Why the classical music industry needs to hear more “notes from her”

At first, Notes From Her was not called “Notes From Her.” For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what to name my podcast, but that was also that last of my concerns.

Finally I had had my idea. I would create a podcast as a part of a multimedia platform where I would interview women of color and Latina musicians such as composers, conductors, opera singers and more. These interviews would talk about ethnic and gender disparity in the classical music industry and the lack of multicultural female representation in leadership positions. My research discovered the following: 

Gender and racial disparity have been a prominent occurrence in this industry that must be further addressed in order to make change. According to “Supply and Demand: Gender Disparity in Opera Part 1” from The Empowered Musician by Dana Varga “People in leadership positions at major opera companies around the world tend to be older (55+), white and male.” Varga also included statistics by DataUSA.io, which states that three out of every four singers that graduate today with a vocal performance degree are female; however, the number of opera roles offered go to males who also receive higher wages.  

Casting agencies, recording labels, board members, and other employers should reflect the demographics of the high percentage of females pursuing this craft as well as the growing diverse population. Data USA: Musicians, Singers, and Related Workers also published statistics gathered from the US Census Bureau in 2016. It stated that music industry employers comprised 86,848 males (which is 60.4%, more than half) compared to 56,846 females. Additionally, 76.5% of music industry leaders, musicians, and employers were white, 14.5% were Black, and the rest were other ethnicities. Latinos were not even found on this data chart.

In my research, especially pertaining to classical music and opera, I had difficulty finding statistics on Latina opera singers or musicians. OperaWire’s article on “Hispanic Heritage Month 2017: 11 Male Singers Who Have Become Icons in Opera ” by Francisco Salazar noted only Latino opera singers and no females. In fact, where are all of the Latinas? Of course we have women like Suzanna Guzman, Oralia Dominguez, and Ana Maria Martinez, but there must be a push for more Latina American representation. I’m talking about not just opera singers or composers from Spain or South America, but women from here in our backyards: Chicanas, Asian Americans, Central Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americanas, Arabic Americans, and more! Therefore, this podcast will provide a platform to change that.

Furthermore, The Guardian article “Female Composers Largely Ignored by Concert Line-ups” written by Mark Brown states “New statistics have shown up the “inexcusable” fact that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed across the world from this year to 2019 include at least one piece by a woman” meaning 95% of concerts featured compositions by men only. These are issues that urgently must be addressed in order to bring change to a system of gender and ethnicity disparity for our next generation. According to the PBS podcast “Bringing women conductors to the front of the orchestra,” by commentators Jeffrey Brown and Judy Woodruff, of the 20 largest orchestras in the United States, only one was conducted by a female, as of 2017. 

Additionally, a woman by the name of Chi-Chi Nwanoku founded a BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) orchestra called Chineke!, states in her article in The Guardian how she established Europe’s first majority BME orchestra, with the central mission of championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music. She said “I felt something must be done after 35 years of performing on the international concert platform, and becoming too used to being the only black person on stage. In just a few years, we have been able to provide career opportunities for the BME community and to become a catalyst for change by increasing the representation of BME musicians in British and European orchestras.”

Additionally, NPR All Songs Considered “The Sound of Silence: Female Composers at the Symphony” by Tom Huizenga stated in 2018, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra had 0 out of 54 composers who were female (in the past they have had a few females). In 2018, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and LA Philharmonic had 6 out of 45 composers who were female. In 2019, the classical music show equivalent to the Grammy’s which is BBC Proms had 29 out of 160 composers who were female (The Guardian “Classical Music is Overwhelmingly White and Male. My Orchestra Shows that Can Change” by Chi-Chi Nwanoku). Of these 13 new commissions for compositions, there was only 1 by a Black female composer and 1 for a Black male composer.

In light of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights and social issues awakening in our country as we speak, the realities of systemic racism is being revealed to the American public more so than ever. Systemic racism and the normative of white supremacy has been something so deeply engrained in the fabric of not just American history but almost every other continent that it has found it’s way in the roots of what seems to be nearly every system, entity, and industry. And the classical/opera industry is one of them.

Even this COVID pandemic and era of social justice will inevitably force opera and classical music to confront its deep-seeded issues. The New York Times recently published an article entitled “Opera Can No Longer Ignore Its Race Problem,” this article echoed proof of the statistics stated above happening in real time. During the height of George Floy’d murder and protests, internationally-acclaimed Black opera singer J’Nai Bridges organized a Zoom panel of Black opera singers through Los Angeles Opera’s platform which has since received over 60,000 views and “should be required viewing for all leaders of American opera companies.”

“There was a collective sigh of exasperation at the mention of how Blackness in opera more or less ends onstage. “In 20 years, I’ve never been hired by a Black person; I’ve never been directed by a Black person; I’ve never had a Black C.E.O. of a company; I’ve never had a Black president of the board; I’ve never had a Black conductor,” Mr. Morris Robinson (operatic bass) said. “I don’t even have Black stage managers. None, not ever, for 20 years.”

The article goes on to say that even in places like The Metropolitan Opera, America’s largest opera house, “Its board of 45 has only three Black managing directors. Of the 10 people on its music staff, one is Black; of the 90-member orchestra, two. The Met has presented 306 operas in its 137-year history, none of them by a Black composer. (That will change when it stages Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in a coming season.)”

So this is odd, right? I myself have seen this racial and gender disparity. As a Latina new to the world of classical music when I was an 18-year-old college freshman, I felt completely out of place. There were no Latina professors who were like me and I didn’t see very many women of my background composing Chicana or latinidad-inspired music played by the LA Phil or Metropolitan Opera and yet Latinos are the growing minority population in the US! Additionally, 50% of all counties in the United States include a large minority ethnic group (Black, Middle Eastern, Asian, etc.).

My idea was to talk about all of this on my podcast. Really once Mercedes Juan Musotto got hired in our CSUN music department as the Opera Conductor/Director, that did it for me as well. Mercedes has always been like a Tia to me. She is brilliant, musically talented, can play the heck out of piano, conducts beautifully, and is so kind. Finally, there was a Latina woman who was brown like me, spoke with a beautiful Argentinian Spanish accent, who was the first female conductor of CSUN opera. It was monumental, and I wanted to tell her story.

Besides Notes From Her being the podcast about women of color musicians in the classical music and non-classical music world, I wanted Notes From Her to cover a wide variety of topics applicable to all listeners.My goal was for the podcast to cover things like multicultural storytelling interviewing women whose stories are otherwise marginalized by mainstream media. I desired these interviews to also cover things not just about music but also culture, language, diversity, faith and spirituality, career advice, lifestyle tips, intersectional feminism, social and political issues and more. Of course there are podcasts that already discuss these topics, but I wanted Notes From Her to be unique in that it discussed all of these topics through the lense of women MOC’s, a term I came up with which stands for “musicians of color.”

Music is more than just notes, melody or harmony. It is a healing mechanism, a political statement, a social activist, an empowerment of the marginalized, a song for the oppressed, a voice for the lost and confused, and a revolutionary figure in history’s greatest wars and civil battles. Notes From Her would talk about our world as it pertains to classical music.

In this way, I want Notes From Her to do the following:

  1. Does our modern technological and social media advancements make opera thrive and survive. How? Social media, technology and the internet makes everything fast, efficient, and makes our world that much smaller. With the click of a button, I can search anything I want on Google, see what’s happening in India, while flying on a plane to Hawaii, and posting a picture of myself bathing in an ocean in Mexico. Therefore, why don’t we use social media and digital outlets to keep opera thriving and surviving? With a click of a button, someone can listen to clips of compositions or an opera on my podcast, broadcast videos, or live streams like the way The Met does.
  2. In this way, we will also continue to maintain, as well as REINVENT, the performing arts and opera experience by utilizing multimedia platforms to perhaps live stream performances. There are a plethora of plans for Notes From Her and who knows? Maybe Notes From Her will have the first live opera podcast, watch online, and so much more.
  3. Notes From Her will implement its power on the podcast and social media presence. I have chosen to produce this project with podcasts because, in the field of journalism, I have learned that this has been an emerging popular medium to communicate powerful storytelling for a digital-age and commuter society. According to the Pew Research Center, the Audio and Podcasting Fact Sheet of 2017 states that 3,500,000 people in the U.S. download National Public Radio podcasts weekly. Additionally, to bolster my project’s promotion, I will also utilize social media. The Pew Research Center in the State of the News Media of 2017 found social media was proven to be a powerful platform for news sharing and coverage. Facebook and Twitter alone had 100% of the highest-traffic-digital-native news outlets meaning these social media apps had at least 10 million visits from the months of October to December, while YouTube garnered 97%, and Instagram 92%.
  4. Providing divergences: NEW Opera. What does that mean? It means that perhaps we’re not always having the same scenes, sets, costume designs, or performance halls for classic operas, but why not start reinventing it to be accessible to our modern day audiences across the globe. We’ve already seen this happen. For example, LA Opera Connects performs community operas for families like the Marriage of Figueroa (which of course is a modern take on The Marriage of Figaro) as well as Eurydice is a modern take on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. So what could that mean for the future, could we have more modern costumes and storylines, perhaps an opera documenting the Me Too movement, or the debate on Dreamers and immigration, or gun control, or even social media trends itself, or perhaps make Carmen take place in New York where Carmen is played by a business woman or La Boheme that takes place at UCLA where Mimi is played by a college student?! The possibilities are endless. Let’s post operas on videos on social media, or podcasts, or webcasts or so much more. Let’s continue to perform them outside like malls or parks or so much more. We already do that but with my research this affirms that this is something we must continue to do even more so. 
  5. Provide accessibility through podcasting and multimedia platforms. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people tell me, “opera is so nice but I don’t know much about it” or “I’m not smart enough to appreciate classical music” as if IQ should determine whether you are worthy enough to be invested in the classical music and operatic world. Most people are not educated in this, but resources, education, and accessibility should not be factors that keep people from experiencing opera or classical music. But one thing most people have nowadays are phones, computers, or TVs. Therefore, a podcast, used as a platform for getting opera and classical music out there, like I’m doing with Notes From Her, will make opera and classical music more accessible, especially to the younger generation (like me), making opera more hip, relevant, and fresh to the growing millennial population and next generation. Who knows, maybe we’ll even have a hip-hop opera. Or an operacast. In this way we take steps in removing opera and classical music’s “elitism” which quite honestly has a tendency to give off that “elitist” perception. Notes From Her will make opera and classical music relatable and relevant from the 14-year old girl going to a low-income high school to the business executive on Wall Street. Classical music and opera are still monocultural and male-dominant performing arts. The reason for the elitism is that classical music and opera radio traditionally targets an older audience who can afford the high rates to buy a ticket to see an orchestra or opera or can afford to put their children in expensive music lessons, which reinforces the art’s monocultural and social class tendencies. Notes From Her, counteracts these tendencies by focusing on female performers/composers/directors of color. And therefore, connects with younger audiences by telling stories of successful women of color.
  6. This will then help inspire and encourage the next generation by having and interviewing women of color on this podcast. People everywhere will be able to hear it like that young 14-year old girl going to a low-income high school who loves to sing but has no resources to obtain appropriate music education. Hopefully, by hearing someone like me or a Chicana or Central American talk on this podcast, who made it as a professional musician, she thinks to herself, “hey I can do that too, and I will, and I should.” Notes From Her will represent the marginalized face in opera in order to rise up the next generation of artists who will be multicultural and multi-faceted just as this world is continually growing to be. Art is also used as a powerful tool for social awareness and social change, therefore, my goal is for Notes From Her to also serve as a tool for justice. 

What was amazing is that these topics and stories would also be told in Spanish. We need every culture, especially Spanish-Speaking Latinos to know more about classical music and performing arts and not be afraid to pursue it. These episodes were done in conjunction with El Nuevo Sol. CLICK HERE to view more.

So here it was, my idea. It came into my mind in January of 2019. A friend of mine had encouraged me to apply for the CSUN Presidential Award a while before, but I didn’t put pressure on myself to do so. The Presidential Award is also a scholarship, the highest scholarship and award a CSUN student can get. One must have above a 3.55 GPA and submit an extensive application documenting a project proposal of the year-long project or research you plan to conduct if you were to receive this scholarship. I wanted to apply not to get the money, but only if I had a project worthy of me doing. Once I got this idea, I realized the due date to submit an application for the Presidential Scholarship was a month away exactly. God has funny timing.

I hustled to draft a 10 page project proposal on Notes From Her, which funny enough at the time was called “She Sings.” I wrote an entire proposal convincing the committee who I was, why I wanted to do this project, why it is important, how I would complete this project, what this project even was, and how this project would serve others. I even had to teach myself how to create a Gantt Chart to show the anticipated goals and dates I’d have certain parts of my project completed. The proposal was the epitome of “fake it til you make it.” I proposed a myriad of things in my project as well as which women I would interview. About 70% of the proposal proposed things I had no idea would for sure happen, and about 70% of the proposal proposed that I would complete things I had never had experience completing before. But I couldn’t show any vulnerability, if I was going to win the committee to my side.

It was spring break, and I was stuck at opera rehearsal. So yes, I got no spring break that semester. I was waiting for my scene, sitting down in the rehearsal room when I received an email. It was from the Presidential Committee. I was too scared to look that I prayed before I even opened the email and prepared myself for the worst. If I didn’t get this scholarship, I’d be doing all of this work-a literal second job/education, without and money/grant for equipment or materials, or compensation for my effort, all while working 10 hours a week at the on-campus gym because that’s all I had time for. I opened the email.

“Congratulations!” It read. And the rest is a dream come true and history in the making.

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