Author Naomi Andre on Writing 'Black Opera'

‘I Really Thought It Was My Exit Out of Academia:’ Naomi André on Writing ‘Black Opera’

It’s all her mother’s fault. Her, and someone she knew as “Eric the Opera.”

They’re the ones author Naomi André credits with launching her passion for opera — a passion that led her to write one of the most buzzed-about new books in the field, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement.

“How did you get into the industry” is a question that André, a Black professor at the University of Michigan, often faces. “It is true that opera is a field where you don’t see a lot of people of color in the audience, even on stage or behind the scenes.”

But the way she grew up, she was listening to opera even before she knew what it was. Her mother was a high coloratura soprano who trained at Juilliard. And before that, André’s great-grandmother had forged a reputation as an amateur pianist. It was on her piano that André picked up the basics of music.

Personal experiences form the backbone of Black Opera — personal experiences both joyous and heartbreaking. But being so personal came with risks. She worried other academics would take her less seriously for what she had to say.

Opera has been André’s lifelong passion. Her mother remembers her mimicking the music of Lucia di Lammermoor as a baby. And some of André’s earliest memories were of hearing her mother sing in the car, making up lullabies or practicing solos for church choirs.

“I was used to that operatic sound of the voice. I didn't know it was really operatic. I just knew that's what mom sang,” André recalls. Later, as a teenager on scholarship at Pennsylvania’s Westtown college-preparatory school, she met someone as passionate as she was about music: a young Eric Mitchko. He would one day become general director of North Carolina Opera.

Mitchko was a year behind André in school, and he was so obsessive that André’s mother came to call him “Eric the Opera.” When André graduated and left for Barnard College in New York City, Mitchko would stay with his aunt in nearby Queens, just so they could both attend the Metropolitan Opera together.

Tickets for standing room at the time were $5, less than a movie. André always tried to thumb the librettos in advance: There were no supertitles back then to translate the dialogue. But the lavish productions and rich music drew André in. Opera intrigued her. And while she realized she “hated” performing herself, she found academia to be the place where she could funnel that passion.

“I can certainly have a big persona. My mother — I get this from her. She knew how to perform,” André says. “But then, deep down, I'm just like: Give me my books and my computer and let me just be a nerd and write.”

André started bingeing classes on music history and ethnomusicology. She remembers being one of the few first-year students to declare herself a music major. And New York City offered her a wealth of opportunity to study to what she loved.

“I cut my teeth at the Metropolitan Opera. For a while I had seen everything in their repertory at least four times,” she says.

Still, acceptance in academia could be hard to come by. André remembers another female student her age being lavished with support as she pursued musicology as a career. When André decided to follow the same path and get her PhD, the reaction was different.

The same professors who had offered her white classmate so much praise “were all sort of quiet” when it came to helping her. “They didn’t say, ‘Don’t go.’ But they weren’t at all supportive.”

André says that race was likely a factor. “There have been these real assumptions that there are certain things that are appropriate for certain people to do.” Some people assumed she was better suited to other genres, like hip-hop and jazz, rather than opera.

That happened a long time ago, she says: It was the 1980s and ‘90s. But when she looks at the news today, she can’t help but feel echoes of that past.

The story of Christian Cooper resonated with her particularly: Here was another Black person, a bird-watcher, being reported as a threat to police, as if he did not belong in America’s parks just as much as anyone else. Just as he was not accepted in that space, André has felt there were moments where she was not accepted in academia.

“I go to professional conferences — and this has been even recently, in the past few years — where people just hand me their cups to bus. Or they think that I'm part of the help,” André says. “It's still an incredibly non-diverse environment. And that's something that continues very much up to the present.”

André ultimately received a doctorate from Harvard. Her studies initially had nothing to do with race: She had fallen in love with the music of Giuseppe Verdi and wrote her dissertation on the roles he wrote for lower-voiced women. But even then, she says that studying gender in opera was “considered a very strange thing.”

Still, she landed a tenure-track job right out of graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she continues to teach today. But gradually it occurred to her that “there was no real framework for how we talk about race and ethnicity in classical music.”

There were issues few people were talking about: Blackface continued to appear on the opera stage, and it was noticeably rare for Black men to perform at top opera houses. André credits this to the “fear of miscegenation,” the idea that seeing a white heroine paired with a black hero was somehow unsavory.

While André was confident many people noticed the same issues she noticed, she marveled that few spoke up. “There was still the feeling that, ‘Oh, this is impolite. Don't talk about this,’” she says.

DVDs were making opera increasingly accessible, so André started to watch more operas, particularly educating herself on the contributions of Black artists.

“At that point I hardly knew any Black opera composers,” she admits. But it wasn’t long before she was delving into the spectrum of works from William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, Harry Lawrence Freeman, and other Black creators who shaped opera for centuries.

By the time she reached tenure, she decided to take a risk. Already a published author with several titles to her name, she decided to focus her next book on race — and share personal stories of her time at the opera house. “I was afraid to write a whole book on that. I was afraid to put myself in it,” André says.

But she was determined to write the book she wanted to write, even if it meant leaving academia or being taken less seriously. “I really thought it was my exit out of academia.”

Her book is stocked with stories, starting with one about seeing a 2012 broadcast of Verdi’s Otello, performed in blackface, with a visiting colleague from South Africa. That, in turn, leads to cross-cultural meditations on works like Porgy and Bess, Carmen, and 2011’s Winnie: The Opera, about Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson Mandela.

André, for instance, traces how Carmen evolved from a French novella into works like Carmen: A Hip Hopera, an American film starring Beyoncé, and U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a South African adaption that uses the Xhosa language.

André’s aim with Black Opera was to “shine a light” on voices that were often left on the margins. And while she personally is “fed up” with the hostility toward diverse voices in the field, she hopes readers come away with an appreciation of all the Black artists who have contributed to opera, both past and present.

“The worst thing is to just think, ‘Oh, everybody was racist, and now they're not,’” she says. “The history of segregation with opera is a sad one and it's true. I think one of the great ways to counter it is to say, ‘But there are all these other stories here too.’”

André hopes that, by confronting race in opera, the industry will become a more welcoming place. Novels and paintings may be static, she says, fixed at the moment they were completed. But the operatic canon, which is performed again and again with new artists and new audiences, need not be.

“Seeing Black bodies on stage makes us, as a nation, a better nation,” she says. “There's an activist element to what opera can do. And I like saying that because I didn't know that's where I was going when I first started this book.”

Opera is still relevant, she argues. She is currently planning to write about Anthony Davis’s 2019 Pulitzer-winner, The Central Park Five.

André was a college senior in New York City in April 1989, when the real-life Central Park Five — five Black and Hispanic teens — were arrested on charges they raped a white jogger. Confessions were coerced from the teens, and all five were sentenced to prison.

It’s a hard topic to reflect on, but the feedback she’s received from Black Opera encourages her to keep going. She loves this art form, she says. And by sharing these stories, she hopes to spur conversations that will keep it going, far into the future.

Naomi André’s book Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement is available on Amazon or from the University of Illinois Press.

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