- Nina Kennedy
Metropolitan Opera: You're on Notice!
The Metropolitan Opera
A friend said to me the other day, "With all of your talent and accomplishments, if you'd been born white and male, you'd be a billionaire by now!" I thought about it, and realized that she was right. I've had to contend with racism in some form or other every day of my life, to say nothing of the sexism. I've watched my white colleagues take advantage of having powerful family connections. I've watched as my Jewish friends have made influential contacts at their synagogues. I've read how powerful white male conductors have mentored and invited my young white male colleagues to fill life-changing appointments. White friends have been invited to fill faculty positions at conservatories and summer festivals, and no one seems to notice that these faculties are lily-white, or that they don't represent the racial diversity of our nation.
Now that most concerts and performances have been cancelled for the rest of the year, all of us are being forced to find other ways of expressing ourselves. In the wake of widely publicized police killings of unarmed African Americans, and the resulting protests, so many African Americans are finally expressing the realities of the racism they face. Hopefully some whites are finally realizing just how much pain their behavior has caused. I have always said that if you look around your workplace and only see other white people (except for the maids and janitors), then you are indeed part of the problem. Did they honestly think that we were content with only being offered jobs as cleaners? Or did they simply take it for granted that none of us were qualified to do anything other than clean? Or did they simply believe that we deserved to live in poverty because we were mentally inferior?
After decades of never hiring an African American conductor (or a woman conductor, for that matter), the Metropolitan Opera thinks it can wipe the slate clean by putting on an extravagant production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Granted, they hired many African American singers and dancers for the production. But look at the subliminal messaging: "I got plenty of nuthin', and nuthin's plenty for me!" The main character, Porgy, has a leg injury that forces him to crawl around on his knees. He is physically emasculated.
Many African American opera singers have complained about the portrayals in Porgy and Bess. I, myself, was engaged to appear as piano soloist with the Nashville Symphony at age 12 in a performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in an all-Gershwin concert that ended with the "hits" from Porgy and Bess.
The executives at the Metropolitan Opera may have made a fortune from the 2020 production, but they can no longer get away with not hiring African American conductors, orchestra players, and singers to portray characters in Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner (et al) operas. We have had enough of sitting on the sidelines. We demand adequate representation, or they can look forward to boycotts and protests.
From the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess
I remember when the Vienna Philharmonic came to perform at Lincoln Center, and was greeted with protesters organized by the National Organization for Women because of their refusal to hire women musicians. The protest made the front page of the New York Times, over and above the actual performance. If the Metropolitan Opera isn't careful, they will end up being bankrupted by lawsuits and boycotts. None of us want that to happen. After all of the tickets that Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle have sold, one would think that they would realize that it makes sense to nurture and promote African American voices. But some people aren't so smart. It is time for those people to be relieved from their duties.
Nina Kennedy is a world-renowned concert pianist, orchestral conductor, and author. Her memoir Practicing for Love can be purchased here.