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Black Women in Opera (B.W.I.O.), LLC

BLACKOUT AND SPEAK OUT : BWIO BOOK REVIEWS BY RENEE OMBABA

Here’s a growing list of texts that focus on race. Makes my $20,000 degree in Southern Studies and deviation from music worth it. Special thank you to my friend Chris and to my friends Purvis, Danielle, and Lynette.

Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement by Naomi Andre

In Black Opera, Dr. Andre explores the realities of Black interactions with opera as a lens on Black experiences in the United States and South Africa.  She uses “critically engaged musicology” to discuss the “interwoven history of minstrelsy with opera” and highlight the role of activism in opera (28). She discusses Black classical arts achievements such as Marian Anderson’s concert on the National Mall. She goes beyond the tellings of Black bodies onstage to the meanings of Black presence in opera.  I love how she unearths the history of Black opera performers and discusses how intrical they were to developing opera. She seeks to free the world from an idea that there is only one interpretation of opera (195). 

Because performances so heavily rely on the performer, that performer’s identities and realities are tangled into the art.  In her conclusion, she discusses the identities of trans opera performers specifically the performance of Carmen by Opera MODO, which featured a transgender woman in the leading role. Dr. Andre says, “The performing body is not a neutral zone or a blank slate.” (196) The text places Black operatic artists, composers, and works at the epicenter of social change and revolution because these performers exist, act, and create the space for the fullness of their identities. 

Making Whiteness: THE CULTURE OF SEGREGATION IN THE SOUTH, 1890-1940 by Grace Elizabeth Hale

The title really speaks for itself. When people discuss race as a social construct, they fail to acknowledge how the fabrication of whiteness was essential to creating social norms, social order, and social injustices that justified segregation and racial discrimination. Hale tells the story of the post-emancipated South’s devious means to create social hierarchy by MAKING a unity in a white identity above the ‘racial other’. This model justified violence specifically against Black Americans ALL to protect the MADE-UP white identity. She further goes on to explain how this model of fabricating white culture and identity was adopted throughout America.

When I read this book, it solidified that the illusion of a romanticized U.S. South (through myths like the generosity of white slave owners, the happy, docile yet lazy work ethics of Black Americans, and the threats to American safety if Black Americans are integrated into society as equals) continues to fuel the flame of racialized hatred for Black people. When we think of genealogy of performance, we see a pre-formulated use of white identity as American values assisting in racialized hatred and violence towards Black people. As long as we pretend that whiteness and white identity is truly American, we threaten and erase the value of Black life or lifestyle. We must examine the ways society continues to ‘other’ Black life, humanity, and advancement for the sake of American identity (whiteness) through legislation, threat of violence, terror, and even death.  

Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South by Stephanie Camp

There are so many books on pre-Reconstruction American history I could recommend, but Closer to Freedom by Stephanie Camp is by far my favorite. This text discusses day-to-day resistance as “mobility in the face of constraint.” (7) Unlike previous scholars, who actively demeaned the psychological development of enslaved people, Camp gives bondpeople agency by exploring the many ways they resisted an violently oppressive system. Camp says that although slavey limited the autonomy of the enslaved, enslaved people still found ways to re-negotiate those limits through time, space, and place.  (Source)

Camp goes on to discuss the reconfiguration of time and space in even the most intimate moments. Naturally, I love how she discusses women and their oppositional resistance to their oppressors. She marks resistance as both “an individual and collective endeavor.” (Closer to Freedom review by Deborah Gray White*) She describes women’s bodies as loci of resistance that rejected the consumption of domination. Camp explores the three bodies of the enslaved person as: one which is dominated by slave owners, one which processes that domination, and one which enjoys the fullness of their humanity, which becomes a “contested site between enslaved and enslaver.” (Closer to Freedom review by Deborah Gray White)

This comes in handy for performing artists because the body is space. Our bodies, our voices are the space we use and share with love freely to audiences. As Black performers, our bodies, our voices, our art are the symbols of resistance, which can be used to make social change through our art.   
*The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 298-299

On Intersectionality: Essential Writings by Kimberlé Crenshaw 

Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw is on the forefront on the discussion of intersectionality and police violence that women face. #sayhername She coined the term intersectionality to discuss the discrimination Black women face and to expose the legal limits of Black women’s claims against these discriminations. She reaches in the margins to dismantle existing power relations that limit the voices of Black Women.

It’s important to understand the reality of Black womanhood as an intersection of multiple identities and multiple oppressions. That intersection is where Crenshaw exposes the power and oppressive nature of limiting discussion on race, gender, and identity. Black women are not just Black or not just women, we exist in a yet to be valued intersectional space that continues to inform our realities. 

Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology edited by E. Patrick Johnson, Mae G. Henderson

This text takes the discussion of intersectionality further as it “interanimates Black studies and queer studies.” (1) Even the forward by Sharon P. Hollard takes us on a beautiful journey that unpacks the “limit and shape” of Blackness and queerness. (x) In its introduction, Johnson and Henderson break down the ways Black queer studies has been buried in the sea of a Black studies movement that amplified Black male heterosexual voices.  Representing a range of political and social experiences and gender and sexual identities, the text nurtures a field of study that impacts the lives of so many. Feurgson’s essay explores genealogy of exclusion in social construction as it relates to race and sexuality. Johnson’s essay discusses broadening the scope of queerness to include Black people and people of various socio-economic backgrounds. Carbado defines what it means to be a “predator of discrimination” especially to those who accept themselves fully. (11) 

As we fight for justice and freedom, we remember that a model of true inclusion must be present. One identity cannot represent the whole of Black lived experiences. We must actively and intentional amplify the voices of Black queer people and refuse to homogenize the movement.  Blackness is not a monolith. 

Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate. by Raquel Willis 

Raquel Willis gives it to us without apologies, and I love her text for that.  She breaks down the limiting view of womanhood by a mainstream feminist. She gives point-by-point analysis on why these definitions of womanhood are destructive and counterproductive.  Willis said at The Women’s March, in this movement, no one can be an afterthought.  This is true. If we’re all fighting for freedom, we have to make sure we all get it.  She actively advocates for Black trans women’s voices.  

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation Book by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

The Race Beat explores how the media in the 1950s and ‘60s worked to shape the narrative around the Civil Rights Movement and how Civil Rights leaders used this to advance their cause. The text profoundly uses secret correspondence to tell how the news and journalists exposed the reality of America’s racism to its citizens and how the media compartmentalized the movement for the consumption of Americans. The text exposes how journalists and other media professionals in Little Rock, AR (1957- Integration of Central High) encouraged the white crowd to ‘Yell, again’ in attempts to have footage for new reports later in the day. (160) Civil Rights activists used the media as well to further expose the problems of racialized hatred in the South by scheduling earlier protests, which further demonstrated the violence of Southern racism in the face of a nonviolent movement. The Civil Rights Movement grew the new platform of televised news media in the 1950s and 60s and without it, news as we know would not exist. 

We see how television journalists and newsrooms use their influence to shape the minds of citizens for or against the lives of Black people. Even in the internet and social media, where there’s an abundance of information, CEOs and social groups decide how we communicate the realities of Black lives. In many ways, technology and social media place the power of revolution in the hands of people. We can share in real time  the discrimination, hatred, and violence reaction by police to protestors. We expose the active manipulation of the movement by outsiders that flood the limiting mainstream news stories. WIth social media, we can shape the reality of the current political movement against racialized hatred by sharing our comments, concerns, and videos. In more sinister ways, we understand that social media moguls and others have their own hateful political agendas and will turn to support oppressive regimes at our expense. (Blackout Tuesday disenfranchisement, anyone?) 

Growing up Jim Crow – Racial Socialization of Black & White Southern Children, 1890-1940 by Jennifer Ritterhouse

This book still carries me today after reading it in 2013. Every threat and execution of violence is a means to negatively socialize us and the future generation in fear, trauma, and stress.  When we relive the traumas faced by Black people over and over again through new reports, social media, and word of mouth, we are being reared into fear and anxiety. The imagined reality of oppressors (White dominant culture and identity as American values) enforces the pre-established racial and socio-economic hierarchy that is nurtured by what Jennifer Ritterhouse calls ‘racial favoritism’. 

In this text, Ritterhouse explores how racial dominance among whites was taught in the home and reinforced in the public sphere. These practices taught children who should be valued and who should not be valued. It ensured that as they grew, they could continue the tradition of racial dominance and inferiority. Racial favoritism and socialization ensured that adults fell in line to continue a Jim Crow system. Any threat to the system of de jure segregation was met with violence and terror. (Sound familiar?) As a result, many Black people, regardless of socio-economic background, adopted respectability politics as a means of protection from said violence and terror. These politics never worked. I love how Ritterhouse explores the gender dynamic of race relations because gender plays a major role in how we understand racism (and thus how we react to it, which is another argument for another blog post).  

The dynamic of a racial binary has never been fully, completely separated (i.e. Black women rearing white children and cleaning white homes, children playing the practices of racial domiance and inferiority together, the dependency on Black labor for a thriving American economy). There has always been these fluid lines of Black and white interaction for the sake of racial segregation and racial dominance. We tend to forget that promoting racial fluidity is not a basis for some sort of racial reconciliation revolution. This fluid relationship between races has always existed and is necessary for oppression; however, we have to go a step further and realize what true racial harmony (dismantling socialization tactics of racial dominance-Thank you Nickelodeon commercial) looks like by examining how we socialize children and adults to ignore and promote racialized hatred mainly in the home and reinforcement through media.  

Simple-ish: Understanding the Opera Voice Types by Renee Ombaba

We love opera, but it is complex. From the languages to the etiquette and let’s not even talk about the technique. For all its complexities, opera embraces the uniqueness of the voice. The most special part of opera is its celebration of varying vocal types. So lucky for you, we can make one aspect of opera simple-ish. 

Most Common Voice Types

In opera, singers are categorized by their voice’s type and range. This voice type is determined by the color, weight, agility, and timbre (distinct quality) of the person’s voice. The four most common types of voices are: Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor, Bass.

Once the basic category is determined, singers are further categorized by range. This is where things get more complex. We’re just going to keep it cute and explore the Elite Eight: Coloratura Soprano, Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Contralto, Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass

The Elite Eight

Coloratura Soprano

With the highest human vocal register, a coloratura soprano sings difficult passages with agility. The two subcategories of coloratura soprano are dramatic and lyric. (Vocal Range: C4 to F6)  Examples: Pretty Yende, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist, and Gwendolyn Bradley

Soprano

Sopranos sing with a very high vocal range and are further categorized by the weight of their voice. These subcategories include soubrette, lyric, spinto, dramatic, and coloratura. (Vocal Range: C4 to C6) Examples: Leontyne Price, Brandie Sutton, Martina Arroyo, Leah Hawkins, Julia Bullock, Janai Brugger, Golda Schultz, Angel Joy Blue, Jeanine De Bique, Nicole Heaston Lane, Roberta Alexander, Camellia Johnson, Jessye Norman, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Barbara Hendricks, Leona Mitchell, Adele Addison, Karen Slack, and VuVu Mpofu.

Mezzo-Soprano

Being a Mezzo is not just about the ability to sing lower than a soprano, but the color that accompanies that lower register. Mezzo subcategories can also be lyric, dramatic, and coloratura. Crazy right? (Vocal Range: C4 to A5) Examples: Denyce Graves-Montgomery, Florence Quivar, J’nai Bridges, Shirley Verrett, Isola Jones, Betty Allen, Taylor Raven, Grace Bumbry, Raehann Bryce Davis, and Maria Ewing

Contralto

Usually categorized as the lowest female voice type, contraltos have the darkest and richest timbre.  You definitely know a contralto when you hear one. (Vocal Range: F3 to F5) Examples: Marian Anderson, Carol Brice, and Funmike Lagoke

Countertenor

The countertenor voice sits much higher than the tenor voice. These voices are different from the male soprano or alto voice because of the tone quality and poignant sound. (Vocal Range: G3 to E5)  Examples: John Holiday, Patrick Dailey, Derek Lee Ragin, Darius Elmore, Darryl Taylor, Matthew Truss, and Reginald Mobley

Tenor

A tenor is a high male voice that can be leggero tenor, lyric tenor, spinto tenor, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor. (Vocal Range: A♭2 to F5) Examples: Lawrence Brownlee, George Shirley, Russell Thomas, and Sunnybody Dladla

Baritone

Baritone voices lie between tenor and bass.Baritone cans be baryton-Martin baritone (light baritone), lyric baritone, Kavalier Baritone, Verdi baritone, dramatic baritone, baryton-noble baritone, and the bass-baritone. (Vocal Range: G2 to G4) Examples: Sidney Outlaw, Christian Simmons, Simon Estes, Eric Owens, and Terry Cook

Bass

Bass are categorized by their dark and low tone. The bass subcategories are much more complex than other voice types but the most common are bass-baritone, lyric bass, basso buffo, and basso profondo.  (Vocal Range: E2 to E4)  Example: Williard Wentworth, Solomon Howard, Edwin Davis, Andrew Frierson, and Morris Robinson