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Raising Their Voices

Communities that were once marginalized by opera are taking the stage. LSA Professor Naomi André explores what it means for them to tell their own stories.
by Alia Orra

This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.


Even if you’re not an opera fan, you probably know “Habanera,” the aria from Carmen. It’s easily recognized by its rhythm — a deliberate, unhurried seduction. In fact, its back-and-forth tempo may be the most famous sound in the entire opera canon. But do you know this Carmen?

She saunters onto the scene in high-top sneakers, big golden hoops swinging from her ears, a hooded orange sweatshirt tied around her waist. She’s surveying the men of her South African township, the full power of her femininity on display. A chorus of ladies cheers her on as her voice soars. And she’s singing in Xhosa, not French.

That performance from U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a 2005 South African version of the legendary Georges Bizet opera that originally premiered in 1875, is part of a rich black operatic tradition emerging from under the weight of more than a century of marginalization.

This reclamation of power and the portrayal of new truths on the stage spurred Naomi André — a professor in the Residential College and in the Departments of Women’s Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies — to research and write Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement. André’s scholarship explores the issues of representation in a fine arts genre that is finally beginning to grapple with a long history of discrimination.

“The goal for black opera composers and performers today is to resituate opera so that it can be used by anyone,” André says. “The opera stage is becoming a space of liberation for black voices.”


The Central Park Five, an opera with music by Anthony Davis and libretto by Richard Wesley, debuted in 2019. (Keith Ian Polakoff / Long Beach Opera)


Who Tells the Story

In her new office in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, André is surrounded by boxes of books and opera programs. She hasn’t unpacked yet, in part because of the demand on her time. In addition to her research and teaching, she regularly fields interviews from outlets including the New York Times, CNN, and Le Monde about her work—all while she juggles a role as the Seattle Opera’s first scholar in residence.

Discussing opera history and culture with national and international audiences fits squarely into André’s ultimate goal: to make academic research on an elite art form accessible—especially to those who might find its music stuffy and overelaborate. She is determined to push musicology, a discipline that found its footing in nineteenth-century Germany, to a new place, a place she terms “engaged musicology.” Engaged musicology examines music not only in the more narrow context of its creation, but by looking at who is being represented, who is telling the story, and who is watching and interpreting that story at different times throughout history. 

“My teeth were cut on that traditional musicology, and it’s important stuff,” says André. “But a lot of us want to talk about, well, where are the women composers and people of color? How does sexuality hook into music? Besides writing that the music is powerful and beautiful and intoxicating, what can we say about how it functions in its society?”


Singer Tsakane Maswanganyi rehearses for her role as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Winnie the Opera. (Alexander Joe / Getty Images)


In Black Opera, André chooses two important opera venues: the United States and South Africa. At first, she was resistant to exploring how the art form unfolded in these different and painful histories—one of slavery and Jim Crow, the other of apartheid—for fear that readers might perceive that she was equating the two struggles. In the end, though, after extensive research in both countries, she found juxtaposing the two opera cultures gave a fuller picture of how the form has been claimed by black creators and performers telling and retelling their stories in different parts of the world.

“I am not saying that what happens in the United States is the same as what happened in South Africa,” she says. “I’m trying to say, in these two systems of white supremacy, opera was segregated. On both sides of the Atlantic, black people were not allowed to train and opera houses did not let black people on stage.”

Instead, white performers wore blackface in operas such as Aida (1871) and Otello (1887), a prejudice that persists on the opera stage. On the other side of that, plays and performances that center the black experience are coming to the fore, such as U-Carmen eKhayelitsha and the works of Anthony Davis, whose many compositions include X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986); Under the Double Moon (1989); Amistad (1997); and the Central Park Five (2019). According to André, these and other pieces are doing important work “changing the narrative” away from the minstrel-like caricatures of so many early operas.

“In the United States, it’s really taken off since the 1980s. We’re getting operas that are telling a history on stage, kind of like a Hamilton moment: Who is telling our story and what’s the vantage point?” says André. “And in South Africa, you’re seeing Western operas put in South African settings, as well as original operas about Nelson Mandela and Princess Magogo and other subjects, all since the dismantling of apartheid.”


Pioneering opera singer Marian Anderson rehearses for Un Ballo in Maschera at the Metropolitan Opera in 1954. Anderson was the first African American artist to perform at the Met. (New York Times Co. / Contributor, Getty Images)






Out in the Open

It was 1939, and Marian Anderson was told the concert she was meant to perform at the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall wouldn’t happen there after all. The contralto singer had just left her training in Germany because of the growing danger of fascism. A famous performer recognized in Europe and the U.S. for her skill, Anderson returned home to find herself barred from a stage in her own country’s capital because she was black. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the owners of the space, wouldn’t sponsor a black American’s performance in the building, placing her at the center of a national civil rights controversy.

A new venue had to be arranged. The executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, suggested they move the concert outside. They worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to secure permission to perform on federal land. 

By the time Anderson walked down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday, 75,000 people had amassed to hear her sing. Her performance included patriotic songs such as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” an aria from Donizetti’s La favorite and Schubert’s Ave Maria, and spirituals such as “Gospel Train.” The concert was broadcast by NBC Radio across the country to millions of listeners.

Sixteen years later, Anderson debuted in the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera on the Metropolitan Opera House stage, the first African American artist to perform at the Met in a major role. That moment in 1955 was an intersection between what André terms “shadow culture,” the parallel yet obscured world where black opera performers were constrained by legal and social limitations, and dominant culture, where white singers enjoyed access to the world’s major stages.

“It happened much more slowly than it should’ve happened,” says André. “But she opened the door for more wonderful black talent to take that stage.”

Today, performers like Pretty Yende, a South African singer born during apartheid, are performing in leading roles around the world—but in the opera world African and African American singers still face an uphill climb. André says understanding why requires a more complex discussion of the issues involved in casting.

“Some roles, like Verdi’s Otello, a tenor role, are monstrously hard and nearly impossible because of the wide range and power needed for the highest notes while also being able to soar over a late-Verdian orchestra,” André says. “Why there aren’t more black tenors for casting directors to choose from is a good question, and it has to do with training. It’s not an equal playing field with voice lessons and who gets the education.” In opera, like ballet and classical music, disciplined training starts early; lack of access to that training entrenches the disparity in representation on stage decades before opening night.

Acknowledging the disparity is the first step, and researchers like André are playing a role in pushing the conversation about these issues forward. As Seattle Opera’s inaugural scholar in residence, she speaks to issues of race and gender in opera, which is one way her research has a tangible role in the work companies are doing today.


American baritone Eric Owens performs as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 production of Porgy and Bess. The Seattle Opera, where Professor Naomi André is a scholar in residence, performed the opera in 2018. (Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images)


In Residence

André writes introductions, histories, and blog posts that provide historical context to traditional programs. She moderates and participates in panel discussions, and she sits down with everyone in the company, including the general director, marketing team, and development officers, to “identify what diversity, equity, and inclusion means for a company like that. 

“As experts, we’re not just in the ivory tower,” says André. “Engaging this way is important, especially in opera, where nobody would think this is a stage for social justice.”

For Seattle Opera’s performance of Charlie Parker’s Yard Bird, an opera based on the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, André met with the company’s staff to discuss the organization’s approach. “How do we market this?” André says. “What do we do with the painful stuff? The whole company was talking about these issues.”

And she continues to make these challenges central themes in the musicology courses she teaches at U-M, knowing her student audience comprises future performers, composers, arts organization board members, and close and thoughtful patrons and listeners.

Though the challenges are daunting and complicated, André finds joy in the way opera has been claimed by communities pushed to the margins.

“One of the conclusions I came to with this research, or something I want to believe, is that the opera stage is becoming a space of liberation for black voices, literally and figuratively,” André says. “Instead of reenacting negative stereotypes, we are telling new stories.” 



Top photograph by Levi Stroud
Release Date: 05/01/2018
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; Women's and Gender Studies; Residential College; Afroamerican and African Studies; Humanities; Social Sciences; Naomi André