composers, librettists, and dramaturges. The participants meet weekly in New York City to study vocal writing, text setting, the collaborative process, dramaturgy, and various other ins and outs of writing opera. ALT has additionally produced some wonderful work through their development programs for new works—I recently had the privilege of being involved in the exceptionally detailed, multi-year development process for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, a phenomenal opera written by composer Justine Chen and librettist David Simpatico.

Additionally, American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice works with New York City-based composers and librettists in workshops on writing for various voice types, dramatic training, and mentorship from top creators in the field. Opera Philadelphia has also maintained a well-resourced training program. Concurrently, Opera America has taken an active role in developing new work, including the organization of the New Works Forum, dedicated grants for women composers and, as of this season, grants for composers of color.

A number of the most successful composers who have emerged from these opportunities have not had a traditional profile and have brought new experiences and musical languages into our field. One standout example is Kamala Sankaram, who has an unconventional background as a psychologist, soprano, accordionist, sitar player, and even voiceover actor (to hear some of her crossover work, check out her band Bombay Rickey). Kamala received training from the CLDP at ALT and support from producing organizations like Beth Morrison Projects—a company that has championed contemporary chamber opera for the last decade and a half. Likewise, Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little are two composers who took full advantage of Opera Philadelphia’s training program to build enormous skill and embark on major careers. Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves immediately made an impact, and David T. Little’s rock-inspired Soldier Songs is being performed by mid-sized opera companies throughout the country.

It has become clear that the combination of comprehensive, multi-faceted training, together with championing by smaller new music initiatives, can give a composer the initial skill-building needed to move on to a major operatic career. American Lyric Theater, and to a lesser extent, American Opera Projects, had recently become the principal programs providing longer-term, comprehensive training for opera composers and librettists. But the collaborative nature of the work requires that participants be available for regular face-to-face meetings. This is a highly limiting factor, not just culturally and geographically, but also financially, as New York City continues to be prohibitively expensive for most artists. As of 2017, ALT does provide partial cost-offsetting stipends to aid participants who want to commute or relocate, but this does not resolve the many other job, family, or personal limitations that may prevent someone from moving. Furthermore, centering training in just one American city by nature limits cultural and musical representation within the field, gearing operatic writing toward New York City’s musical and societal views and tastes, which (for better or worse) are hardly representative of most of this country.

Becoming a composer already poses massive barriers to entry for individuals of limited means or from non-traditional musical backgrounds. Geographic limitations and lack of training opportunities makes these barriers insurmountable and simultaneously limit the scope of the stories and voices heard by American audiences.

From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs's opera Rev. 23 at Boston's John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)

From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs’s opera Rev. 23 at Boston’s John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)

The field’s responsibility

Professional opera companies across America can and should do more. In order to ensure a future for opera, we must promote stories told by a variety of individuals, who represent the many regions and cultures of the United States, and bring a breadth of musical backgrounds to our field. Opera’s strength throughout the form’s history has been in its ability to unite the arts in an effort to tell powerful, moving stories. Those of us in the position of running opera organizations can take ownership of ensuring the art form’s continued impact by nurturing the next generation of opera composers.

Opera’s strength has been in its ability to unite the arts to tell powerful, moving stories.

At the time when most of the operatic classics were written, composers were working within fully government-funded European opera theaters that produced many new works each season. These organizations could take the risk to invest in new compositional talent, allowing creators to experiment, to have ample rehearsal time (which, in turn, allowed rewrites and further experimentation), to develop relationships with the same performers over an extended period of time, and to have the permission to create several flops while honing the skills to compose a masterpiece.

Today’s structure, especially in the United States, is much more rigid. Most companies produce a total of only 3-5 operas a season (including standard repertoire), so the competition is fierce and the programming limitations extreme. There is rarely a sufficient workshopping or development process for new work. It is also nearly impossible for larger American opera companies to commit to a new work, unless it’s by a proven composer and on marketable subject matter. Furthermore, unsuccessful performances of new work lead to general audience disillusionment and skepticism of pieces outside the standard repertoire, making future commissions even more risky. Most companies cannot afford to take a risk on a brand new composer.

But we can do much better—we can develop the composers of the future by providing them with the tools necessary for success.

Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers.

Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers. Emerging opera composers largely do not have access to regular rehearsals, administrative support, and the behind-the-scenes structural and decision-making processes of a producing organization. Minnesota Opera, founded partially by composers, stands apart by engaging in a rigorous and systematic development process for the new operas regularly seen on its stage. However, Minnesota’s focus is on single works, and the pieces produced are usually by already established composers, not those who are just embarking on a career. Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and Forth Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase provide very short-term mentorship opportunities on specific short works. While very important for the field, these short-term initiatives do not provide the comprehensive training essential for emerging opera composers. As I began my tenure as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, I realized that a vacuum exists, and with it, an opportunity to make a difference in helping to ensure a future for our art form.

At Chicago Opera Theater (COT), we are attempting to do our part through the newly formed Vanguard Initiative, a two-year, fully comprehensive residency program that provides composers with the myriad tools necessary for a successful career in the field. The program is geared towards skilled composers who want to venture into the world of opera, but have not yet had sufficient opportunities to do so. One composer is chosen annually, provided a stipend, and invited to embark on a two-season comprehensive study of opera. The training includes a survey of the canonic repertoire, detailed examination of operatic fachs, attendance at a large number of operatic productions at various institutions, access to the administrative side of an opera company, and ample networking opportunities. Most importantly, the Vanguard composers learn the full scope of the interpretative process by attending full staging rehearsal processes for different productions and observing contrasting interpretative styles. The composers also work with our young artists and an experienced librettist, dramaturge and director as they develop a new, full-length opera.

Opera companies have a responsibility to take part in ensuring the future of our art form. While most organizations are unable to create something as extensive as the Vanguard Initiative, or program a season of world premieres, we can all do our part. Providing some opportunities to standout local composers and/or librettists is a low or no-cost opportunity to engage with the next generation of creators. Simple initiatives like granting access to staging rehearsals, mentorship, and networking opportunities with guest artists, as well as free tickets to performances can be a start. Pairing young artist programs with local composers could be a mutually beneficial training opportunity. Smaller, more nimble organizations and new music ensembles can make producing brand new work by first-time opera composers a priority. Larger producers can seek out partnerships that allow them to identify composers and offer full development support for new work. Perhaps more extensive collaborations with university graduate composition departments, like Pittsburgh Opera and Carnegie Mellon University’s Co-opera, can be explored. At COT, we are also hoping to plant the seeds of opera composition for a younger generation: our Opera for All educational programming works with Chicago Public School children, who collaborate with a composer and professional creative team in writing and producing their very own opera.

Larger opera organizations can further help promote new work by partnering with smaller, less risk-averse startup companies. MassOpera in Boston recently modeled a successful partnership, working with Washington National Opera to workshop Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s Taking Up Serpents, which went on to be premiered at WNO last season. This year, MassOpera will also workshop Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater. The synergy makes sense—MassOpera uses their access to flexible emerging artists with new music experience to give composers and larger producing organizations the development process necessary for success. Beth Morrison Projects has had similar successful workshopping collaborations with university departments across the nation.

It is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer.

There is no single means of promoting new work, or of fostering a new generation of diverse compositional talent. But ultimately, it is essential that opera companies, no matter their size, ask themselves how they can support a new generation of creators. We are in the midst of a Golden Age for opera in America, and we have an opportunity to empower those who will define the American operatic canon. As leaders of operatic institutions, it is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer. The resources are at our fingertips, but we must make developing new work and supporting emerging creators once again a priority for our field, shaping the operatic canon through the plurality of today’s compositional voices.

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Photo credit: Steve Phillip

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.

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Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.