San Francisco Opera | Confronting Genius: Director Aria Umezawa on Battling Harassment in Opera

Confronting Genius: Director Aria Umezawa on Battling Harassment in Opera

“You need to learn how to slap people around more.” That’s the advice director and former Adler Fellow Aria Umezawa remembers receiving early in her career. It made her question whether she had a place in opera.

“Certainly I wondered if the industry wanted me. I never really questioned if I wanted opera,” Umezawa said, speaking from her home in Canada.

Umezawa, 32, had fallen in love with opera around age eight. Her hometown theater, Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company (COC), offered $5 dress rehearsal tickets to students. She saw Lucia di Lammermoor first. But it was Turandot that left her feeling windswept. She wanted to make other people feel the same way she did watching that opera.

At first, she thought that meant she should become a singer. That was the goal she pursued all the way to adulthood. “It wasn’t until university when I stepped on stage for the first time as a soloist that I realized I’d made a huge mistake.”

The problem wasn’t the medium. She loved opera, but she just didn’t enjoy being on stage herself. After taking a year off, she came to a decision. She wrote a letter to the opera program at McGill University: Were there any opportunities for an aspiring director?

Patrick Hansen, head of Opera McGill, took her under his wing. She went on to found the company Opera 5, as well as Amplified Opera, an organization that promotes equity and diversity in the field.

Umezawa, who also spent two years as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow from 2017 to 2018, says she still remembers what Hansen told her on her last day as a student: “People are going to try and put you in a box. You have to remember that you are more than the box, so don’t let those people tell you who you are.”

So later, when she was advised that being a director meant yelling and dominating those around her, she decided to create a different framework for leadership. Umezawa developed bystander intervention training programs and anti-harassment presentations for opera, to empower others to question the paradigms she herself had been encouraged to pursue.

Umezawa recently sat down with San Francisco Opera to discuss her anti-harassment work — and why that means confronting the myth of “geniuses” in classical music.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: There are not a lot of women or people of color in the leadership roles behind the scenes. In the years since your mentor at McGill said, “People are going to try and put you in a box,” have you ever felt the confines of that box?

UMEZAWA: When you are something that is not the status quo, you count. And by that, I mean that when you walk into a room, you do a quick scan to see how many people like you there are.

I have frequently found myself being maybe the only person of color in a room, or one of very few. Because you’re so aware of what sets you apart in a room, there’s a burden of perfection, right?

I am a young woman of color trying to make it as a director. And there is this perception, whether it is warranted or not — and historically it has been warranted — that if I fail, I don’t just fail for myself. I fail for every person like me coming afterwards who would like a shot.

So it’s just a responsibility that is always present. To give a very obvious example, I put a lot of pressure on myself during my time as an Adler, knowing that San Francisco Opera hadn’t had a stage director Adler Fellow — never mind a woman or a person of color — in 15 years. I put a lot of pressure on myself to really make sure I was doing the best possible job I could so that I could leave the door open for people coming after me.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What started you on anti-harassment as a topic for your advocacy, for your workshops for example?

UMEZAWA: I think the #MeToo movement put it on my radar. Long before it even hit the opera industry, I was seeing what was happening in film and television and thinking these worlds are very interconnected. Nothing exists in a silo.

It was just a matter of time, it was an inevitability, that it was going to hit opera at some point. So I started thinking, “What can I, in my capacity as a director, do? What can I do in my practice to help? To open a conversation?” I talked to everybody who would give me any time about this topic. I talked to donors. I talked to administrators. I talked to singers. I talked to other stage directors, conductors.

After talking to all these people about their experiences, where I landed was that people really wanted to change and take action. But there was no shared language, and people weren’t sure how to move forward. So that’s how the workshops came to be.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talk about how harassment might impact a community and not just the individuals involved. How do you illustrate, even in hypothetical terms, what that might look like?

UMEZAWA: For example, say there’s a staging rehearsal, and there are many people present. The chorus is present, the artists are present, the cast is present. And somebody in the group — in our hypothetical situation, let’s say it’s the conductor — starts yelling at somebody in the cast and calling them names and insulting their intelligence.

Everyone is there witnessing what is happening. Certainly it’s terrible for the person on the receiving end of that. But there are also people standing in that room who are witnessing something that is going against their personal values, that they wouldn’t, under normal circumstances, stand for.

But they feel they can’t do anything. They feel they can’t say anything. This is part of what the bystander effect is. You always feel there’s always someone more qualified to handle the situation than you are.

So there are a lot of people who just stand by and watch this happen, and they do this for years and years. Different circumstances, contexts change, but still they don’t say anything.

And then you get to the present day, and they’re reflecting back on all the time they’ve seen something happen and didn’t say anything. That is something very heavy to carry. I’ve seen a lot of people punish themselves for inaction in the past. It seems somewhat unfair because everyone’s existing in a flawed system and is just trying to make the best of it. So it’s easy to look back and see all the things you should have done.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How does harassment shape the hierarchies we see within opera today?

UMEZAWA: I would actually flip that. I think the system we have in opera facilitates harassment. I don’t know that I would say that harassment might reinforce the system. We’ve created a system that makes harassment an easy thing to happen. We create very rigid hierarchies in our rooms.

One of the easiest things to do in a workshop is to ask, “Who has the power in the room?” And all the participants will be like, “The conductor, the director, the star singers.” It’s easy for everyone to identify their place in the hierarchy, so that’s part of it.

And also we have this unhealthy relationship with genius in the opera industry. We treat genius like this precious commodity that is rare and therefore worthy of protection. We often say a production was successful because we had this conductor or this director or this singer on this bill, completely ignoring the input of the sometimes hundreds of people who had a part in working on the show.

So we’ve got a strictly defined hierarchy, very rigidly defined, and then the people at the top of the hierarchy are given a disproportional amount of the credit for the output of many. They’re perceived as rare or unique, and so they’re protected. Because this is the system, I think it’s not shocking that harassment flourishes in conditions like that. Part of the insidious nature of harassment is that the people in positions of power rarely recognize themselves as harassers.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: That idea of genius is baked into the ways we consume classical music in pop culture. We hold up these figures like Bach and Mozart as geniuses. Is “genius” a useful concept? And if so, how do we reframe it?

UMEZAWA: I think genius is a phenomenon, not a person. I believe people can have moments of genius. I think that collaborative works can yield genius and frequently do. I think that’s why I love opera so much.

But a genius — as in, an individual who is perceived as a genius — is something I believe is built. Genius is not an intrinsic value that one is born with. It is something that is nurtured. It is something that is given access to opportunity.

And it is something that has this myth around it, this shield around it, which is something that we, the people around the genius, have to build and maintain. All of these geniuses didn’t work in vacuums.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: It’s also a profit-making engine, this idea of genius. If you can point to one marquee name, that sells tickets. Do you encounter resistance to this idea of de-individualizing genius?

UMEZAWA: The genius conversation is the one I receive the most pushback from. People really, really want to believe in genius as individual.

And I get it. We all grew up in the system. We all desire our names in lights so that people will point to us and validate our experiences and say, “Yes, you did it. You equal genius.” That’s a prize that’s been hung in front of artists for centuries.

It’s not something people want to let go of. It makes sense. I would say the genius conversation gives a lot of people pause. But our art only benefits from moving away from this. As geniuses grow in stature and achieve mythological status in our culture, it also becomes way more difficult to criticize the art. Because it comes from a genius.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Have you seen any change in the structure of opera since the #MeToo movement began?

UMEZAWA: I would say, very hearteningly, that people want to change. There’s a lot of good will and determination to hold people accountable as much as possible. Also, I do think that it’s important to point out that I take a long view. Any change in the industry is going to be the result of a process, not just one lightning bolt movement and then we’re harassment-free.

But I do generally perceive that things are starting to move in a healthier direction. Which is really awesome. I did not think I would live to see that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You didn’t?

UMEZAWA: No. When I first started, I thought I was just this weirdo on the fringe screaming into the void. That’s the life I resigned myself to. Or if I saw it, I would be in retirement age. That’s what I thought would happen. But it’s so heartening to see that I’m still young enough to enjoy all of the amazing work that’s happening across the industry.

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