Q & A: Kevin Short on Systemic Racism, ‘Aida’ & the Future of Opera

By Francisco Salazar

Kevin Short is one of today’s most versatile bass-baritones performing at some of the world’s greatest theaters and taking on leading roles in a wide variety of repertoire from Verdi to Gershwin to Stravinsky.

In the summer, he was scheduled to perform the title role in Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith’s world premiere opera “Castor and Patience” at the Cincinnati Opera. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opera was postponed. Now Short is scheduled to return to the stage in January 2021 for productions of “Aida,” “Romeo et Juliette,” and “Rigoletto” at the Washington National Opera, LA Opera, and Metropolitan Opera.

In the meantime, the bass-baritone has used his time to continue teaching with the University of Maryland and the Curtis Institute and has actively engaged in conversation regarding racial inequality in the opera world.

OperaWire spoke with Short about the systematic racism he has experienced working in opera, “Aida,” blackface, and what he thinks companies can do in the future to be more inclusive.

OperaWire: How have you been doing during this pandemic? How has it affected you?

Kevin Short: I am doing as well as can be expected during this pandemic. I have lost all of my singing work like all of my colleagues but am choosing to use the time off constructively.

I’m learning new music and shoring up my fluency in a couple of languages. Fortunately, I’m able to do some teaching both privately and finished teaching virtually at both The Curtis Institute of Music and the University of Maryland this spring.

OW: During this time, the death of George Floyd reignited the conversation over racial equality, and opera was one of the many industries that are currently having a dialogue. Tell me about your experience as an opera singer and how systematic racism has affected your career?

KS:  I have been in this business far too long to have not experienced some racism and I could give you countless examples but I’ll only mention a few. Once while on tour singing Figaro with the New York City Opera Touring Company’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” I received a review that said: “How dare NYCO foist this social experiment upon us by having Kevin Short sing the role of Figaro.”

Unfortunately, there were a lot of reviews of this sort during that tour that I quickly became accustomed to receiving. I also became accustomed to searching for restaurants in the company of my colleagues so as not to be a solo target while walking down a road since we were all without transportation and left to our own devices upon arrival into a new town. That still didn’t stop a police officer from stopping the white Susanna and Countess and asking them if this “boy” was bothering them and what was he doing with them.

When I had a fest contract with Theater Basel in Switzerland, the opera director wanted to produce “Così Fan Tutte” with me singing Guglielmo rather than Don Alfonso. The tenor that was slated to sing Ferrando was also a black singer, and he was also fest with the theater. Well, when the guest director arrived and found out he had two black singers in leading roles he objected and stated that he wouldn’t work with us and that having two black singers would essentially make his production a “black opera.” The theater chose to side with the director and we were released from our assignments.

Another incident I will cite because it’s the kind of subtle slight I’ve experienced multiple times during the course of my career, especially earlier on before folks got to know me and my work.

During one of my early seasons at the Met, I arrived for the beginning of “Ariadne auf Naxos” rehearsals and ran into a colleague at the stage door who was also in the production, who, instead of saying hello, asked me emphatically, “Do you know your music” as if there would be the possibility that I would have begun rehearsals unprepared. At any rate, I said “Of course” and made my way to the elevator that would take me to our first music rehearsal with the maestro. When I arrived at the elevators I was met by four other colleagues also waiting to take the elevator to the musical rehearsal. Soon thereafter the conductor arrived at the elevator and shook everyone’s hand and when he turned to me asked, “Are you prepared?” I was surprised at the bluntness of his question and said “Yes.”

The encounters with my colleague and the conductor all took place within about 10 minutes and left an impression on me since I was still new to the theater.

I was reminded yet again how black folks can often be painted with a broad brush and not be given the benefit of the doubt or seen as individuals. The knowledge of knowing that your actions in the eyes of many speak not just for yourself but for your entire community is lazy and one of the driving factors why older blacks feel strongly the need to mentor and educate the younger generation of black singers.

If that conductor had only asked the same question of my white colleagues that he asked of me then perhaps I might have felt differently about the situation and his thinking would not have been so transparent.

OW: How do you think we can change such bias and racist practices and thought that have pervaded the opera world for so long?

KS: It can be difficult to change people’s biases and racist practices in opera but theaters can lead the way by using “untraditional” casting to expand the audience’s ideas and expectations of what characters can be or should look like.

It’s important to explore different possibilities and make a concerted effort to expand an audience’s preconceived notions to promote flexibility and expansive thinking because, above all else, this art form should be governed primarily by glorious voices and music.

OW: Do you believe that companies are doing enough to change. How do you think administrations need to change in order to move toward racial equality?

KS: On the whole, I do not think companies are doing enough to change the status quo but sincerely hope that after the events of this very turbulent summer there can be a reimagining of the possibilities going forward.

But to tell you the truth what I believe will really change the status quo is when companies realize the untapped financial resources inherent in black professional social organizations. I’ve often said that the color of change is green, as in money, and there are dozens of these black organizations filled with folks that love to wine, dine, and go out on the town. I belong to a fraternity with over 300,000 members nationally and just last week in a Zoom call with just 23 alumni members of my fraternity we had individual pledges that totaled over $150,000 made within 15 minutes to the first of several causes discussed and related to my undergraduate institution, Morgan State University.

Six of the eight largest cities have large black communities with literally dozens of professional black folks that come with their affiliations to Black Greek letter organizations, music organizations, and regular social organizations that operate to serve their communities.

When I was a grad student at Curtis, I sang with both Opera Ebony Philadelphia and the Opera Company of Philadelphia during the same seasons. The attendance at Opera Ebony performances was as great if not greater than those of OCP’s performances and both companies had their performances at the venerable Academy of Music. This was largely attributable to the financial largess of multiple black organizations and black folks’ willingness to show up in large numbers to support black artists.



OW: The Metropolitan Opera showcased “Porgy and Bess” last season as opening night and you were part of the production. Do you think presenting a work like this with an all-black cast, was a step in the right direction? What more can a company like the Met do to increase representation on stage?

KS: Yes, I think the Met producing “Porgy and Bess” was brilliant and the fact that it was the season opener was also incredible and served to highlight the importance of the opera.

To increase more black representation at the Met there needs to be an unwavering emphasis on not standing pat, challenging itself to grow internally and re-educate their audience and become more of a meritocracy as it pertains to casting.

OW: “Aida” has become a huge part of the conversation and the idea that only black artists should perform the work given the character’s ethnicity within the world of the story. You have done several productions of the work and are scheduled to sing the opera next season. What is your thought on this argument?

KS:  The issue with “Aida” is a slippery slope if one thinks only blacks should sing Aida. Every Verdian soprano that can sing Aida should be able to sing “Aida” if hired to do so.

What are we really talking about here and what should one do with “Madama Butterfly and “Tosca?” Should those roles be sung only by a Japanese or Italian soprano respectively? And should Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West” be sung only by a white American soprano and “Otello” only by a black or biracial tenor.

This is absolute lunacy and the list can go on and on. One should be careful because this kind of thinking can also be used to not cast blacks in certain roles if a casting director or theater chooses to be historically “accurate” or just decides they don’t need the potential controversy.

OW: Obviously Blackface has also become part of the conversation and a controversial issue in the presentation of this opera. Most American companies have eliminated the practice but European companies, especially in Italy where “Aida” is presented often, continue the practice.

What are your feelings on this practice and have you ever had to work in a production that uses it?

KS: There is a difference between using blackface in the tradition of Al Jolson and minstrelsy and being made up to look Ethiopian or Egyptian because of the location of the opera. Unfortunately, I think we are losing our ability to be nuanced about many important issues and are becoming a bit too “cut and dry” if not too sensitive about things that don’t necessarily move the needle or advance the agenda of seeking a level playing field for black singers.

But I dare say that if one were to take a poll of black opera singers aged 40 and above most of them would agree with me. I know this because I’m in constant communication with many of them and am aware of their feelings about this subject.

Furthermore, I do not think European companies are using dark makeup in a racist fashion especially as it pertains to Aida because of where the story takes place. Unfortunately, in the United States, I think too often the pendulum swings to the extremes when we all know that a healthy balance can be attained and life is neither just black nor white or left or right.

At the risk of sounding redundant, we all need to exhale, resist the temptation to be over-simplistic, and opt for balance and nuance.

Finally, I think companies would do well to seek the counsel of experienced and seasoned black singers who have lived long enough to have seen the arc and progression of attitudes and customs and can offer valuable perspective and wisdom.

OW: Moving forward what would you like to see differently when you go to work in an opera company?

KS: I would like to see companies truly understand that diversity is a strength they will greatly benefit from and can use as leverage to truly effect change in the business. Especially since the United States is becoming browner with each passing decade.

Opera can be the tip of the spear or at the forefront of the shift currently taking place in the country.

OW: Finally, do you think that companies will be fearful to take risks after this pandemic or will they be more fired up to change things and experiment as they were before the crisis?

KS: Yes, I do think that post-pandemic companies will be afraid to take risks as it pertains to the kinds of operas they will produce because of the precarious financial situation in the United States via donors and the lack of governmental support for the arts.

In other ways, I anticipate a rethinking of a host of things and even some companies throwing caution to the wind after this turbulent period because so much seems to be broken and there will be the rare opportunity to begin and imagine anew in very unconventional ways. I remain hopefully optimistic.


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