Does Classical Music Support White Male Rage in America?

Racism and sexism in the arts isn’t a new topic. At least since the dawn of the civil rights movement, Americans have been increasingly willing to grapple with stereotypes and discrimination in art works and institutions. As a composer, I’m concerned with how the culture of opera companies and symphony orchestras might relate to the aggressive wave of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that we see dangerously ascendent in our national government, in our discourse, and in our communities.

Token steps forward have often given people a premature sense of resolution. In the 1950’s it was big news when the Metropolitan Opera of New York hired its first black singer, contralto Marian Anderson. And yet the Met did not drop the controversial use of ‘blackface’ in performances until 2015. The company has never produced an opera written by a black composer; it remains almost completely a vehicle for works by white males — their voices, their stories, and often, their cavalier attitudes about gender, ethnic, and racial stereotypes. Here in Portland, a musician who has worked with some of the largest fine arts groups in town related surprise (and approval) that my underground opera Viva’s Holiday employs women in both the stage director and music director positions. This is almost unheard of in the big classical music organizations, even in this progressive city.

Symphony orchestras have less visible content than opera, but are not necessarily more progressive. Before Marin Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, there had never been a non-male director of a major American orchestra. A few black conductors were able to gain such appointments somewhat earlier, including the late James DePreist of our Oregon Symphony, but the director position remains today overwhelmingly white-male-dominated. And both major and provincial orchestras in the U. S. continue to focus programming mainly on works written by white males and associated with the most privileged castes of European patriarchal history. In the U. S. a company is touted as progressive in classical music circles if it occasionally breaks out of this paradigm. It’s a low bar.

I believe that art is not a product of culture; art is the fabric of culture. It’s a matrix of shared human experience and values. And it isn’t only the experience of the audience; it’s also the experience of everyone working to produce the art, which reinforces a community’s shared idea of itself. Programming, artistic direction, marketing, fundraising, production, board meetings, and feedback from audiences, press, donors — these all reflect values and assumptions which create and reuse shared languages and shared experiences. It is not a simple cause and effect equation; this artistic fabric both reflects and constrains who we are. And the more money and prestige and power the artistic production involves, the more it reflects and constrains the moneyed, prestigious, powerful segments of our culture.

Leinwand (um 1618)   Peter Paul Rubens [1577 - 1640]   Objektmaß 224x210,5 cm  Inventar-Nr.: 321

Peter Paul Rubens [1577 – 1640], The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

But it follows that the shared experience of our conservatory-fueled fine arts institutions is still mostly a white-male-dominance experience. Recently, we’ve been discussing it more. For example, the sexual assault that occurs in Mozart’s Don Giovanni has traditionally been depicted in a lighthearted way, but we seem to be at last questioning sexual violence in male-written, male-directed operas, as writer Micaela Baranella did in a New York Times article from 2015. But when our President-Elect is revealed to have bragged about sexually assaulting women and that doesn’t deter millions of people from voting for him, can we plausibly deny that it’s all part of the same story? Gender inequality, ethnic stereotypes, sexual violence — these features are not uncommon in the works of the canon, and most of the time we don’t address it directly. It’s there in the mix, like nitrogen in the soil, when support blooms for a racist, sexist, fascist demagogue.

In the wake of our recent electoral debacle, I saw a local arts admin vent online at ‘uneducated whites’ — and yet, Herr Drumpf carried a majority of voters who make over $100k a year. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that he may well have the support a large number of board members and season ticket holders of America’s dead-white-male-loving opera houses and symphony orchestras. There is virtually no way for those in a community concerned about growing misogyny, racism, and xenophobia to know if the programming, hiring, and decision-making of a local fine arts organization is partially motivated by deliberate or unconscious white-male superiority feelings. Token exceptions to this dominant paradigm may be sincere (if insufficient), or they could be driven by pre-emptive public relations, intentionally or habitually leaving the less-egalitarian patriarchal foundation unperturbed, usually in the name of abstractions like ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘honoring the music’, etc. Most educated persons will not display opinions as tactlessly as our demagogue-in-chief does. But if we suspect any element of residual white supremacy is part of the story, now is the time to understand it and to explore ways to highlight, engage, and change it.

We are surrounded, particularly in a creative city like Portland, by outsider artists struggling to forge and share conscience, to resist regressive exhibitions of misogyny, racism, nativism, and authoritarianism. But these struggling artists, and the crucial work they are trying to do, are almost by definition working outside of conservatory fine arts institutions. A reason is signified in that word itself: conservatory. The conservatory process grooms people to laboriously absorb well-established practices rather that to utter, to generate, to experiment, to weave new meaning, to be individual. I dream of Generatories. Instead of instilling dead-white-guy veneration and workaholic habits, we should be teaching students how to creatively appropriate the techniques of the old ‘masters’ for their own new utterances that reflect contemporary issues, aspirations, and morals. (In this respect, I do think the 20th century new-music zeitgeist failed us, by letting a cult of shallow combinatorial algorithmic novelty eclipse, in academia at least, less-elitist community-centered creativity open to repurposing the tools of the past — which is more how the pragmatic world of technology actually works). In a generatory-informed fine arts culture, instead of eternally programming the greatest hits of the 17th through 19th centuries and falsely claiming that’s somehow a neutral act, we would as a community be much more devoted to empowering living creators of talent and conscience to make new works great and small and weave them into our present and future. And, those community-supported creators would deliver wonders; expressive and compassionate humans display genius when empowered.

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-12-50-01-amIn the coming resistance and realignment, I urge decision-makers in our fine arts institutions to be as courageous as possible, starting today. Dare to more thoroughly and self-critically examine whether a practice or assumption permits or even abets the vile qualities of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and authoritarianism. Please do not hold up a fable of neutrality (as Oregon Symphony President Scott Sholwater did online, on November 9). The rise in hate crimes since election day in not a partisan issue that you can tactfully avoid in order to not ruffle donors’ feathers – and if that’s what you’re doing, you’re part of the problem. In the words of Elie Wiesel,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I also urge progressive-minded donors and cultural facilitators to look around you for living artists who are working to weave a more compassionate, inclusive, and just community. Lend your resources to support active resistance and meaningful utterance. If your current favored cultural institutions remain tacit consenters to the toxic angry-white wave we face, move your dollars to the resistance. In culture as in politics, it’s an unfortunate truth that the winner will usually be the better funded. Do we want to see the culture of white-male superiority better funded than new, progressive, inclusive artistic vision? When we answer this question, we may also be answering the titular one.


Christopher Corbell is the founder of Muse:forward. He writes and produces underground opera and art-song in Portland, Oregon through his company Cult of Orpheus.

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