Cultural Appropriation in Opera: Thoughts on Imperialism and Healing

Cultural Appropriation in Opera: Thoughts on Imperialism and Healing

The western classical music world is waking up, because the classical musicians and their audiences are waking up.

Cultural appropriation is a hard issue to talk about as a musician, because when we start to look at the standard repertoire that makes up the bread and butter of our careers, we realize quickly that a huge slice of the rep features appropriated content from cultures that experienced no positive reverberation from the use of their material. In fact, the trend of orientalism contributed and even started the tokenization and idealization of people from Asia and the Middle East that continues to this day.

Cultural appropriation in general is already a very complex issue, obscured by a cloud of shame, guilt, and isolation of people that want knowledge and action but do not have the tools to be able to change anything yet. We don’t have a good history on which to build a conversation about racial issues, and we have many reasons not to do so. Truly facing these issues and acting on our epiphanies would likely lead to the following, and frankly, it’s not pretty:

  1. Abolishing certain works from the stage altogether, which would mean losing hundreds of years’ worth of music, including the history they represent
  2. Performers refusing to perform culturally appropriative works, to the detriment of their careers and likely requiring them to quit music-making or switch to the performance of almost exclusively newer works
  3. A division of the classical music world into two, where more conservative audiences and artists continue to perform culturally appropriative works as they have always been performed, while more progressive people create a new aesthetic of programming; commissioning of new works and changing the way culturally appropriative works are presented

Key to conversations about cultural appropriation, though, is that we must consult with and build trusting relationships with people of colour and people from the cultures that are being referenced to get a complete picture. The western classical music world is overwhelmingly white, and those that are not white have so often been tokenized, and their unique contributions and perspectives been overlooked. Yes – undoubtedly, if you aren’t friends or colleagues with many people of colour, it requires a lot of effort to find folks to consult with on how to mount an anti-oppressive production of Madama Butterfly or Die Enführung aus dem Serail, for example. Is that even possible?

The white people of the western classical music industry (even the politicized ones), consider ourselves to be entitled to celebrate our “culture” in this domain without criticism. We often fail to see that classical music, for all its beauty, has also been a tool for colonialism, silencing, exclusion, inaccessability, and the promotion of ideas that are xenophobic, sexist, transphobic, queer phobic, classist, ableist and ageist. This is not a safe space for so much of humanity, and so it should not be considered a safe space for anyone until we do the work to make it so. Western classical music is not a permission slip to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them – it’s an opportunity to use cultural production to do away with the kyriarchy*.

This task is a very heavy one. First, we must learn the unpopular histories of white colonization, including the ways in which composers and researchers took advantage of different cultures in orientalism. We must learn the histories of people of colour and oppressed cultures to truly understand what it is white composers stole from them and how their cultural material was and is mis-used. We must dig for things that our intellects and egos would really prefer not to find. When we find something, we must recognize our privilege and continue to ask questions and dig through our discomfort. We must not try to cover up information or explain it away or disown it or fix it. We must allow this information to sink in and we must find empathy. Then, we must comb through our current musical practises, careers, organizations, and spending habits. We must allow ourselves to see and be shocked by the whiteness of boards of directors, donor lists, cast lists, administrative staff, and audiences, and talk about the lack of diversity, and ask ourselves and others, “Why is it like this?” We must sit with our beloved scores and see colonialization, oppression, appropriation, and patriarchy. We must talk about what we find with the people that would be or have been affected by these ideas. We must throw our imaginations into high gear (this is the fun part!) and ask ourselves how we can use music and the industry surrounding it as a tool for healing of the wounds it has inflicted.

If you as an artist or cultural producer think you must engage in conversations about cultural appropriation to be “politically correct” or to “keep up with the times”, you are missing a big opportunity. That kind of intent is not transformative, and will not make a different in cultural change. The conversations that we are beginning to have in the western classical music industry need to be had because we are excited to bring ideas and people into the art form that have been excluded and oppressed in the past, and build new relationships. We are excited to use our art forms for healing and social change, rather than for a subjective beauty that is disconnected from the lived histories and realities of humanity as a whole. We are excited to experience more richness, complexity, and diversity in our concert halls and opera houses. We are excited to see the transformation and revolution of this industry, and to use the music that has touched us to transform and revolutionize society.


*”Kyriarchy is a term that was coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who is a radical feminist who studies liberation theology. Kyriarchy is a term that extends patriarchy to encompass and connect to other structures of oppression and privilege, such as racism, ableism, capitalism, etc.” (Source)

Feature photo: A performance of Aida at the English National Opera in 2007.

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