The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That sound you’re hearing is classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism


“Racism is so pervasive in this country and in the world at large that it has, in many instances, become unconscious. It can slip into the daily discourse and go unrecognized, even by people who clearly ought to know better.”

The late, great soprano Jessye Norman reserved just one chapter of her 2014 memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” for discussion of the discrimination she faced so often throughout her career, even as one of the most decorated performers on the international opera stage.

But it’s safe to assume race was a running theme in her magnificent life. A dissonant motif that emerged again and again in the form of careless slurs and slights from conductors, TV roles that would have reduced her from Dido onstage to the maid on screen, offensive questions from bumbling critics, and nosy security guards challenging her right to exist in the hotel pool. She once committed to recording accounts of these micro- and macro-aggressions in a journal titled “Racialism as she is spoke,” but abandoned the project after a few months, when her journal grew too thick.

Those who would imagine that the rarefied realms of classical music or opera are removed somehow from the rancor of racism would be, as Norman put it, “mistaken. Sadly mistaken.” And so, too, would those who imagine that our nation’s intensifying reckoning with racial injustice merely marches past the concert hall.

As the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others have come to light, and amid the rise of anti-racism as a cultural imperative spurred by the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rifts and inequalities that define American culture since its inception have become more visible than ever. And the call to improve institutions from criminal justice to arts organizations to newsrooms is extending to the stages (and offices) of the classical world.

Data collected from 500 American orchestras for a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras paints a starkly white picture when it comes to diversity in classical organizations. Its key finding: the “proportion of nonwhite musicians represented in the orchestra workforce — and of African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians in particular — remains extremely low.”

The proportion of Hispanic and Latino musicians grew from just 1.8 percent in 2002 to 2.5 percent in 2014; while over the same 12-year period, the proportion of black musicians languished at around 1.8 percent. Meanwhile, since 2010, when the league started examining organizational metrics, the percentage of nonwhite staff of American orchestras has hovered at around 14 percent, with black staff accounting for just 5 to 7 percent. And between 2010 and 2016, black conductors and music directors have accounted for just 2 to 6 percent of the field.

The league will analyze updated data in 2022, but the urgency of the cultural moment, along with the expectation that those growth curves will stay flat, inspired them to post a statement on the league’s website in early June that feels more like a call to action: “There is an urgent need for White people and predominantly White organizations to do the work of uprooting this racism,” it says. “We recognize that for decades, in our role as a national association and voice for orchestras, we have tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country.”

The systemic racism that runs like rot through the structures of the classical music world exists somewhere between broad statistical data and intimate personal disclosure. And right now, in what seems like a promising turn, a range of responses to it — individual, artistic and institutional — feels, at long last, audible.

On the individual level, many in the classical community are turning to anonymously operated social media accounts as a way to air personal experiences with racism in the classical world, from the conservatory classroom to the orchestra pit.

Anecdotal testimonies like these carry a certain potency as well as a pronounced risk. On the one hand, they lay bare the kinds of racial micro- and macro-aggressions regularly faced by musicians, students and administrators of color. On the other, these anonymous disclosures — many of which publicly name institutions and individuals — exist without the scrutiny of journalistic or legal vetting. And as quickly as they’ve amassed followers, they’ve also alienated members of the classical community who believe accountability must be achieved through accountability. If the anonymity of these accounts makes anything clear, it’s that too many of these necessary conversations and confrontations aren’t happening out in the open.

One need not be behind that barrier of entry to experience routine discrimination in the classical world. Even well-established performers, like the soprano Lauren Michelle, have taken to voicing their experiences. In Italy, Michelle was scheduled to sing the role of Violetta in ­­“La Traviata” to open the season at La Fenice, where it debuted in 1853. But when she wanted to perform in the States? “I sang on ‘Empire,’ ” she says. “I sang on television.”

“My best was never enough for the United States,” Michelle adds. “The truth is I am an award-winning international opera singer who has only been hired once at an A-house in the United States.”

That one hire was for the role of Irina in Washington Opera’s 2016 production of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.” Her broader experience with racially biased casting echoes that of Jessye Norman, who wrote that “history has proven Europe to be more receptive of diversity in artistic presentation than America, and, indeed, of the artists themselves.”

“I believe in my heart and soul that classical music heals, and that opera is for everyone,” Michelle says. “But there is real work that needs to be done in the classical musical community.”

Some of that work is being done in the form of music itself. The bass-baritone and composer Jonathan Woody recently teamed with the countertenor Reginald Mobley (who also serves as a programming consultant for Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society) for a collaborative choral piece entitled “Nigra Sum Sed Formosa: A Fantasia on Microaggressions.”

Composed for five singers, keyboard and viola, the piece assembles accounts of assorted racial microaggressions — including the time Mobley was mistaken for a janitor and asked to open the hall for his own performance — and sets them in a haunting baroque choral arrangement.

“It’s a way of sharing that emotional labor,” says Mobley in a Zoom call with Woody, “and giving an idea of just how much of what people say to us behind the stage, on the stage, in the audience and other places — how it really kind of reinforces white supremacy and issues of racism in the arts.”

“So much of what needs to change in classical music is what needs to change in the country writ large,” Woody says. “So much is about a more consistent valuing of the lives of the people in this country. The reason that someone like me or someone like Reggie are classical musicians is because this music, which we’re certainly taught to think of as European music, just spoke to us and made us want to do it. Which for me means that is 100 percent plausible to be true for any kid in America — if they are given the exposure, the welcome, a sense that they can be a part of this.”

While art can shine much-needed light on the problem, it’s up to institutions to correct the imbalances that keep the classical stage so habitually tilted and tinted white. And the conversations required for this task must have concrete goals, including full accountability, a broad range of community stakeholders and an understanding of not just what the problem is but why fixing it is so essential to the survival and development of the art form.

The Kennedy Center, for instance, last week used a Zoom call attended by dozens of community arts leaders to launch programs designed to commission anti-racism works, expand opportunities for black artists and audiences, and otherwise grow the reach of the center’s social impact division, led by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president and artistic director of social impact.

“We have to earn our relationship to community,” Joseph said on the call. “We have to labor. And the culture of the Kennedy Center has to be steeped in the dignity of this labor.” The goal, he said, is to “make anti-racism systemic.”

“I think there is now beginning to be a recognition that this is not about a program or a Martin Luther King Day concert, or even a [diversity] committee,” says League of American Orchestras president and CEO Jesse Rosen. “Programmatic responses to diversity and equity, inclusion, and racism are of limited impact if they don’t emerge out of some organizational understanding and commitment, conviction, and alignment around why they even care about this. Why does this matter? . . . Frankly, it’s a lot easier to start a program than to have those conversations.”

For its part, the league has recently teamed with an arts diversity advocacy group, the Sphinx Organization, and Miami’s New World Symphony to create the National Alliance for Audition Support, an initiative involving 80-plus American orchestras to provide “long-term support to Black and Latinx orchestral musicians, identifying their unique needs and working in partnership with them over time with a shared end goal of orchestral placement.”

It has also launched the Catalyst Fund, which this month awarded grants of $12,000 to $25,000 to 28 U.S. orchestras “to strengthen their understanding of equity, diversity, and inclusion and to help transform organizational culture.”

Initiatives, statements and studies, call-outs, cancellations and cantatas — they’re all pieces of the work that has to be done. But at the heart of both the music we love and the problems seemingly written into it is the importance of actively listening — a responsibility to truly hear one another, that falls upon every one of us.

Or as Norman, a self-described eternal optimist, put it: “Society will, inevitably, come to the understanding that racism is mindless, lacking in all the light that is within us.”