Q & A: Othalie Graham on the COVID-19 Crisis & Racism in the Opera World

By Francisco Salazar

Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham is widely known for her interpretations of the title roles in “Turandot” and “Aida,” as well as her commitment to Wagnerian repertoire.

She has been described as a “thrilling” singing actress and has performed with such prestigious companies as the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Málaga, Detriot Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Chorus at the Kennedy Center, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, Gran Teatro Nacional del Perú, Edmonton Opera, Opera Carolina, Arizona Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, and Nashville Opera.

This year, the soprano was scheduled to perform with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, Reading Symphony Orchestra, and Evansville Philharmonic, among others. However, all her engagements were canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis. With no performances and continued social unrest around the world, Graham has used her time and social media accounts to promote causes for change and equality.

OperaWire spoke with the soprano about the pandemic and racism in opera.

OperaWire: How have you been during the pandemic and what have you been up to do?

Othalie Graham: I have been really up and down during this pandemic. In the beginning, I was overwhelmingly sad and I was in complete denial about how unbelievably horrific it would eventually become. I have been going back-and-forth between Canada and Philadelphia helping my mother through her chemotherapy and radiation after her breast cancer diagnosis in October. I’ve been staying with her and taking care of my husband and son in Philadelphia. It has been utterly overwhelming and exhausting but also a blessing. The fact that I have this time to be with her has truly been a blessing.

OW: Artists in America are struggling because of the lack of government support. How has Canada responded to artists’ unemployment and what is the government doing differently to take care of its citizens?

OG: At the very beginning of the pandemic in March, the Canadian government started giving $2,000 per month to artists and others. Unfortunately, I don’t reside in Canada anymore so I didn’t qualify for that. It has been so unbearably difficult for artists in both countries to make ends meet and to survive.

The American government gave some artists and other workers who qualified $600 a week but this is ending soon if the government doesn’t vote to extend it. Many artists in the USA are facing food shortages, homelessness, and bankruptcy.

OW: Do you see the situation getting better in Canada and do you think the country will be able to get back to somewhat of a new normal quicker than in the U.S. so you can all start performing again?

OG: As a Canadian, I am able to travel to the EU countries that American born artists are currently banned from. I would have to come to Canada, quarantine for 14 days and then travel to Europe. This of course depends on whether or not Opera houses are going to open in Europe fully.

OW: Like so many artists, many of your upcoming performances were canceled. Which of them were you most looking forward to and do you know when where your next performances will be? When you do get back to work, what are you most looking forward to?

OG: I was definitely looking forward to all of my engagements and my new gowns! I was looking forward to singing Beethoven 9 again with two different orchestras, I was looking forward to singing the Verdi Requiem with two different orchestras and I was definitely looking forward to my concert “Turandot.”

My entire fall has been canceled so I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.

OW: During the lockdown, many singers stopped singing for a bit before eventually getting back into their usual vocal routines. How did the lockdown affect your vocal routine?

OG: I have to say that the first month I did a little bit of vocalizing but it was emotionally difficult. It almost felt like I was in mourning. There have been weeks when I vocalized a little bit every day and days when I just couldn’t do it. Now, I’m vocalizing daily to make sure that I stay in shape.

OW: The opera world is going through a difficult transition since the death of George Floyd. The U.S. is clearly polarized in terms of racism. How is Canada in terms of race relations? Do you feel differently being Canadian or do you feel that in Canada you have experienced racism?

OG: I don’t think that it’s possible for any Black person in any country to not experience some form of racism. When I was young, I saw a news story on an American news station while I was in my living room in Canada. It was a story about a Black man named James Byrd who lived in Texas and was tied to a truck and dragged down the street until his head and body parts were torn off. That kind of blatant violence was unfathomable to me. I just couldn’t imagine how something like that could happen.

When Rodney King was beaten almost to death on live TV, I was absolutely shocked. I could not believe that something like that could happen on camera, and the officers involved could get away with it. After that, there were so many more and all accompanied by video. So many blatant murders and very few arrests and certainly almost no convictions. I just couldn’t understand. When Trayvon Martin was murdered and Tamir Rice, those hurt me to my core. Both of those boys look like my son and it was overwhelmingly difficult to see their faces on television on a daily basis.

When Mr. Floyd was murdered so blatantly, there were many days when I could not sleep. The entire world rose up in hurt, disbelief, and anger. It truly feels like there is now a tectonic shift occurring in the world. Watching people marching in Serbia, Paris, Iran and almost every country in the world, for Mr. Floyd, has been unbelievably inspiring.

OW: You work in the U.S. a lot. Have you ever experienced racism performing at some of these organizations?

OG: I certainly have. There have been many comments from patrons, board members, and even audience members that have been pretty shocking.

My favorite donor story was after a “Turandot” performance, at a reception, one of their biggest supporters was raving about my performance. Then she got very close to me and said “ I have to tell you, I’m so relieved you’re not like the others. You’re so articulate and quite pretty. Now, if you would lose a little weight you would be perfect. You really are such an asset to your race.”

No one on staff in any Opera House has ever said anything racist or disrespectful to me (to my face) in my career. If they had, I certainly would have said something right back immediately.

OW: Do you believe you have missed opportunities due to the color of your skin?

OG: I’m sure that I have. No one is going to come up to you and tell you that they didn’t hire you because you’re Black but many agents in the United States will tell you that it has been difficult to have their Black singers cast in certain repertoire.

There are many roles that I would like to sing in production and not just a concert version. Isolde, Brünnhilde, and more Elektras. I want to sing the Foreign Princess in “Rusalka.”

OW: There are so many points of views in terms of painting your face for roles like “Aida,” “Madama Butterfly,” or “Turandot,” which is one of your signature roles? What do you think of these practices and how do you think opera companies can evolve in the way they present these works?

OG: I have never sung Butterfly, but I have to tell you that Latonia Moore is one of the best Butterflies in the business right now and the best I have ever heard. I love Turandot so very much. She is one of my favorite characters. I am absolutely sick and tired of the polarizing discussion about what some people think is “Blackface.” Blackface is someone deliberately making fun of or mocking a Black person not some bronzer on a white Aida. Opera is about acting and make-believe. I want to see a Black Butterfly, I want to see a Black Isolde and by saying that only a Japanese singer should sing Butterfly or only a Black tenor should sing Otello you’re basically telling Black singers that we are limited to Black roles only. You’re limiting what we can sing based on our race. That is the exact opposite of what should be happening. Opera companies can evolve by hiring Black singers to sing any role that fits their voice, no matter what it is.

OW: How do you think opera companies are changing and do you think they have done enough to attempt to fix the racism that pervades the industry?

OG: There are many regional opera companies that have hired singers no matter what their race is. A few of these houses will hire Black and Asian singers for any role they believe the singer to be appropriate for without batting an eyelash. Real change comes from diversity in all facets of the Opera world with conductors, board members, directors, artistic directors, and artistic administrators.

OW: What do you think opera companies should do in the future to ensure more equity and diversity?

OG: Hire more Black and Asian singers for standard repertoire and new works. That’s a start.


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