The problems at Long Beach Opera stem not from racism or sexism, but from something more banal: bad management.
At least, that’s the conclusion of a report that the company’s board of directors commissioned in December, following the resignation of three Black staff members. The departures of Alexander Gedeon (minister of culture), Derrell Acon (associate artistic director), and Elijah Cineas (education manager) ultimately led to the cancellation of a production of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, which Gedeon was in the process of staging.
In their resignation letter, the trio pointed to “a culture of misogyny, a sustained pattern of racial tokenism, a lack of defined values and principles, a structural failure to process uncomfortable feedback.” The newly released report, by independent investigator Aisha Shelton Adam, only partially agreed with that assessment.
“Ms. Adam found that LBO did not have a misogynistic or racist culture, and found no evidence of any racial or gender discrimination,” the company reported in a statement released over the weekend. “Additionally, she found no evidence of tokenism, no evidence of mistreatment of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] staff/contractors, and no evidence that female staff were treated unfairly because of gender.”
But Adam, an attorney who specializes in workplace issues, did find serious management issues at the company, which has been widely acclaimed for its innovative repertoire.
“The investigation found some LBO employees — irrespective of race or gender — felt they were not treated with appropriate respect by executive management, and sometimes felt they lacked agency to perform their jobs,” the company reports. “This led female and BIPOC staff/contractors to feel that they were marginalized because of their gender, race, or [both].”
The statement goes on to say that General Director Jennifer Rivera “takes full responsibility” for the fact some staff members feel unseen and unheard and is committed to creating “an environment where staff feels respected and empowered.” The company has contracted with a human resources firm to “help develop clear roles and responsibilities within the company” and “provide a confidential process for LBO staff to voice concerns.”
Gedeon, Acon, and scenic and graphic designer Yuki Izumihara, who designed LBO’s first production back from the pandemic, Philip Glass’s Les enfants terribles, responded Tuesday in an online discussion sponsored by the Black Opera Alliance. They questioned whether the one-page summary released by the company fully reflected the investigator’s findings. (The company said no further information would be shared “to protect the privacy of those involved in the investigation.”)
The trio accused the company of hiring artists of color as a response for calls for more equity and inclusion but denying those same artists the actual power to make needed changes. Acon complained that, even as Long Beach Opera was conveying “a grand vision of progressiveness … I could feel myself little by little being stripped of the power that I had.
“The simplest definition of tokenism is when diversity or representation of any sort is being used as currency, without the actual authority, the power, the agency, for that person or group of people to execute what you are purporting they can execute,” he said.
Gedeon noted that his resignation was set to go into effect after the staging of Stimmung. But as rehearsals got underway, he felt isolated and largely ignored by company leadership.
“The staff and leadership meetings were largely canceled,” he said. “There were mounting concerns from members of the team who could feel a lack of support. They could feel that marketing was an afterthought.” Ultimately, he felt the production “was being set up to fail,” leading him to go public with his resignation and the company to cancel the show.
LBO officials declined to respond. They promised that more information about the company’s 2022 season will be released soon.