Regarding integrity (Part 2)

(Read Part 1)

The second article that got me in trouble was a review of Opera McGill‘s production of Alcina this past Fall.  The review, “Orientalism is no magic,” takes issue with the production’s use of yellowface — makeup, costumes, and set design appropriated from Asian cultures by white directors and designers, worn by white singers, and performed for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience.

Unlike the Don Giovanni interview, this article was 100% written by me, and I stand by it 100%.  The review was a joint project meant to accompany “An open letter to Opera McGill” by Sarah Shin-Wong, a recording engineer who worked behind the scenes on the production, and whose perspective as a student of colour sheds vital light on why, exactly, the Alcina production was so infuriating:

Yellowface is when a non-Asian person wears makeup and/or costumes to look what they think is “Asian.”  Thus, the entire 2016 principal cast of Alcina was performing yellowface.

It is offensive because essentially it is wearing ethnicities as a costume.  It homogenizes, exotifies, and objectifies various Asian cultures and puts them under the umbrella of “Orientalism.”  It dehumanizes Asian people and makes Asian cultures a superficial trend or aesthetic.  In addition, it propagates inaccurate stereotypes and derogatory caricatures.  It can be likened to blackface.

Continue reading

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Regarding integrity (Part 1)

To Whom It May Concern:

This is an open letter to anyone who has ever dismissed sexism in opera as an inherent product of the times.  This is an open letter to anyone who’s ever stumbled upon criticism of racist practices in classical music, and done nothing but shrug, dismissing those criticisms as the ill-informed ramblings of a starry-eyed Social Justice Warrior.

This is an open letter to anyone who thinks that classical music shouldn’t be held to the same standards of critique, dialogue, and evolution as literally every other art form — who thinks that #OscarsSoWhite might apply in Hollywood, but certainly not in the concert hall.

This is an open letter to anyone who claims that calling Don Giovanni a rapist is a step too far.  This is an open letter to anyone who thinks it doesn’t even matter what we call him, because in the end, it’s only an opera, and can’t we leave politics out of it?

No — no we can’t.  Because opera is never only opera, and politics and art are inexorably linked.  And if you happen to feel otherwise — well, this letter is for you.   Continue reading

Between Thanksgivings

I’ll start with a quote, because all great blog posts begin with a quote.

This particular quote comes to us from Karl Paulnack, Director of the Boston Conservatory‘s Music Division, in his 2004 welcome address to the school’s incoming freshmen:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.  Well, my friends, someday at eight PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary.  Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

End quote.  Keep it in mind.  I’ll get back to it in a bit.


Forty-six days separate Canadian and American Thanksgivings, which sounds like a long time, but in reality, those forty-six days seemed to pass as though each were chasing the next at gunpoint.

Canadian Thanksgiving falls on a Monday — in the motherland, this coincides with an observance known as Columbus Day, which serves little purpose other than shutting down the post office — making for a three-day weekend that pales in comparison to American Thanksgiving’s five.  I celebrated in a triptych of dinners: vegan tacos, duets, and oboe reeds with a lovely friend on Saturday; a potluck and Cards Against Humanity (Canadian expansion, naturally) with quintet members on Sunday; and cashew-cauliflower soup, pumpkin pie, and Friends (“The One with Joey’s Interview”) with my fantastic roommate on Monday.

During Sunday’s festivities, I learned about the following, slightly traumatizing PSA that aired throughout western Canada in the early Nineties, which I am sharing here because viewing it is — truly — a life experience that everyone ought to have:

Thanksgiving is a time for many things: food, friends, gratitude — and, apparently, Clinton-era, public health-related puppetry — which is why Day 33 of my inter-Thanksgiving countdown was such a horrifying antithesis to the spirit of the season.

Day 33 was November 13.   Continue reading

“Normal Person Music”

When I first began playing oboe, I threw myself into the classical genre with all the passionate superiority a twelve-year-old could muster.  Previously, my musical tastes had hinged on what my friends were listening to — sixth grade had been a year of ABBA covers and sk8er bois — but now, as a sage seventh-grade symphonist, my CD collection held titles like 100 Classical FavoritesMozart Hits, and — regrettably — Greatest Sousa Marches.

“Don’t you know that you’re toxic?…” (source)

I had been raised on equal doses of Scheherazade and Santanta, but no sooner had I learned to play a B-flat major scale on the oboe than I completely abandoned music-with-words — a genre I came to call “normal person music” — in favor of what was suddenly and obsessively my preference: classical.  I eschewed pop music altogether: ignored Green Day, never learned the words to “Toxic” (probably for the best), and only paid attention to Usher for long enough to figure out that “Yeah” was in the key of G minor.  I was a band geek, and all my friends were band geeks, and we met up in the band room after school to fetch our instruments from our lockers (so we could take them home and practice, of course) and talked about how much we loved Sousa and Mozart and the main theme from Star Wars that we were learning how to play in Beginning Band.

I think the reason I let classical music become such an obsession (besides the fact that I, you know, enjoyed it) was because, for the first time, I wasn’t letting peer pressure dictate my playlist.  The instant I first set foot in the band room on that fateful day in seventh grade, whatever meager social status I’d held in the middle school hierarchy vanished: other kids’ opinions no longer mattered to me.  As a bona fide band geek, I had no chance of ever being considered “cool,” so I could listen to the least-cool music out there with no repercussions.  It was liberating.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started listening to normal person music again.  But for five years, between when I first picked up the oboe and when I decided to pursue it in higher education (and, ultimately, as a career), my listening tastes were superbly limited.  Those five years were important for me — I learned about different composers, styles, time periods, forms — but in retrospect, there was a lot of music I missed out on, music that essentially came to define my generation in the form of songs-that-everyone-knows.  During my high school tenure, Taylor Swift was just coming into her own; Coldplay, Jason Mraz, and Sara Bareilles were in competition for 2008’s Song of the Year; and Katy Perry kissed a girl (and liked it) — all while I was fangirling over Shostakovich and Vivaldi as though they were the only artists worth listening to.  Continue reading

TONIGHT: The Dream Unfinished

Courtesy: thedreamunfinished.org
Courtesy: thedreamunfinished.org

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights is taking place tonight in New York City, and if you are anywhere near NYC then there is no reason not to attend.  Your ticket purchase is a donation to some incredible causes, like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice.

In an era when classical music is struggling to stay relevant, this event represents what may be the most straightforward and vital intersection of this genre and the society it purportedly serves, but so often alienates.  Tonight’s musicians are adding their voices to the #BlackLivesMatter dialogue, a realm where classical music has heretofore remained silent.

I am honored to be close friends with one of the event’s producers, and am so proud of my friend and his hardworking, passionate colleagues on the Dream Unfinished team.  Since my current internship is in Press/PR, it’s a complete delight to see the event garnering the press coverage it so deserves:

So, my dear NYC-based readers, please include The Dream Unfinished in your Friday night plans.  Great music, great people, and a great cause.

To learn about other interesting intersections of classical music and society, check out Classical Conditioning’s ongoing (though somewhat stalled) series, Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers.”

Washington, District of Awesome

I have been a Kennedy Center intern for precisely five business days, and so far the nation’s capital has proven a treasure trove of unexpected sights:

What a city!

My internship is in the Press Office, specifically assisting the press reps for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.  I have my own desk, an official KC e-mail, an ID badge and everything.  It’s wild.  I am 100%, not at all, in any way, qualified for this internship — and I am just so humbled and excited to have this opportunity.

Press, I have learned, falls under the purview of Public Relations.  Many organizations lump PR in with Marketing, but the two categories couldn’t be more different.  Marketing is active self-promotion to increase sales; PR is interaction with the public to encourage goodwill.  A PR representative might contact a press outlet to pitch a story or review, but it’s up to the writer — not the rep — whether that story or review portrays the organization in a positive light.  The rep’s job, then, is to seek out stories worth writing about, and writers genuinely interested in the organization’s services.  This way, the public can be well informed about what the organization has to offer, via an outlet (the press) that is independent of the organization and therefore an unbiased source.

My job so far has comprised a great deal of filing, which might be boring if it weren’t for the fact that I get to comb through Playbills from the 1970’s, which has proven to be highly entertaining.  (Ads spotted: tons of cigarettes, a clothing store for “large women,” and mail-order Romanian wine.)  I’m also responsible for something called “paste-ups”: any time the Kennedy Center or one of its productions is mentioned in an online press outlet, I copy and re-format the text and images into a neat, standardized document for board-member “brag books” and archival purposes. I even had the chance to sit in on the big televised Memorial Day concert on the Capitol lawn.  Eventually, I’m told, I’ll get to draft some press releases.  Exciting stuff!

The Kennedy Center is the country’s most active performing arts facility, and it’s amazing to be part of the behind-the-scenes work that brings it all together.  Press is so important to a performing arts organization — spreading the word, generating interest and curiosity and buzz, inviting the community to learn and explore and enjoy the organization’s resources — and I can’t wait to learn more about how it all works in the coming months.