L to R: Tara Branham, Nikola Printz, Shawnette Sulker, Michele Kennedy, and Maya Kherani

Gale-force winds of change have shaken society over the last few years, touching along their path virtually every arts organization. First, the #MeToo movement and protests in response to sexual abuse opened many eyes to harsh realities. This in turn led to revelations in the world of classical music, dance, and — perhaps most notably — opera during 2019, when there was public airing of the dirty laundry list of long-known sexual harassment and abuse performed predominantly (but not exclusively) by well-known male opera stars and orchestra conductors — abuse habitually muffled into dim rumblings by major companies and arts organizations.

Then the overwhelming force of the pandemic touched lives in ways that were unthinkable two years ago, impacts followed closely by the maelstrom of responses to social-justice atrocities and the Black Lives Matter protests that pierced our lives during 2020.

The aftermath of this ongoing upheaval and the resulting whirlwind of promises to change policy, company culture, and organizational leadership in the arts prompted a basic question about how the world might be different now for those in the performing arts.

Looking specifically at the world of opera, we contacted five outspoken voices in the local opera scene: soprano Michele Kennedy, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, Opera San José Resident Director Tara Branham, soprano Maya Kherani, and soprano Shawnette Sulker. These five cis-female, trans, or nonbinary vocalists — basically, five artists who do not identify as male —responded to a simple three-word question: Has anything changed?

The musicians’ responses to this question in no way form a harmonic monolith, but consistent themes emerged from the separate interviews. None of the artists reported any harassment or assault on the job, although of course, there is often reluctance to go on record about these experiences. Choosing to respond in different ways, all of them have endured gender-based micro-aggressions in the workplace and report knowing many colleagues who have suffered or currently suffer oppression at the hands of well-known abusers.

Michele Kennedy
Michele Kennedy | Credit: Jessica Osber Photography 

Notably, the five artists deliver a unified message when asked about taking charge of their careers, an issue made critical during the pandemic when they experienced cancellations, postponements, loss of income, and other turbulence. All of them have spoken up publicly and virtually on matters of systemic race and gender bias, especially the need for inclusion of various viewpoints and identities both onstage and in arts administration. .

All of the artists founded unique collaborations and initiatives during the pandemic shutdown used the pause period for reflection or career development, and in one case, becoming a mother.

When asked what message they would most like to deliver to the men holding power in arts organizations today,  Kennedy gave a two-part answer: “What I most want heard is this: Ask women about our experience. Then be quiet and listen. That’s my concise response.

“My more in-depth answer is a parallel to my experience as a person of color in response to the worldwide reckoning on race relations, historic trauma, and discrimination and the impact it’s had on Black communities. In that world, there are two forces: a growing effort to center the voices of color and cultivating an awareness around racism and antiracist practices. But when you conflate and confuse those two, you create danger. Suddenly, the onus is put on artists of color to do the psycho-social work [of healing or changing the landscape]. Do they need to do part of the work? I believe they need to do the lion’s share of the work. Do we ask women to shoulder the burden of testifying and also be the source of mending the wounds? Race relations are the same as gender relations. Folks who have privilege built into their role, the more they can show up, ask questions, listen, take initiatives, the more we can get done.”

Nikola Printz
Nikola Printz | Credit: Joey Miller

Printz says, “I’d like for them to do the work of educating themselves, not putting the onus on someone else about how to adequately involve marginalized people. Hire women of color, trans people. Put them on your board, in your company. Opera San José has great hiring and casting practices and a mission to center the company around the artists. Hire diverse people. It’s that simple.”

Branham’s opinion is similar: “We’re all personally responsible for reducing our reliance on dominant power structures. Every movement and hope for change has to be operating on three levels: centering the impacted — women, disabled, BIPOC, anybody marginalized,” she emphasizes. “Second, a dismantling of what we’ve known, which is the responsibility of the power structures and people who dominate or benefit from it. Then, there are the people who are building something on their own. It might be a company that produces works by women, but it’s not something I’m seeing broadly yet. Who will come in and say they’re going to do something totally differently? We have to do these three ideas if we expect changes to happen. We can tear down a structure, but what will replace it?”

Kherani harks back to Kennedy “I wish more women and POC were in position of leadership. Maybe step aside and let someone else take your spot.’ Power has to be relinquished for it to be assumed by a marginalized community. It’s not a straight win/lose zero-sum game were the net change is zero for all.”

Sulker gives a global perspective: “It’s hard to open people’s eyes when society is set for them to not have to think about people who are not in a privileged state. How do you get people to even want to look deeper and see the plight of people not in their position? There seems to be resistance and excuse-making from people of privilege. You can appeal to their humanity, to imagine and educate themselves about racial and economic injustice, but I don’t know how you get someone to engage who doesn’t want to. For the ones who do want to engage, I challenge them to think about what it would be like to be born in a non-white, [non] cis-gendered body. When you think about other people and how they’ve been shaped, it can open eyes, start empathy.”

A Year of Opportunities

During the first three months of the pandemic lockdown, Sulker says she was “in a shocked place.” She used the downtime to study with a teacher remotely, smooth her technique, deepen her rehearsal practices and technical skills. “I’m not a sound engineer now, but I had to buy a microphone and figure out how to make audio recordings and look at lighting to figure out what makes a good video. Online auditions and online concerts: I learned editing and skills for those. For a long time, I thought the right agent was key and would free me up to focus on music-making and my art. I realized I had enough of my own contacts. I could advocate for myself, negotiate contracts. The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve felt I’m honoring what I’m worth and the years of practice and diligence I have engaged in to be better at my art.”

Shawnette Sulker
Shawnette Sulker

Kherani reported, “My biggest stride was becoming a mother. My daughter is almost seven months. It happened because we had to take that mandatory pause. I’m grateful I had that time to set my career aside and have a baby.”

Even so, with the internet age and social media so prevalent and branding in the hands of artists, Kherani honed and strengthened the persona she presents online. “No one really presents a true picture because it’s curated. You don’t broadcast your whole life; it’s just a representation. I try to be as authentic as possible and express the values I hold as most important, which are diversity and accessibility for the arts — especially opera that everybody views as elitist. By diversity I mean racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and female empowerment. Opera is steeped in this colonial mindset; run by white men. Uplifting the voices of women, BIPOC singers — I don’t shy away from that. I believe opera is for all. I think women singers are afraid to talk about that because it could blow back on their careers. We don’t want to be seen as [people who are] difficult to work with, who [don’t] fit the mold. They don’t want you to talk about race and gender when it comes to the arts: If I brand myself as a woman of color, maybe they won’t see me as the lead singer. If I highlighted that part of me, I used to think that’d make me harder to cast. I no longer feel that way and now I speak out on that. I decided to talk openly because I am a storyteller and if I can’t speak up, what’s the point?”

Tara Branham
Tara Branham 

Branham says she was fortunate in that she was aware and involved with the BLM movement after the shooting by a white police officer of Michael Brown in 2014. “I said to myself ‘of course this had not changed in 2020.’ It included my going to marches, standing outside police stations when my friends were arrested. I think activists are more ready to easily mobilize since the death of Michael Brown and the founding of the BLM movement. I want organizers to lead their communities and I’m a supporter of them inside organizations and rehearsal rooms that expand opera with new rehearsal processes, racially informed casting, new stories explored through the lens of artists who lived them and not by default by white artists.”

Similarly, Printz says, “I’ve been going to Black Lives Matter protests and marches way before this past year. Activism has been important to me my whole life, so I guess seeing other people who normally didn’t center activism in their artistic lives made me feel a collective anger. Taking agency of my career has made it easier for me to advocate for myself. It has not made me more calm and serene. It’s made me upset with the system that has been failing for so long. It has empowered me to use my voice in a more declarative way.”

Although empowered, Printz admits, “It is incredibly difficult. I have to pay rent. I take gigs where I say it’s a paycheck and I can do it. I’m getting to a point where I can say yes to things that bolster my artistic integrity and no to things that don’t. The pandemic has shown me we can be our own producers. I learned Final Cut Pro [video editing software]: I can make works and I don’t have to ask permission to do so. I have a hefty balance between doing stuff you want and stuff you have to do. There’s joy in finding gigs you normally wouldn’t do. I might not gravitate to Mozart, but it keeps you healthy to do it. It teaches you how to use your voice, how to navigate your passaggio.”

Kennedy launched — and launched herself into — a number of projects during the pandemic. Aside from learning DIY recording audio, she became the co-director of the Open Gates Project, a new early music concert series featuring artists of color; joined forces with the Kaleidoscope Ensemble, a vocal group made up of early and new music specialists jointly focused on artistic excellence, representation, and mentorship; centered her programming for appearances more on women and marginalized people across genres and eras (she mentions a virtual performance pairing Florence Price’s Sunset with Handel’s “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from The Messiah, and Bonfa’s Bossa Nova setting of Manhã de Carnaval sung with Baroque instruments), among other endeavors.

“The #MeToo movement was a powerful and potent thing,” Kennedy says. “It was a shorthand for the collective realization that misogyny is sewn into the history of our country. My upbringing has always been feministic, but over the past 10 years what has shifted for me is the urgency of celebrating women’s voices and the voices of other marginalized people. I have had time to think. How do I adapt through the portal of the pandemic? What is the focused place that’s most meaningful? How do I forge dialogue across centuries as a specialist in early music? I’ve decided it’s centering on women’s voices across the ages, which for me is pretty new.”

Looking Forward

As the coda for each interview, the musicians were asked to cast future visions, share hopes, or foreshadow plans that might diversify the field of opera.

Kennedy plans to talk more often with living composers and librettists in a practice that will always include much-loved Baroque-era repertory but seeks to interweave contemporary channels. Printz, who uses they/them pronouns, says it might surprise some people, but they most hope in the near future to perform Salomé. “She’s a powerful theme. I like the role because it’s terrifying to people. She makes love to a severed head after doing a strip tease. It’s an allegory for a girl coming into her first sexual desires, among other themes. It encapsulates how terrified men can be of feminine power. That’s why it’s cool to me. You’d expect me to say pants roles, but I choose to portray women who are powerful and represent more than just women. They represent autonomy, the gruesome nature of man.”

Branham says she has “absolutely” turned down jobs because she knows someone involved with the job is an abuser and is not getting the help they need. “Because we fixate on who is to blame, we’re not creating pathways for harmers and abusers to regain access. What does restorative justice look like in the nonprofit opera world? If a work doesn’t center women, I won’t go or I’ll walk out. I’ll be asking about casting, season selection, who’s behind the table on the production staff? And why is no one who’s BIPOC on the staff when it creates a difference of thought to have diversity? When there are five sides presented, not two, it’s not one or the other, and diversity is achieved.” Branham says she can help predominantly white or cis-male-lead organizations to see where gender bias and white supremacy is happening without their awareness. “Then after awareness, we have to be taught how to act differently. I take an aggressive stance and say because I was born in America and not BIPOC, I must practice antiracism every day. It’s a daily journey.”

Maya Kherani
Maya Kherani 

Kherani believes audiences hunger for operas in which roles are portrayed by singers of the right ethnic background. As an Indian American, she brings a lived experience as a child of immigrants and representation as someone who is not white. “Why does representations matter? We all want to be seen, to be validated, to relate to a story, feel kinship, feel relevant because our life is onstage. If you’re a minority represented onstage, your story matters. For the white audience member seeing a minority onstage, you can think the person doesn’t look like you but you relate to the story. It’s the purpose of art: to have different sizes, ages, cultures, races, genders, and other diverse backgrounds onstage.”

Sulker positions opera’s blend of singing, acting, dancing, and high production values as “the perfect art for innovation.” Just because the #MeToo movement had people being jailed, losing their jobs, and being held accountable, Sulker insists, doesn’t mean harassment and abuse are gone. “One situation I can’t get into in detail involves sexual intimidation coming from someone in power who represents themself as understanding these issues. Whenever you put a spotlight on something, if it’s not a complete shift, it won’t disappear. We’re going to have to keep our voices loud and strong. It’s going to take time to make major change.”

These five voices from the world of opera speak with strength, but it is the echo that matters most. Long after the musical story is told in words, one question must continue to be asked: Has anything changed?