By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
In 2017, the Seattle Opera launched a production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Despite the inimitable beauty of the opera, the work — which tells the story of a teenage Japanese geisha who is impregnated and ultimately abandoned by an American naval officer — is rife with racism and sexism. But rather than downplaying or softening those elements (or “canceling” Puccini all together) the Seattle Opera faced them head-on, putting up a lobby exhibit dealing with orientalism on Broadway and in popular film. The company also hosted public discussions between Asian artists and community leaders, as well as a series of plays by Asian-American women.
This, says Tesfa Wondemagegnehu — conductor of the Viking Chorus and the Chapel Choir at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota — may be a helpful model for how to deal with some of the canon’s uglier bits.
In a phone conversation from his Minnesota home, he references a New York Times Op-Ed by Katherine Hu from December of last year. He reads aloud: “[O]pera audiences tend to be made up of majority-white audiences who may be less aware of the offensive caricatures they’re seeing onstage. The lobby exhibition presented ‘Madama Butterfly’ as the historical artifact that it is, allowing the opera’s racism and sexism to serve in a productive educational project.”
On Wednesday, July 15th, Wondemagegnehu will facilitate a discussion about whiteness in choral music. The online event is a part of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh’s Candid Conversations series. Each installment of the live weekly series, which runs through August 5, features a short singing lesson (this week led by opera singer Kiera Duffy) followed by a discussion led by a different member of the national and international choral community. (For added context, Wondemagegnehu suggests that attendees read the first two chapters of Robin Diangelo’s best-seller White Fragility, a text that he uses in a class he teaches called Music and Social Justice.)
For Wondemagegnehu, the Seattle Opera’s interrogation of the canon serves as a potential jumping-off point, which will hopefully lead others in the music world to ask similar questions.
“How are we having a conversation with music, with choral music specifically, and creating those environments where we can unpack the racism that exists?” Wondemagegnehu asks. “Does it stop with performing the pieces [by non-white composers] and patting [ourselves] on othe back … or is there something else I can do? How can i be anti-racist?”
In contrast to Seattle Opera’s Madama Butterfly, Hu’s Op-Ed mentions the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Turnadot. There, some elements were adjusted to be less blatantly offensive — changing the names of characters, for example. But these tweaks did little to address the deeper issues of orientalism embedded in the opera.
As with the Seattle Opera, Wondemagegnehu wants to dig below the cosmetic. Important as representation might be — for example — it’s not enough to simply program more work by non-white composers.
“Instead of just saying, ‘I’m going to perform music by black, brown, indiginous people,’” Wondemagegnehu says, we must “perform that music and create a space for those artists to share their truth and share their stories and allow them to interact with our audience members. And those [audience members] can be impacted by those stories and know that there is work to be done.”
For Wondemagegnehu, choral music was a life-changer. Growing up in the inner city of Memphis, he was, he says, “a wannabe hard kid” who got expelled from 9th grade for selling stolen pagers. But around that time he was accepted into a choral program, on a probationary basis. The teacher was a tough old Black lady who “didn’t play,” Wondemagegnehu recalls with a laugh. She also instilled in him the belief that excellence was never an accident.
When she died of a heart attack, Wondemagegnehu had a kind of awakening. “I need to do more,” he thought, “I need to be better, i need to do these things that my parents have been telling me all my life.
“But it was from being in this women’s program, this choral music program in Memphis, Tennessee, that I truly started to get to the work that needed to be done.”
Wondemagegnehu knows first-hand the transformative power of music, and wants BIPOC to have the chance to participate in and benefit from it the way he has.
“I do that work from the lens of, here I am, no longer living in the city streets of Memphis, but also understanding that I came from there and need to do everything in my power to make sure those voices get heard. And I’m doing everything I can to leverage my privilege and platform to amplify the people in that situation.”
It’s a big conversation, he admits. For the purposes of his Mendelssohn Choir talk, he’ll provide an outline, “to just basically get people interested in the topic and figure out ways that they can get involved,” he says.
“Using this extraordinary platform of choral music to have bigger, community-changing conversations, I think, is mandatory.”
Interrogating the Tradition: Upholding Whiteness in Choral Music. 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 15. Watch the discussion live on Mendelssohn’s Facebook page or YouTube channel. Free. www.themendelssohn.org