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Open Letter to American Opera Companies

On July 22, 2021, AOA sent this letter to every General Director of American Opera Companies advocating for equity in the opera industry.  

Dear Colleagues in Opera,

We write to you as members of the Asian Opera Alliance (AOA), regarding our concerns with Asian representation within our industry. As Asians working in opera, we come from a vast array of cultural experiences. Some of us are fifth-generation Americans; some still live across the Asian continent and commute to the United States to work. Our communities include those who are biracial and those who are multilingual; we have different skin tones and hair textures. We do not all think, feel, look, or act alike, but we stand together proudly and in solidarity as Asians working in America.

We have seen our industry change drastically in recent months, thanks in great part to the hard work of the Black Opera Alliance (BOA). We are inspired by all they have done to make companies aware of anti-Black racism in opera, to work toward rooting out the implicit biases that pervade our business and shape our seasons. We acknowledge that, thanks to their contributions, we are now able to make our voices heard. We thank them for their tireless advocacy for all people of color.

Inspired largely by the BOA, we have come together to form the AOA to assert our voices as Asian-identified opera professionals, to stake a claim for our and others’ posterity, and also to establish a collective resource for companies eager to implement changes. As the opera industry makes strides in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, we implore you—our employees, colleagues, and collaborators—to invest time, energy, and funds into developing strategies to make opera more equitable for and respectful of artists and communities of Asian descent. In the past year, there was a 167 percent rise in hate-crimes perpetrated against Asians in America. The United States has a storied history of anti-Asian xenophobia, which might lay dormant for decades, only to rear its head at the slightest provocation. Widespread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic cultivated a new strain of anti-Asian vitriol, which underwrote a surge in violence against Asians. While supporting Asians may be fashionable in the present moment, the root of the violence is painfully ingrained in our nation’s history, and it persists in our perpetual Othering.

Because Asians are seen as Other, we are too often relegated to small, inconsequential roles; the larger roles we receive, often because of our ethnicity and appearance, are frequently tokenizing and stereotypical. Due to this lack of representation, we struggle to find role models in our industry who not only look like us but also enjoy the success of household names like Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Rolando Villazón, and others. Until we have a regular stage presence, we will still be considered Other. We need the industry to normalize and value our presence and what we bring to various roles—onstage, in administration, and in the boardroom, audience, and beyond.

So, we come to you as colleagues, hoping to work in coalition to make the opera industry more equitable—for Asians, other people of color, and all members of marginalized groups. Our experiences as Asian-identified professionals within this industry provide us with firsthand knowledge of how exclusionary and tokenizing the opera world can be; however, our experiences also enable us to see problems clearly, to name them, and to brainstorm concrete and creative solutions. We envision this letter as a call to collaborative action, which is to say that we do not expect companies and administrators to do this difficult work alone. We are prepared—and excited!—to roll up our sleeves alongside you.

With this in mind, we have identified several points of intervention, items that we can address together to combat institutional racism, tokenization, and the dearth of Asian representation within the opera industry.

  1. Cast us. Strive for better representation by hiring Asians for both Asian and non-Asian-specified roles of all sizes onstage. Normalize and value our role as interpreters of both edgy new works, and the operatic canon. Until we regularly become a part of your seasons, performing in roles of all sizes, we will be relegated as “other.”
  2. Include us. Normalize seeing Asian people at every level of production. Administrative and artistic positions. Seek out Asian donors and board members. Invite us into your DEI initiatives.
  3. Pursue us. Dedicate resources seeking out Asian talent and mounting new and contemporary works that uplift Asian composers, stories, and voices, or that reimagine established works.  
  4. Consult us. Madama Butterfly, for example, is the quintessential example of an operatic masterwork that perpetuates harmful stereotypes; however, as the opera world grapples with issues related to racial justice and anti-Asian hate, the solution cannot be to excise Madama Butterfly from our repertoires. In effect, this eradicates two of the few starring roles for Asian women, roles that in the past have gone to non-Asian women in yellowface. When you produce Butterfly, we recommend identity-conscious hiring practices: hire Asian singers, creatives, educators, etc., to bring this masterpiece to life with the care it deserves. Companies must also be aware, though, that hiring Asian singers to portray Asian-specified characters can lead to pigeon-holing and tokenization. The best way to circumvent this is to make a conscious decision to cast the same artists for non-Asian-specified roles in future seasons.

We hope that you will reflect on the community-wide call for equitable hiring in opera and we look forward to working with and serving as a resource.

All best,

Asian Opera Alliance

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