Reckoning with our past | Solidarity and responsibility for our future
By Alexander Neef
Like so many of you, I have spent the last few weeks watching the many Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations happening in Toronto and across Canada, in the United States, and around the world.
As I have been speaking with colleagues, staff, artists, and Board members about the pressing concerns they raise, I have also been making space to sit with a truth that is as uncomfortable as it is undeniable: that the history of this company mirrors these deeply rooted issues of racism, of who holds power and who is endowed with decision-making authority and resources. The issues being highlighted have been with us for decades, and they are also linked to a colonial history that is deeply intertwined in our cultural institutions, including the Canadian Opera Company.
In this respect I point to the historical, and ongoing, underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour across all areas of the company, from our Board of Directors and Executive Management teams, to our artistic and creative personnel, and to all other parts of the organization. Similarly, this underrepresentation is correlated in the specific viewpoints and perspectives privileged in opera’s canonical repertoire.
I point this out because any statement of solidarity in this moment must acknowledge our own complicity in reproducing patterns of racism, white supremacy, and white privilege.
More specifically, I draw attention to the fact that as recently as 2010 the COC presented a production of Otello in which blackface makeup was used, and a 2014 presentation of Madama Butterfly featured artists in yellowface makeup. While these were commonly used performance practices across our industry even at that recent time, and are still sometimes used by other companies now, that doesn’t negate that their usages by the COC were failures and mistakes.
These are just two examples of problematic performance practices on our stage.
Moving forward, we are committed to abandoning conventions that perpetuate racist stereotypes, most notably the use of blackface and yellowface makeup — and our most recent Otello presentation did not perpetuate this practice.
We have to do much more, of course, and I have been reflecting on how even this basic progression only took place within the last decade. As a national performing arts organization with a powerful platform and international influence, we are committed to doing far better in elevating and supporting historically underrepresented communities.
As an immediate outcome of the aforementioned recent conversations, the COC is developing an anonymous mechanism for our staff, audiences, artists, and volunteers to submit personal experiences of bias and racism at the COC, as well as positive accounts of belonging and inclusion, so that we may address the former and increase the latter. I know that submitting these kinds of testimonies can be its own form of intense labour, and I am grateful to all those who will be helping us move forward by sharing their experiences.
To move forward, as a company we must make a concerted effort to chronicle these personal lived experiences, to better define and understand our equity goals. It can be too easy to speak generally about these important issues – I want to ensure that we focus on our own specifics and context within opera and the COC, and that we do not fall into the common misperception that such endemic issues are not present here, when in fact, it is just as likely that we have simply not created safe enough spaces for affected artists, staff, and audience members to speak up.
I know that we have a long way to go. I recognize that the actions we need to define and commit to in the months and years ahead must be bold enough to meet the challenge at hand: to radically transform who is empowered with opportunities to develop their talent, who is afforded a voice at the table, and who decides what the COC programs on the mainstage and beyond. These systems have been built and maintained for generations; it will take an ongoing, sustained effort to dismantle them and to create a more inclusive ecosystem that furthers opera’s relevance in the 21st century.
But I am hopeful about the future — these protests seem to open up the possibility that a world defined by systemic racism and inequity might now be held to a more consequential reckoning than ever before. And we are here to be accountable.
I hope you will support our efforts to learn and improve what we do every day – not only in what we say with our art, but how we say it through our relationships and ongoing dialogue.
Alexander Neef General Director Canadian Opera Company