Daring Divas: All for One and One for All!!!
A few weeks ago I ran into a male composer from out of state who, after grilling me on my choice of research on women composers, puffed out his chest and said with pride that he could not wait to start his own American Male Composers concert series. He was gleeful at the thought that it would garner much press, considering the controversial nature of said series. He then proceeded to generously inform me that singers were a unique breed…”not very bright” but interesting nonetheless. I gave him two opportunities to redeem himself by gently and jovially saying “hey now”, but he did not jump at the opportunity to remove me from the “not very bright” category. I bit my tongue and did not seek further dialogue with said composer. Still, this is a well-known person who teaches at the university level and influences young minds.
I counter that attitude with an exceptionally well-written article by one of my dear mentors, George Shirley. http://operagasm.com/2010/02/opera-and-the-black-singer/ In this article, Shirley discusses the subordination of the voice in the larger-than-life art form of opera “to the shallow realm of visual looks.” While he is addressing the black singer in particular, his article mentions the universality of his concerns. When African-American singers are not allowed to express themselves fully on the opera stage (particularly tenors as love interests), this is unfair. At the heart of this inequality is racism, ageism, sizeism, sexism, etc. If the black tenor cannot be the love interest, and the fat lady must be too large for anyone to consider her attractive, then the old woman could not possibly be the sassy maid, the large-bellied bass is destined for comedy only, and the Japanese woman must always play Madame Butterfly. Instead of art defining life, life becomes compartmentalized and standardized and defines the unrealistic realm of opera. The virtuoso requirements of operatic vocal writing then must submit to typecasting, to the detriment of all involved.
I return to the introductory questions of this blog series: What does it mean to be a woman who performs music by women? What does it mean to be a woman performer in general? The aforementioned composer was closed to all possibilities that felt threatening to his success within the status quo, to anything outside the “box”. George Shirley, on the other hand, is able to look beyond his own individual concerns and see the universality of need for equality. Those who view the fight for equality as threat against their turf are unable to see the larger picture…that we are all interconnected in a desire for high caliber artistry, plain and simple. Are we true to our art form as musicians — whether composers, performers, or teachers — when we do not seek to challenge ourselves to our very limits, to the ultimate integrity of our artistry?
When we work to bring equality to one group through the medium of music, it assists other groups as well. This is an interconnected process. When we seek out the music of women composers, this is not to the detriment of male composers. This is not an “us vs. them” world, unless we make it such through exclusionist attitudes. No matter how many valuable artists and musicians are out there, the world always needs more. By assuring that underrepresented groups get full attention in the arts community, we are setting the stage for future performing artists to move forward boldly. If this were an artistically finite world, I could see the aforementioned composer’s concern. Since nothing is threatening our individual artistry, his comments are without validity. George Shirley says: “Barriers of one sort or another will always be players…given this verity, one must determine to destroy, go around, go over, or go through them in order to realize one’s potential and live the life one is given.” In addition, as each barrier is knocked down, the way is paved for others to follow suit. We work together for a world of equality, one step at a time. We are truly interconnected.
Julie Cross, Treasurer of the IAWM, is a mezzo teaching voice, diction, and vocal literature at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. She blogs about how performers choose repertoire.