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VOL. 132 | NO. 193 | Thursday, September 28, 2017

Opera Memphis Kicks Off Effort to Diversify Audience

By Andy Meek

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The typical opera company busies itself with the normal things you might imagine – staging lavish productions, selling tickets and working to fill impressive venues with as many patrons as possible.

It’s the nature of the beast, having to support something of a business and a going concern around an art form whose audiences tend to be a bit more affluent and have high expectations for the work they’re coming to see.

Which makes a project Opera Memphis has embarked on in recent days a bit out of the norm, to say the least. The company, under the leadership of general director Ned Canty, is hard at work on the usual things, like its 30 Days of Opera initiative under way this month. But it’s also begun taking a hard look at itself – and asking tough questions about itself to figure out why its audience isn’t more diverse.

Opera Memphis’ Shawnette Sulker performs “The Telephone,” a one-act opera comedy at the Memphis Slim House during the 2017 McCleave Project. The project is a series of free performances aimed at encouraging a conversation about how to best serve communities of color in Memphis. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

And the company is seeking input from the community about how to close the racial gap in its audience demographics, to make them more reflective of the demographics of the city it calls home.

Opera-lovers in Memphis who attended recent showings of the 20-minute opera “The Telephone” got some early insight into the larger effort, billed as Opera Memphis’ McCleave Project. The performances included post-show community conversations, part of what Opera Memphis sees as an extended listening period to help it get at the answers it’s looking for.

The project takes its name from Florence Cole Talbert McCleave, a soprano opera singer who in 1927 became the first African-American woman to sing the title role of “Aida” in Europe. When she moved back to the U.S., though, she found few opportunities for minorities on the opera stage.

She moved to Memphis with her husband in 1930 and started teaching voice out of her home on Vance Street. She wanted the community to have access to high-caliber singers, so she began recruiting artists to sing at what is now LeMoyne-Owen College.

“The McCleave Project is about two things,” Canty said. “Celebrating the past, and creating a more equitable future. Honoring Madame McCleave does the first, and the conversations around her legacy allow us to begin the second.

“We in Memphis have a special and vital role in ensuring that the national pipeline for opera artists has a spectrum of opportunities for people of color. Not just singers, but directors, conductors and administrators as well.”

The community conversations are part of the first phase of the McCleave Project. Previous efforts along these lines – of the opera community trying to tackle its own racial gap – have focused, Canty says, mostly on class and poverty as the root cause.

Opera Memphis McCleave Project manager Tiegst Ameha directs questions to the audience gathered behind the Memphis Slim House for a performance hosted by Opera Memphis. The McCleave Project is a series of free performances aimed at encouraging a conversation about how to best serve communities of color in Memphis. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Memphis, though, has a “vibrant black middle- and upper-class who are not attending the opera either. Poverty doesn’t explain that.”

Through the community conversations and performances of “The Telephone,” Opera Memphis hopes to spark an ongoing discussion about how best to serve minority communities in Memphis. The organization says that discussion in turn will shape not only future engagement but also the creation of a McCleave Fellowship for singers, directors and coaches of color.

Inspired by the project’s namesake – who worked to spread a love of opera to young African-American Memphians at a time when the Metropolitan Opera was touring in Memphis in a white-only venue – Canty said the effort will look beyond the people already involved with the organization.

“We need to get out of our offices,” Canty said, and ask “tough questions and seek honest feedback, whether or not we like the answers.”

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