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Editor’s note: For the next few Thursdays The Blade is giving area classical performance groups a chance to write about their programming plans for a post-pandemic world. We begin with Toledo Opera.
Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a teenager in the present day. He’s wearing a hoodie and holding a bag of Skittles — an ordinary teenager, just like Trayvon Martin.
That powerful image appears in the final scene of I Dream, Douglas Tappin’s contemporary opera based on the life of King. Like many great works of art, I Dream invites us to see a familiar story through fresh eyes, and to think differently about the world we live in today.
The Toledo Opera premiered I Dream in 2018 because we seek to celebrate and share what opera is capable of at its best: rich, immersive stories, rendered through powerful vocal artistry, that engage, challenge, and expand our collective imagination in ways that resonate long after the final curtain call.
Along with contemporary operas like I Dream, Toledo Opera brings works from the classical repertoire, like La bohème and Macbeth, to life for today’s audiences. With an average of more than 700 subscribers per season, we stage three annual productions of two performances each, frequently selling out the Valentine Theatre’s 900 seats. More than 20,000 students participate in our education programs annually.
That’s what a normal year looks like for us; 2020 is not a normal year.
Like arts organizations everywhere, the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to fundamentally rethink many aspects of how we operate. But it hasn’t been all bad — in fact, we expect to become a better organization because of it.
It’s no secret that opera has a reputation as an elitist art form, with a mostly white, upper-class audience and a repertoire composed mostly by dead white men. And historically, that hasn’t been inaccurate.
While Toledo Opera has long sought to highlight performers, composers, and librettists of color, we also know that our audience demographics do not reflect the racial, socioeconomic, or age diversity of our city. We, like the field of opera as a whole, have work to do. In our current moment, that work is more important than ever.
The cancellation of our spring and fall main-stage productions is a disappointment, but it’s come with a significant silver lining: It’s given us time to reflect, listen, and begin to do that work.
That’s why we’ve convened a Community Engagement Advisory Committee — a strategy we piloted successfully in the leadup to I Dream — to co-create a series of public programs centered on the relevance of opera to contemporary issues, as Toledo-area residents experience them. The committee’s members bring a diverse range of identities and backgrounds to the table, and 75 percent are people of color.
Instead of asking Toledo to come to the Valentine this summer and fall, we’re coming to Toledoans where they live, with a series of socially-distanced pop-up performances in outdoor, neighborhood locations throughout the city and surrounding area.
And today, we’re honored to announce that, in February, 2022, Toledo Opera will produce Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s Blue. Recently awarded the prize for best new opera by the Music Critics Association of North America, Blue tells the story of a Black family — the father a police officer; his teenage son a social-justice activist — as they reckon with the impact of police violence in their own lives.
Taking our cues from our Community Engagement Advisory Committee, we’ll develop a suite of public programming around Blue that centers the experiences of Toledoans of color, and of those directly impacted by police violence.
Becoming more inclusive, accessible, and responsive to the community is about more than just the health of our organization. At its best, opera can give us powerful tools for understanding the world as it is, and for envisioning and creating a better one. But if we truly seek to actualize that potential, it’s up to us to put in the work.