There is a universality about the most profound musical works. They transcend boundaries of time and place to reach our innermost core as humans. But even music is made up of specific ideas, representations, and themes. What happens when those specifics rather run counter to societal values, leaving people feeling alienated, hurt, or excluded?

This potential for cultural misalignment is particularly acute in art works that can reflect societal exclusion or inequality, whether in the depiction of race, gender, class, or orientation. In our world of opera, works like Madame Butterfly and Turandot represent an early 20th-century fascination with Asia that can appear hackneyed, anachronistic, and even offensive given today’s much more nuanced understanding. We must recognize the cultural disconnect that art can engender when viewed through our modern lens, while still recognizing the creative integrity, vision, and impact of the artist’s original work.

Works like Turandot and Butterfly raise further issues: i) issues of production choices and sensitivity for racial depiction; there is now a near-universal repudiation of using makeup to change a person’s racial appearance onstage; ii) the equity of casting opportunities and how to cast roles like Cio-Cio-San to better reflect the cultural authenticity of the piece; and iii) whether there are works that last for all time, or whether there are works which will eventually become fundamentally at odds with contemporary values.

San Francisco Opera is engaging in serious dialogue around two vitally important questions:

  1. How do we better understand the broader perception of opera to attain a deeper appreciation for the multiple perspectives around a work of art?
  2. How do we utilize the art form of opera to build resonance with our fast-changing city, developing trust that opera can engage with the most essential of human emotions and situations?

We don’t have all the answers to these questions yet, but we are committed to learning. We are exploring how we can better connect opera to community in a number of critical areas:

  • Fundamentally, these are questions that can only begin to be answered by a dialogue with the bay area community. We are building partnerships to better understand the broader perception of the opera and ensure that as many people as possible feel comfortable with, and welcome to, our work.
  • We are looking to create art to build interconnections between art and society. Through works like Girls of the Golden West, Dream of the Red Chamber, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, we want to tell stories that reflect our local culture on the opera stage.
  • San Francisco Opera has a strong tradition of inclusivity in its training programs, including historic connections to the Pacific Rim. I want to expand that legacy to create opportunities for audiences, singers, instrumentalists, technicians, and administrators from underrepresented and marginalized communities. 

I am sensitive to the challenge that certain art works can create in our society, but I am also excited that opera is an art form that can explore challenging subjects. We must find ways to produce, share, and engage with opera, such that it reflects the amazing breadth of our community, and allows us all to connect on the most fundamental of levels. Returning to the words of Gandhi: “no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”