I want to tell you about two opera world things that touched me in the last 24 hours.
Yesterday, a colleague reached out to tell me about their current rehearsal situation. It’s, how you say, fraught, with lots of people struggling for various reasons – and the person being made to pay is the youngest, least experienced one. All kinds of trouble laid at the feet of this young woman; my friend found it all unfair and wanted to talk through courses of action. One thing they had not yet done, however, was to speak up in rehearsal.
I sure remember what it was like to be the lowest status person in the room, who therefore got dumped on because, well, I didn’t yet rate. Because it cost the least. And – I am not proud to say it, but it’s true – I also remember what it was like to unload on a colleague for the same crappy reason, unable/unwilling to handle my own stress and fear, passing on bad tradition.
But more often, I remember what it was like to stay quiet while someone else was weathering abuse or injustice. It happened a lot. And although I want to believe it happens less, it still happens. And we still don’t know what to do. We still worry about losing. We still want to seem easy and compliant and worthy of the next job.
We still call a friend to get private advice about a community problem.
The next morning, I’m in Fat Pig rehearsal. And although this is a new opera in so many ways, it bears a resemblance to our canon in that the central female singer embodies a character who has to weather cruelty. In traditional rehearsal spaces, there isn’t room for a singer to say that they need help, a moment, a breath to deal with some of the emotionally or physically difficult things they portray. Do so, at least during most of my time in the business, and you’d be named a problem. Difficult. Diva.
Women in my industry have experienced misogyny and sexism in real life, but to name these things as problems at work – even on behalf of a colleague, even with systems in place to “help” – is to risk severe professional consequences. Women performers who have to embody characters experiencing violence have often experienced violence in their real lives, but are not allowed to claim space at work to seek any sort of safety or support in navigating that experience.
And they won’t be allowed, unless we decide that things can change.
And…that happened. This very morning in Charlottesville, our director chose to make space for this conversation and to take time, to ask what might be different. The rehearsal process as we’ve always understood it was questioned, and we found time and space to do what we needed. All we had to do was look.
It’s all well and good to tell people to just speak up if there’s a problem. That almost guarantees that people won’t speak, since most people are trying to build careers and keep working – because they love the profession, because they believe in their gifts, because we’ve taught them to be tough, because this is America and you need to have success. We consistently put change on the shoulders of the people with the most to lose, and so things don’t change. That’s how I felt talking to my colleague yesterday, hearing about a rehearsal room so like the ones I remember from the beginning of my career. But then I went to work today and found a space transformed.
We have so little power, and yet we can change the world by inches. Somehow both of these are true at the same time. It just makes me want to say tonight, keep going. Keep trying.
Nothing ever changes if nothing ever changes, right?