By Greggory Moore, Arts Columnist
Judging from the audience at a Long Beach Opera performance, you would never guess that this little big city occupying a cultural limbo between Los Angeles and Orange County has a Latinx majority and a median age under 34.
That’s less to do with Long Beach than with opera in general. The opera world is not known for attracting diverse crowds. Audiences tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than the demographic portrait of the cities where performances take place; those performances tend to be stereotyped as stories about people of European descent belting out vocal gymnastics inaccessible to all but the most trained ears.
But for its 40th anniversary season, Long Beach Opera is trying to change the status quo with the Community Conversations Initiative, a new event series. Consisting of five “conversation” events tied to the season’s “Justice” theme, Long Beach Opera is aiming to create community wide discussions about race, equity and the justice system — and in the process expose a broader segment of the general public to opera, which in the 21st century can be far more timely and generally palatable than Mozart and Verdi.
Just how contemporary?
In April, Long Beach Opera will stage Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, based on a short story by Franz Kafka, a writer who never goes out of style when you’re looking for comment on the absurd machinations of unfeeling government. (Sound like anybody we know?)
In June, LBO will world premiere Anthony Davis’s The Central Park Five, which concerns the 1990 wrongful conviction of five black and Latinx youths for the rape of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park.
Executive Director Jennifer Rivera conceived the idea for what would become the Conversations series once it was locked in that Long Beach Opera would debut The Central Park Five.
“I personally imagined that this opera in particular would inspire very important discussions about so many difficult issues facing our community and our society, and I wanted the art itself to inspire discussions that were fruitful and impactful,” she says. “I have always believed that art has the ability to bring people together and connect them in a very unique way. We had discussed the idea of finding some ancillary programming and also of engaging a Community Advisory Committee of individuals who would help us accurately and sensitively tell the story of the Five.
“When the Knight Foundation grant application came across my desk … I knew the organizational priorities involved encouraging community participation, and I came up with the idea for the Community Conversations in the hopes we would be able to expand the scope of what we had originally imagined.”
The next Conversation will be March 10. Entitled “Equity and Diversity in the Arts,” featured speaker Dr. Naomi André, author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, will be joined by a panel including Anthony Davis, African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, visual artist/designer Vanessa Chung, and Arts Council for Long Beach Executive Director Griselda Suarez. As with all Conversation events, discussions are interspersed with performances, helping attendees to come away with an expanded appreciation of opera both intellectually and aesthetically.
“We are intimately aware that opera, in particular, does not always draw a diverse audience in terms of age and ethnic background,” says Derrell Acon, project director for the Community Conversations Initiative, “and thus we also use [the series] as an opportunity to engage those persons in the community whom we would not have reached otherwise.”
Rivera adds that such community engagement is a responsibility of the arts establishment — one that has been traditionally neglected.
“There aren’t enough opportunities for young people to become exposed to opera, receive training, etc., starting early on; and then at the other end, there is a lack of diversity amongst the leadership of most classical arts institutions in general, including both staff and boards,” she said. “Until organizations make a concerted effort to change these two factors, we will continue to have a problem with lack of diversity within our industry and beyond.
“My hope for LBO is that we create the opportunities for the diversification of our audiences, staff, and board by choosing operas that are both created and performed by diverse voices and by making a concerted effort to both recruit and support increased.”
In the effort to reach out to population sectors typically underrepresented in the opera world, Conversation events are held in nontraditional venues. For example, the inaugural event in the series, “Dismantling Racism,” took place last month at the Michelle Obama Library. March 10’s “Equity and Diversity in the Arts” will be held at Museum of Latin American Art. Remaining events in the 2019 series include “Life Beyond Prison,” in April at Cal State Long Beach, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” in May at Long Beach City College, and in June, “Black Lives, the Arts, and Mattering” in the Long Beach City Council Chambers.
Rivera is confident that finding something relatable in opera is merely a matter of exposure, regardless of one’s background.
“[With the series], we would like to communicate to people who haven’t been exposed to opera the fact that opera is merely a form of storytelling through music, and there is no reason people need to feel put off by the stereotypes affiliated with the art form,” she says. “Opera is compelling because it presents the purity of the unamplified voice in telling a story. The human voice creates connections through music, and this is something everyone can benefit from and enjoy.”
And, as Acon notes, the Conversation will help bring home the reality that opera speaks to more than just music.
“The premise [of the series] relies on the idea that the performing arts have the ability to catalyze important and sometimes difficult discussions,” he says. “LBO is eager to give conversations that normally take place within the lobby of the theater or on the car ride home more space and attention.”
The next installment of Long Beach Opera’s Community Conversations Initiative will take place at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach March 10 at 3 p.m. Admission is free.