Russell Thomas was named artist-in-residence at LA Opera| Credit: Fay Fox

This week, Long Beach Opera and Los Angeles Opera announced major appointments to their companies, new positions created to elevate artists of color to decision-making roles. At Long Beach Opera, stage director Alexander Gedeon was announced as the company’s first “minister of culture,” and at Los Angeles Opera, tenor Russell Thomas was introduced as artist-in-residence, with an expanded portfolio that will include taking a “huge part in our artistic planning, casting, repertory planning, and more.”

Looking in the mirror over the past year, arts organizations have been asking how they can better serve communities of color. And artists and musicians of color themselves have been giving an answer, advocating for representation at the management and decision-making level of arts organizations: not tokenism, but power and responsibility. And while there was some justifiable skepticism over how organizations would respond, the idea is suddenly not radical in L.A. This news follows the appointment last October of Derrick Spiva Jr. as artistic advisor to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Alexander Gedeon
Alexander Gedeon | Courtesy of Long Beach Opera

Gedeon comes with a resume of experimental productions that bust norms. According to the company CEO, Jennifer Rivera, who commented through a press representative, Gedeon picked the title for the job himself. He wanted to bust the norms of conventional titles, and he wanted something that was both grand and tongue-in-cheek. Mission accomplished for the artist, who was assistant director on Yuval Sharon’s production of John Cage’s Europeras 1 and 2 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and last fall’s Twilight Gods at Michigan Opera Theater, again with Sharon at the helm.

For Long Beach Opera, Gedeon assistant directed on The Central Park Five, and then directed The Creative in Me, a new short opera for young people featuring Black composers commissioned by LBO in 2020. This season, he takes the reins of Comet/Poppea. As minister of culture, he is hosting an LBO video podcast called Towards a New Opera!, which will “explore the nexus of contemporary opera and contemporary culture.” The first of 21 episodes drops online on January 28. Among his official duties, will be responsible for “developing projects for future seasons with an emphasis on cultural inclusion, researching and creating more opportunities for increased diversity in creative design teams.”

At Los Angeles Opera, Russell Thomas has been a star for several years. Not least of the benefits to the company of hiring him on is that he will sing at least one major role for the company in each year of his tenure, which lasts through the 2023–2024 season. (Radames is next up for him.) As an established star, he isn’t bringing the genre-bending bonafides of Gedeon, but his task is not dissimilar, according to LAO’s press release. Thomas will “play a substantial role in artistic planning and casting. Additionally, he will be involved on the administrative side, contributing to the day-to-day operations of a world-class opera company. This includes active participation in the company's community engagement, fundraising, marketing, and public relations efforts.”

In a gesture showing how highly the company thinks of him, LAO has commissioned “an evening-length, autobiographical work expressly for him from Emmy Award-winning composer Joel Thompson, to premiere in the 2022–2023 season.” He will also establish and direct two new training programs underwritten by an anonymous donor. The first is a virtual training program for eight to 10 singers from historically Black college and universities, who will be mentored by Thomas. The second is the new Russell Thomas Young Artists in Training Program, aimed at Los Angeles public high school students from underserved communities, providing a small number of them with long-term vocal training to prepare them for future careers in opera.

Thomas is also joining the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program as a coach/mentor. And in his spare time, Thomas will host the “After Hours” recital series as part of the company’s On Now digital platform. The first of these theme-based concerts, “Black Love,” will arrive next month and will feature songs by Black composers.

“This is a huge deal for me and I'm almost overwhelmed with excitement about all of the possibilities that come with it,” said Thomas. “I'm especially committed to connecting with minority communities, particularly the African American community, throughout Los Angeles County and the surrounding areas.” Given his workload, he’s going to see a lot more of L.A. in the next few years.

Correction: The first version of this article misidentified the CEO of Long Beach Opera. It is Jennifer Rivera, not Jessica. We regret the error.