Friday, February 7, 2014

John Malveaux, Dominique-René de Lerma and George Shirley Discuss Contributions to Opera by Performers of African Descent

George Shirley

From: John Malveaux,
6 Feb. 2014 12:47 PM
Tenor and Educator George Shirley is a living American treasure who donated performances for MusicUNTOLD concert to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Emanicpation Proclamation that received a delayed broadcast on KUSC Classical Radio, and streamed on-demand for thirty days. 2014 African American Heritage Month along with any day in the calendar year is an appropriate time to reflect on a talk of four years ago by the gentle but historic George Shirley. See

From: Dominique-René de Lerma,
6 Feb. 2014 16:55
This is a very important statement from George Shirley and I am not suggesting a disagreement on the question of casting for the role. At the same time there is more than comfort in having Catherine Malfitano actually look like Salome (the video with Sir Willard White might be X-rated by time the seventh veil is discarded) and I don't think makeup does the full job on Plácido Domingo's Otello. But, as an ardent viewer of BBC TV, I find it a welcome change to find a Black cast member with absolutely no reference to race in the plot. And I remember what the late mezzo-soprano Blanche Foreman (she was a magnificent talent!) told me when she was cast as Carmen during her doctoral days at Indiana. The dean wanted her to wear a wig. Her teacher, Eileen Farrell, took a characteristically well-articulated stand in opposition.

From: John Malveaux,
7 Feb. 2014 01:18

I offer the following comment based on personal experience with several distinguished opera artists of color singing arias on MusicUNTOLD programs. If Denyce Graves, Latonia Moore, George Shirley, Donnie Ray Albert, or Mark Steven Doss wanted a role but was told they could not bring 'visual integrity' to the role, I would tell the responsible casting person, I don't want to see his opera production but I would like to buy a recording of the opera with Denyce Graves, Latonia Moore, George Shirley, Donnie Ray Albert, or Mark Steven Doss.

MusicUNTOLD is developing an 80th birthday celebration for Marilyn Horne with target date of June 7, 2014 in Long Beach. Ms. Horne and i attended the same high school, Long Beach Polytechnic, although some years apart. I am reminded that Dorothy Dandridge played the role of Carmen in the movie Carmen Jones, but Marilyn Horne sang the opera parts.

From: George I. Shirley
The J. Edgar Maddy Distinguished
University Emeritus Professor of Music (Voice)
University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance
7 Feb. 11:39
Thank you, John, for the complimentary remarks, and for the reference to my online article for Operagasm. I offer below some additional thoughts on the changes that are altering the operatic landscape.
Movies and TV excite from viewers certain expectations that differ in essence from those demanded by the operatic art form. Although the visual is important in any theatrical enterprise, the voice - the reason opera exists in the first place - has until today been recognized as the principal component that distinguishes this genre of theatre from its peers. Visual properties drive decision-making in the film industry, while opera demands voices of exceptional quality capable of penetrating orchestral sonority, many of which voices flow from bodies deemed un-photogenic. In film and video, microphones empower sound engineers to compensate for vocal inadequacies, thus enabling singers with the "look," rather than the requisite amplitude or resonance of voice, to sound vocally equal to the task. Recent conversations with opera lovers who attend live performances featuring certain of today's media stars too often reveal dissatisfaction with their performances in the opera house because their voices, in terms of amplitude and/or quality, prove incapable of establishing an adequate partnership with the orchestra. Thus, the art form is vitiated, and microphone technology subtly invades the opera house disguised as "electronic enhancement" in order to maintain a semblance of the creative vision of those composers for whom the naked voice was more important than the naked body.
"Pace e gioia sia con voi..."

Please consider supporting aspiring young singers with tax-deductible donations to the following:
The George Shirley African American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition at
Detroit's historic Art Center Music School is in process of being reborn. Check out the following webpage:

From: John Malveaux,
7 Feb. 2014 12:13 PM

Professor, your insight is matched by serious humor. How do you assess African American progress in opera? Although we have a competently trained pool of emerging artists, I can not visualize any of them achieving 251 performances at the Met as you achieved in your career. Is the Met a standard for today? How do we assess our progress? Who controls our progress?

From: Dominique-René de Lerma,
7 Feb. 2014 15:13
In supplement: A few decades ago the very best recordings (especially Verdi operas) almost always included such singers as Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Reri Grist, Martina Arroyo, Gwendolyn Killebrew ... And now with the doors supposedly opened and such a large number of brilliant Black artists -- available -- including now males -- what has happened?

From: John Malveaux,
7 Feb. 2014 16:44

The mission of MusicUNTOLD include promoting diversity and human dignity. This is a personal story but it speaks to the earlier point of 'visual integrity'. MusicUNTOLD tentatively scheduled to co-produce the West Coast premiere of the folk opera HARRIET TUBMAN: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom in August 2014. The world premiere of the concert version is this month at the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn. The composer does not permit blind casting. With great reservation, I accepted the requirement. For another/separate reason, the August 2014 performance has been dropped and MusicUNTOLD is reviewing other small operas by African American composers.
Considering the incalculable benefits of Porgy & Bess to African American artists, do you think little presenters like MusicUNTOLD should absolutely follow non-discriminatory casting or make exceptions for projects that speak to significant historical occurances such as the 150th Anniversary of 13th Amendment-ending slavery in the United States.

From: John Malveaux,
7 Feb 2014 21:09

Comment by email:
I, truly, enjoyed this discussion on the role of the visual in opera, and contemporary entertainment, in general. I am progressively disappointed with the over-intrusion of technology, visual and auditory,--and "marketing" the lack- into the production of music  I have always been appalled by the racism. It is a pleasure to learn of the many "sisters and brothers" who are "school music" devotees. If I could jet to a performance every day.  Asians are not the only ones who are saving the tradition.
Thinking myself in the role of "amateur" as it once was, a dedicated lover, student, and practitioner of a craft or art, whether one earned one's "keep" by that route or not, I studied voice (bel canto) and sang  "at wakes and weddings and every..." as the Irish tune goes, sometimes for dinner, sometimes for an envelope with small amounts of cash, always with love of the music, preparation, and the desire to touch.
A major concern is  dehumanization, overwhelmed by things technological. It is in the mind, heart and spirit where art is sent and received. The blockage of the best possible interpretation by prejudicial barriers of gender-"race"(sic) physical condition, and age is much with us. This site and the artists and scholars it draws are much welcomed. Thanks.  [Gwendoline Y. Fortune]

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