Barnard set a great foundation for my work later on, in graduate school in musicology and becoming an opera scholar.
[Photo credit: Michael Hough]
When opera scholar Naomi André ’89 wrote for CNN that the opera world should take notes from Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella “Homecoming” performance, people noticed. “As a scholar of opera, particularly Black opera and Blackness in opera, I can see that Beyoncé is doing something interesting and important as it resonates in an unlikely arena,” André wrote. “She’s even doing things the opera world might be able to learn from.” The same can be said about this University of Michigan professor, who also likes to shake things up and expand the conversation.
In 1996, André became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s department of music. Last summer, Seattle Opera named her its inaugural scholar-in-residence. “I feel like the luckiest person to be able to think deeply about operas and how they preserve connections to the past as well as prove to be very relevant for questions today,” André said. “I not only get to write about these topics in my own research but also to teach them to students as a professor and now to have an entreé into a larger public space with my role as Seattle Opera’s scholar-in-residence.”
Looking back, the opera house may have started listening to the connections that André was making in 2018, the same year she published her third book, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, a study of how race has shaped opera in the United States and in South Africa. (It recently won the Irving Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music.) Two months later, André sat on a panel for Seattle Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. The following year, she was asked to moderate a different panel for the opera house’s production of Carmen.
“Both works have complicated issues around race and representation, and Seattle Opera was opening up community conversations around how to think about race, gender, and economic access in operas when they are staged today, and how our views today are different from when these works were originally first performed,” André recalled. After those panels, Seattle Opera asked André if they could formalize the relationship; the opera company had found its modern-day muse.
“What really excited me about this position was that I was being invited into a space that was already thinking about how a revered — and [some say] elitist — genre has relevance today,” André said. And she, too, had questions for contemporary opera listeners: “What do we do when blackface, such as in Verdi’s Otello and Aida, or yellowface makeup, from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot, is the norm for performance today? How do we talk about Verdi’s Rigoletto, with the toxic masculine environment around the Duke of Mantua’s court that encourages sexual harassment, makes fun of people with physical disabilities, and supports rape culture?”
These are issues André started mulling over when she was a student at Barnard. By virtue of the College’s location in New York City, André and her friends went to the Metropolitan Opera a lot — “It was $5 for standing room tickets, less than a movie at that time!” — and saw their entire repertoire several times. “In retrospect,” she said, “I see that being at Barnard set a great foundation for my work later on, in graduate school in musicology and becoming an opera scholar.”
Yet opera may have always been in the music major’s bones. André’s mother, who sang high coloratura soprano, studied operatic singing at the Juilliard School; André grew up playing her great-grandmother’s piano. When André’s mother would perform, during church solos or at different events, the budding musicologist was always there to see it. And as her mother shared music with wide audiences through her voice, today André is doing it through research.
“As an African American woman who loves opera and publishes about the genre, I frequently find myself one of the only people of color at academic conferences, in university classrooms, and in concert audiences,” said André. “This is frustrating, because I know there are many people who would enjoy this music if only they felt welcomed.” To that end, and before André became a mom — her daughter Safiya is 11 years old — she spent four years teaching women’s studies at her local women’s prison, organized by the American Friends Service Committee, where she used opera as a tool for social justice.
Just as Barnard helped to shape her into the scholar she has become, André wants to do the same for others with opera. Noting the decrease in music education in grades K-12 and the financial hardships that many cultural institutions face, André is keenly aware of what is missed when students aren’t immersed in the arts. “The arts express our humanity and aid in being able to think abstractly. For school-age kids, this type of abstract conceptual thinking well complements the skills that accompany most STEM fields,” André said. “The arts not only help us as a people with cultural expression, but they also help us with the more technical and mathematical ways of thinking.”
To read some of André’s recent writing, see below:
Listen to her interview with the Seattle Opera on the topics of Beyoncé, race, and kicking down opera’s doors for a wider audience, below: