In a 2017 interview, the filmmaker and multimedia artist Arthur Jafa explained his desire to make Black cinema “with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music.” Jafa, who’s worked on films ranging from Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) to Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair, to his latest film, The White Album, which recently won the highest honor at the Venice Biennale, often fuses Black music into his film work to drive narrative. In conversation with critic and writer Antwaun Sargent, he explains, “Music is the one space in which we [as Black people] know we have totally actualized ourselves.”
This year, while viewing the work of nomadic, multidisciplinary artist Richard Kennedy, I stood in the back of an audience at The Kitchen as he presented a one-person opera calling out ex-lovers and corporations in the same breath. Bound in packing tape, he screamed, “I am tired of being your side bitch! Fuck corporate pride, bitch.” As the piece went on and the tune of his angst reverberated with the help of a looper pedal, I began to wonder what might happen if we take Jafa’s assertion about Black music a step forward by looking to opera as architecture for the future of Black cultural production.
What might we learn from revisiting the work of Leontyne Price, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and so many more of our legends who told stories through opera? What could we also learn from turning our focus to contemporary artists? What would it mean to apply the rules of opera to the way that we move forward as creatives? How can we resist being treated like the old guard’s side bitch?
Opera, which quite literally means “labor” in Latin, has historically been a medium wherein whatever can happen, could happen. There’s bravado and dramaturgy. Opera doesn’t apologize for how much space it commands. Opera doesn’t work for exposure. Opera holds our attention for as long as it damn well pleases.
I believe that we’re in a moment where we need opera and its grandness more than ever. We find ourselves in dark times clamoring to figure out how to get proximate to power without letting it swallow us whole. What would happen if we became operatic? What would happen if we relentlessly sought abundance?
To see an opera is to know that you’re signing up for an experience; opera isn’t static, small or quiet. And we shouldn’t be either. In this roundtable, I’ve assembled four powerful voices in the world of contemporary opera—Kennedy, along with mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, vocalist, composer, librettist and cultural worker Imani Uzuri and opera director Kaneza Schaal—and asked them about their love affair with opera and who we should all be looking to for inspiration.