So no, not the kind of unrequited love between your typical man/woman that you’re probably thinking (wow, heteronormativity at its finest – shame on you) but rather, between myself and my involvement in a particular sphere that doesn’t necessarily accommodate me.
Since high school I have wanted to become an opera singer. I knew I wanted to pursue classical singing studies at university and being working opera singer has always been the goal. As you would have taken from my last blog post, lately I haven’t been feeling the best about my prospects in this career. But lately, it hasn’t just been that self-doubt that all we performers and artists are so familiar with, that has been plaguing my mind – it’s this whole question of “Do I belong in this world?”
As a woman of colour, I’m pretty familiar with not feeling like I’m a part of certain spheres of life. But I’ve always been like, “Fuck it. I’m going to be the best damn [insert role here] they’ve ever seen.” But this sphere/industry of opera has really got me in a tizz recently.
As some of you may know, the main opera company here in New Zealand is currently in their season of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado – also known as, a racist piece of shit that is supposed to be a commentary on British politics but does it through Japanese lens because ~ooo exoticism/orientalism~ (read: RACISM). Most productions are done in yellowface (if you don’t know why that’s problematic, I suggest Googling it) and the names of the characters are racist af (e.g. Nanki-Poo, Pish-Tush). Needless to say, seeing people I know supporting this production and participating in it, grosses me out. It makes me sick reading reviews that praise it and say “Oh, this could be seen as racist – depends how PC you are”…like, really?
Now, this is white privilege in full force. I’m sure some of the performers involved in the opera are kind of like “hmm this feels slightly racist but meh” and I’m also sure most of them probably don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with it. The thing is, they have the privilege of being able to ignore it, or choose to ‘feel weird’ about it but do it anyway, because you know what? It doesn’t affect them.
Alright. Before I go into a full-fledged essay about why I hate The Mikado, I should probably say what I have been intending to talk about in this post. The thing is, The Mikado is not some unicorn in the opera universe that happens to be racist – there are countless (if not the majority) of opera works in the canon that are just like it. Otello constantly presents people in blackface, more yellowface and even more yellowface in Turandot, Madama Butterfly, and brownface in Les pêcheurs de perles, just to name a few (!!)
If the opera world is so rampant with works that are racist, sexist, Orientalist, etc – why am I wanting so badly to be a part of it? Why am I working so hard to be successful in field that exoticises my very existence? On top of that, when have you ever heard of a Filipino or Asian principal artist in any of the major opera houses? Not only does this world not have any respect for non-Western cultures, but it also feels very non-inclusive of people like me.
In saying all of this, I don’t believe that the opera world is entirely backwards. There are certainly companies and scholars out there determined to make these works acceptable and more nuanced than “I’m a helpless woman who exists for a man’s love” and who reject the racist elements of opera works and the production process itself. However, as a performer and artist, what power do I have to do this important subversive work? The only power I hold is to say “Yes” or “No” – and who cares what an up and coming singer says “no” to? If I was a director or composer, I would hold the power to put forth musical works in a way that didn’t have racist and misogynistic implications. But I’m not a director or composer. I am a singer. The most I can do is agree or disagree to do something, or to perform a role in a way that I deem acceptable.
You must be wondering why I am only now thinking of this…to be honest, I’ve always been aware that this is the world I am wanting to be a part of – that I am a part of. I’ve always told myself that I can be that change I want to see in the opera industry. I can pave the way for other Filipino singers, I can change the opera world from within, just by being successful and occupying that space as the woman I am. But I no longer know if that’s enough reason for me to keep going. I no longer know if I will end up doing that at the expense of participating in a culture that is so harmful. I don’t know how long I work with people and be friends with people who will take a role in yellowface or blackface without blinking an eye.
These feelings of course are not separate to the fateful role-switch that I was notified of a couple of weeks ago. It’s like all of these things are happening to me and forcing me to rethink everything. But I think there comes a point for everyone who is a politically conscious artist to ask themselves where they draw the line, if they want to be part of such a traditional world at all, and why we want to participate in an art from that we so deeply love, but that might not really love us back.