Seattle Opera checks its privilege

ChrisTiana ObeySumner photographed at Seattle Opera headquarters in South Lake Union. (Photo: Matt M.McKnight/Crosscut)

In February, Seattle Opera hired ChrisTiana ObeySumner as its first social impact consultant.

“Now is a time for decolonization in art, entertainment and more,” says ObeySumner about a role that, according to the opera, will encourage more access to communities of color. Adds Gabrielle Nomura Gainor, the opera's media relations manager, about the hire: “We recognize that perpetuating the notion of historical accuracy of the European origins of our art form have created barriers to communities of color. We hope to provide theatrical experiences that can also help to undo oppression with PoC storytellers, directors, and performers.”  

ObeySumner grew up in Philadelphia and is pursuing a master’s in public administration at Seattle University. They (ObeySumner prefers they/their pronouns) have worked as a community organizer and is the founding executive director of the Eleanor Elizabeth Institute for Black Empowerment, which is named in honor of their mother and grandmother. An appointment in 2017 to the Seattle Renter’s Commission was a personal as well as ironic milestone: ObeySumner was homeless between the ages of 9 and 25. 

This opportunity with the opera, explains ObeySumner, is about helping build an equitable model at an arts organization.

Crosscut interviewed ObeySumner to hear more about what equity and representation work will look like at Seattle Opera.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What is the history of social equity work at Seattle Opera?

Last fall, before I came on board, the opera held very implicit and intentional conversations with the Japanese American Citizens League around “Madame Butterfly” on racial and social equity in opera. [“Butterfly,” set in 1904 Nagasaki, Japan, depicts a relationship between a 15-year-old Japanese girl and an American Navy lieutenant].

The opera has also done social impact work in-house through its social equity team and at the administrative Board level. I’ve had no involvement with that. In its actions, the opera is saying ‘we not only want to do this work, we have been doing it, but how do we get the community to see it?’  They needed more focused guidance. 

As social impact consultant to the opera, where will you focus your attention?

While Seattle Opera, in comparison to other opera houses, is extremely progressive, it’s my opinion that there’s still a lot left to be addressed in community outreach, and work on issues of intersectionality, whether in administration, membership, or just in viewership — especially concerning communities of color and people who are disabled. What I’m trying to bring to the opera and steward is a plan and advice on educational and marketing initiatives to attract more of those historically marginalized voices to the opera scene.

Questioning feelings within the Black community about upcoming productions and initiatives, the opera accepted my proposal on Black Inclusion at the Opera and that meant a lot. It showed vulnerability as an organization, a level of trust and respect. It was important that this work be done with intention and they’ve proven that to be the case.

What are the gaps in representation on stage? Who is missing and why?  

It’s not for a lack of talent, drive, or artistic vision that historically-marginalized identities have been mostly unrepresented.

For centuries, if not millennia, our basic psyches have been held in systematic and structural oppression. European and American history, politics, Christian religion and paternalism, philosophy, cultural and societal trends, ability, standards of beauty, centering of Eurocentrism and Whiteness have made it so that certain identities haven’t been featured, highlighted or revered.

Very rarely are you going to see a libretto or a production that was written by someone of African or Asian or Latin American descent, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. So, I think this is not so much centered in opera or Seattle or even the American opera as much as it is just in the structural and systemic oppression that has happened across Europe and the Americas.

This is where my subject matter expertise comes in. We need to consider the contemporary issues of the day but we need to consider them with a historical lens. While this may seem a huge scope, it’s also the most holistic way to address social equity.

You mentioned that Seattle Opera is extremely progressive by comparison to some other opera houses. Has the opera committed to no more blackface and yellowface?

It’s been shared with me that this has happened in the past and there had been some concern at the possibility for “Aida,” opening in May. In the historical context of Leontyne Price — most famous for this [the “Aida”] role — and a celebrated central Black figure in opera, it was my strong suggestion that there should be no blackface in the production but the opera was already ahead of me. A lot of my work at the opera is an illumination of the work it's already done, or are trying to do, and this makes my work easier.

"Aida” is set on the continent of Africa — an important detail that contradicts who typically gets cast. What do you think accounts for just two Black cast member and 10 non-Black cast members in the upcoming production? 

“Aida,” the original libretto, is set in Africa, but, as its being produced at Seattle Opera, it will simply depict two warring countries, rather than Ethiopia versus Egypt, as in the original. Through stage design, RETNA, a graffiti artist whose art is inspired by ancient text and hieroglyphics, gives a nod and a kind of homage to the original.

Do you have a performance background? What attracts you to this particular art form? 

Yes, I do — in singing, acting, spoken word and stand up. I’ve been on stage since I was 6 months old. I grew up with music and singers. I’m the product of two DJs. I got my start in pageantry but my talent has always been opera. My mother and grandmother were both singers. My mom was that mixture of R&B like Tina Turner, and my grandma’s voice reminded you of old jazz like Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. Her favorite was Doris Day. I was also born and raised Mormon and singing is a huge part of that religion.

What are your favorite operas?

“Porgy and Bess” — the timeless truth for issues that still plague our Black community, everything from toxic masculinity to misogynoir to body and slut-shaming and use of religiosity and violence towards folk who may not follow the most puritan of lifestyles. While it’s frustrating that it was written by a White man — Gershwin — I can’t deny those dynamics, especially around the issues of ableism where Porgy is concerned and how he’s treated.

What is the message of opera?

The opera, and all art forms, are a means through which social and political statements are made. When we look at the way that Verdi co-wrote “Aida(with an Egyptologist and historians), when we look at the themes, we see that it was written in a socio-political context to give a message about something. That’s really the point of artwork. It can be done for good and it can be done to perpetuate harm.

What’s really interesting too, as frustrating as it is to say for a person with a historically-marginalized intersectionality, perpetuation of harm is a subjective term. On one hand, people are harmed. On the other, people are wondering, “Well, what did we do?” As opera was at its height during pre- and post-enlightenment eras, there were a lot of statements being made but those statements were still rooted in structural and systemic oppressions of a society that is racist, sexist, violently puritan or patriarchal. So those positions came through those socio-political artistic statements. Not only that but decisions around who gets to write and create, who gets to put on the production, who’s on stage, who gets the credits.

I would argue that if Mozart or Verdi or Wagner were alive today, and saw where we were, they would give their full blessing to change the narrative to something more socio-politically accurate and equitable. Has the opera or classical music or fine art of ballet or any performing and visual art been historically European, white, and male? Yes, but does it have to continue? Absolutely not. It’s on the folks who hold the resources and power to decide if they’re ready to deviate from centuries-old narratives to something applicable to the lives we live today.

The message I hope to relay now is that we have the power to change the message. This is what Seattle Opera is trying to address. It’s my understanding of why I’m here. 

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Carla Bell

Carla Bell

Carla Bell is a Tacoma-based freelance writer whose work focuses on civil and human rights and culture and arts.