by Catherine Zachary
Over the summer, the faculty and staff of the music department have been hard at work examining our internal systemic racism and looking for ways that we can begin to enact real and meaningful change. Over the past few years, the department has seen small shifts in programming and teaching towards these efforts, but we know that more can be done. Many potential actions are in discussion and we look forward to sharing more about those with you in the future.
One of the actions that came to the surface almost immediately was to create a new Anti-Racism Music Resources page for music education and performance. We also knew that we wanted to feature more BIPOC artists, to showcase these underrepresented and too often underappreciated voices. The resources page and artist features will combine to create our new web series, Do the Work Wednesdays.
We hope that you’ll join us every Wednesday for a discussion of ways that we can all actively be anti-racist in our musical studies and performance and to learn more about the musical artists whose voices have gone underrepresented for far too long. The resources and artist features will alternate Wednesdays, but we believe that there will often be overlap between the two. The best anti-racism efforts come not just with readings and performances, but with engagement and action. We encourage you to discuss this series with your friends, in the classroom, and to hold us accountable. We believe anti-racism must be a community effort led by individual action.
So, for our first installment, we’re featuring the opera “We Shall Not Be Moved.” You can find this opera and its recommendation under the Media heading on our anti-racism resources page.
This new opera, suggested to department leadership by voice professor and UNC Opera director Marc Callahan, served as our first-ever summer viewing recommendation for incoming first-year and transfer students. At the New Music Student Orientation on Sunday, August 9, led by Professor and Chair David Garcia, students and faculty participated in anti-racism discussions in their area breakout sessions.
Professor Garcia began by recognizing that many music faculty have dedicated much of their research and teaching to the study of music and identity, including race, and to issues surrounding music and racism. But the protests of this past summer have led administrators, faculty, staff, and students to do more to directly address the systemic causes of racism here on campus and in our communities.
Then, Professor Callahan gave an introduction to the opera and posed a couple of reflection questions for the breakout sessions.
There is no doubt that opera and classical music, in general, have a history rife with problematic story-telling, cultural stereotyping, and systemic racism–both in its creation and production. While many of us think of opera as an elitist art form created by and for the most privileged members of society, the past twenty years, in particular, have seen an important shift within our industry. Though this shift–like our society–is an ever-evolving and reflective process that will take still more action in order to create a truly anti-racist arena, large strides have been made to create opera on issues of social justice and opera companies are pushing to support equal representation both onstage and behind the scenes. From regularly performed operas like Dead Man Walking to newly composed ones like Blue, and works that have been recently performed right here on the UNC campus, like As One and ATLAS, opera has become a vehicle for social justice, telling stories of people who do not have a voice. Through opera, we can use music as a way to create common ground and empathy between the audience and the lives of those being portrayed on stage.
I felt that Daniel Bernard Roumain’s (DBR’s) opera We Shall Not Be Moved was a poignant, topical, and urgent story for us to experience as musicians in this time of unrest and reflection. Not only does this opera defy musical genre, it tells an important story and asks us to reflect on systemic racism. It was also written, composed, and directed by Black artists, breaking the standard mold for opera companies. As we move into the fall semester, I invite you all to reflect on the power of music in telling these stories and to ask yourselves how you, as musicians, can use your gifts to make an impact on society today. As you look forward to the next four years at UNC-Chapel Hill, ask yourselves how you can transform your musical gifts into engaged actions that advance our society.
We invite you to watch the opera below, and reflect upon how your musical gifts can make an impact on society? What action can you take today to make our society better?
To learn more about Black experiences in opera, we recommend this interview, “Naomi André: Engaging Black Experience in Opera,” with scholar, and recent guest lecturer here at UNC, Naomi André on her book Black Opera: History, Power Engagement (University of Illinois Press, 2018).