Podcast 75: Welcoming Ashley Renee Watkins

On November 23rd, we held our first Facebook stream of Episode 75 and Indie Opera welcomes our newest co-host, Ashley Renee Watkins! An opera singer and teaching artist who performs opera, R&B and Jazz, Watkins also trains professionals on how to be more inclusive in their practices. Her unique voice is welcome!

Our panel examines how several American opera companies are innovating during Covid Times. Highlights include On Site Opera, Seattle Opera, dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, San Francisco Opera, City Lyric Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Houston Grand Opera.

We check in on companies that are committing to improvement in terms of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. How can we present problematic war horse operas that may contain racist and sexist stereotypes? What is the best way to present controversial operas that can either incite discord or become a source of healing and mutual understanding?

An Audio Only version is available here

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Introducing our newest host: Ashley Renee Watkins

  • Opera Singer, who also sings R&B and Jazz
  • Teaching Artist with Lincoln Center, but also freelances
    • Trains other programs on how to be more inclusive in their practices.
      • Native of New Orleans, Lives in Harlem, NYC, but due to Covid-19 down in Dallas, TX with her mom.


  • On Site Opera
    • “To My Distant Love”
      • An die ferne Geliebte (To My Distant Love)
        • Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
        • Song text by Alois Isidor Jeitteles
        • Additional English dialogue by Monet Hurst-Mendoza
          • In honor of Beethoven’s 250th birthday
        • Directed by Eric Einhorn
        • Musical Consultation by Geoffrey McDonald
          • Performers:
            • Jennifer Zetlan/David Shimoni – OR –
            • Mario Diaz-Moresco/Spencer Myer
              • (both singer/pianist duos who live together)
    • Performances ran from June 16th through August 23rd
    • a connective interactive experience which provides something for both the audience and the artist
      • This new immersive opera experience invites you to be “the distant love” for a one-on-one performance featuring a live singer (you choose soprano or baritone) and pianist. The “site” for this performance will be yours to choose as your beloved calls you by phone to express their longing and joy to you, their distant love. Where will you choose to take such an intimate phone call? A walk through the park? A cozy chair by a window? The immersive experience will begin even before your phone call, as your beloved will send you love letters in anticipation of finally speaking again.
  • On Site Opera’s General and Artistic Director Eric Einhorn explains: “This production will untether people from their computers and bring back the feeling of live theater, where anything can and will happen,” he continues, “We have brought audiences to more than 20 engaging sites across four states in these last 7 seasons. We now invite our audiences to bring us to their favorite sites and be a part of revolutionizing the ways in which opera can be heard, experienced and evolved.”


  • Seattle Opera
    • Songs of Summer – virtual programming with each week featuring a different artist
    • Inclusion – Diversity – Equity
      • In 2019, Seattle Opera appointed musicologist, writer, and opera-lover Naomi André as their inaugural Scholar in Residence.
      • She is the author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, which The New York Times describes as “A necessary exploration of how race has shaped the opera landscape in the United States and South Africa.”
  • Community Conversations on IDE topics:
    • Black Representation in the Arts: What happens when audiences see a Black ballerina dance Clara in The Nutcracker or a Black opera singer sing Mimì in La bohème? This discussion on Black representation in the arts was led by Seattle Opera Scholar in Residence, Naomi André.
  • Black Representation in Opera: Through collaborations with The Glimmerglass Festival, leading Black voices in opera, and local community organizers, Seattle Opera engaged in a frank discussion about racial diversity and inclusion in opera.
  • Cultural Appropriation and Madame Butterfly: Seattle Opera didn’t shy away from the ugly parts of the work. Instead, it addressed them in a large-scale exhibition in the lobby with posters detailing Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the problematic nature of Broadway’s “Miss Saigon.” The opera company hosted a public discussion among Asian artists, activists and community leaders, as well as an evening of plays written by Asian-American women.
    • In doing so, Seattle Opera made the racism and sexism that permeates “Madama Butterfly” unavoidable. This is significant, because opera 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.
  • Feminist Storytelling in the #MeToo Age: What role do the arts play in changing a culture of gender-based violence, and how can storytelling change this paradigm? For this Community Conversation presented alongside Rigoletto, Seattle Opera hosted a dialogue between feminist directors working in Seattle.
  • Decolonizing Allure: Talking about Carmen, women artists of color respond to the tropes borne out of exoticism and Orientalism, be it rejecting them, subverting them, or reclaiming them, and how they take back power by creating art in their own image.


  • Met Productions of Tosca by Luc Bondy versus Sir David McVicars.
    • Scarpia puts his tongue down The Virgin Mary’s throat, It was Luc Bondy’s production
    • Tosca didn’t jump, what the F&#$ else did she do. it’s like a Geico commercial. Like if you’re Tosca, you jump. It’s what you do.


  • Opera Philadelphia was scheduled to present a new production of Madame Butterfly directed by Ted Huffman this season. It was featuring a Japanese soprano as Cio-Cio-San and except for Pinkerton and Kate an all Asian/Pacific Islander lead cast. With that casting alone it was certain that the production would have been addressing the racial issues that exist within the story.


  • Operas like Madame Butterfly are still produced because they sell tickets.


  • The issue is not so much that these canonical works are dated, but that they should be presented utilizing the knowledge of what was happening historically in the world at that time. Madame Butterfly’s writing was influenced by the Russo-Japanese conflict which lead to war and also with the culture clash sparked by America’s 1853 mission to open up Japan to the West.
    • How can one culture hold onto it’s own values within a modernizing world.


  • Most audience members are oblivious that the characters are stereotypes and the creators were guilty of cultural appropriation. The Artistic Director of San Francisco Opera recently stated: “At some point we need to let these war horse operas go and tell other stories.”


  • New York Magazine published an interview with the actress Alia Shawkat who talked about getting called out after she quoted lyrics by the Canadain-African rapper Drake that included the ’N word’ in a TV interview. She hadn’t even realized she’d said it, and certainly didn’t mean to upset anyone.


  • Freedom Ride, a new opera
    • Dan Shore, composer & librettist
      • Chicago Opera Theater
        • Tazewell Thompson, director
        • Lidiya Yankovskaya, conductor
      • During rehearsals, a white singer whose character was supposed to say the ’N word’, and had been given permission by the director and cast found that they themselves could not ever say it.


  • Two communities: LGBTQ and African-American have been actively working towards taking back certain slang terms or symbols and giving them a positive spin. Gays with the Pink Triangle or Fag, Blacks with the ’N word’ or other derogatory terms. However, the point is that these communities may choose to use these terms, but people outside these groups should not.


  • A Death In the Family
    • William Mayer, composer & librettist
      • Robert Alfoldi, director
        • The three-act opera is based on two American classics: the Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family by James Agee and the play All the Way Home by Tad Mosel. The opera also draws on related passages from Agee’s nonfiction Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
      • In an early Act One scene a young boy is being taunted by 2 other boys and the ’N word is used by them. It’s use was about creating empathy in the audience for the taunted boy.
        • The director was a well known Hungarian actor who was artistic director of the Hungarian National Theater from 2008-2013. He was a social activist and created productions that were meant to engage the audience by the issue shown and language used.
        • Alfoldi had a huge fight with the American music director who wanted to cut the taunting scene because of the use of the ’N word’. William Mayer was present for the rehearsals and sided with the director and the scene was not cut. It was important that the Hungarian audience hear it to create a conversation about how that related to their own community.


  • The Death of Klinghoffer
    • Metropolitan Opera production
      • Will Crutchfield gave a lecture that mentioned a scene cut from the American premiere production at BAM. In the middle of the double chorus opening scene, there was a scene that introduced the audience to a nondescript Suburban Jewish-American family preparing to go on the cruise. It was decided that it made the Jewish family appear out of touch with the world issues present at that time, and the scene was removed.


  • Timothy O’Leary, the General Director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis supported their production of The Death of Klinghoffer with almost two years of outreach, engaging Jewish, Muslim and other communities in moderated conversations regarding the issues presented in the opera.
  • The Metropolitan Opera created no such outreach program and therefore brought upon themselves, their staff and audiences various levels of protest both outside and inside the theater. Audiences had to go through security procedures closely approximating those found at airports.


  • John Adams and Alice Goodman were trying to heal the world through their art and also present the issues to engender audience discussion.


  • dell’Arte Opera Ensemble
    • Even though performances have been pushed to August 2021, they are still working with the artists that they have contracted for the 2020 season.
    • dell’Arte created an artist relief fund that raises funds to assist ensemble members experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic.
    • They are continuing to further their mission of giving young singers the training and stage time that they need to have flourishing careers in opera and on Broadway. Although they produce an annual opera festival in August, their year-round work focuses on developing the whole artist, guided by Artistic Director Chris Fecteau.
    • They have been offering language classes with Lucy Tucker Yates to gain both a good level of conversational skills as well a learn how to create their own text translations.
      • The best of these translations from both singers and directorial staff are used to create working super-titles for each production. Thus developing a further useful skill for the ensemble members.
    • Acting classes with Chuck Hudson including exercises that help opera singers build acting skills that augment their vocal work.
    • A book club where they read and discuss books pertinent to the repertoire that was intended to be performed in the 2020 season.
  • The 2020 Summer Festival was to include production of:
    • Anna Bolena by Donizetti
    • Juana with music by Carla Lucero, and librettoby Alicia Gaspar de Alba & Carla Lucero.
  • In addressing the current socio-political climate, the company has not only shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but they have offered a three-pronged plan on how to increase diversity in their company and combat bias in the way they do business.


  • San Francisco Opera
    • Summer of 2020 had a large focus on Educational Engagement programs
      • Opera in an Hour Movies
        • these are abridged versions of San Francisco Opera main-stage performances, that are available for free for teachers at educational institutions in the nine Bay Area counties to use in their classrooms. Lesson plans and educator materials are also available for each movie for a richer, deeper learning experience for students
      • Family Fun Fridays – these videos showcase original songs and compositions by student creators.
      • First Act Workshops for families with children in grades K-3
        • This is a live, interactive workshop where the participants will be taken through the story of an opera with musical storytelling.
  • SFO is supporting their teaching artists by giving them training in how to adapt to digital teaching. How to recreate themselves as entrepreneurs.
  • August 2019 Created the Department of Diversity, Equity & Community (DEC)
    • This new department was fully funded in their annual operating budget.
      • Charles “Chip” McNeal was appointed as Director and given 3 full-time staff members to develop and manage their programming.
        • A series of roundtable conversations with the community were used to introduce this major new initiative.
      • The Education Department is now part of and overseen by DEC.
  • General Director Matthew Shilvock addressed some of the issues inherent in producing certain canonical operas.
  • San Francisco Opera partners with community organizations
    • Community Housing Partnerships – supporting the homeless population
    • Compass Family Services – social services agency 


  • SFO with the hiring of Eun Sun Kim becomes the first major opera company in America to have a female music director


  • What does a teaching artist do?
    • Teaching artists are artists who are active and knowledgeable in their art form and use it as a teaching tool.
    • They develop programming and lesson plans with the classroom teachers to support understanding of various subjects like Social Studies, English, Foreign Languages and possibly even Math or Science.


  • City Lyric Opera
    • The company was founded in 2016 by Kathleen Spencer & Megan Gillis as A.R.E Opera to support the further development of opera singers once they have graduated from school.
    • They moved quickly to adapt their programming in response to the necessary changes that Covid-19 required of performing artists.
      • Their company mission statement centers on:
        • Diversity, Inclusion and Equity
        • Working with local singers and communities
        • Produce relevant work
        • Affordable prices to increase access to live opera

Summer 2020 Programming

  • Opera Shorts
    • Feature talented New York City artists. These shorts are intended to entertain, enlighten, and engage City Lyric Opera’s audience through witty and concise storytelling.
  • Falling Flat
    • A fun, live Happy Hour event in which artist’s remember their biggest blunders, mess-ups, or fumbled auditions. We will also have a few featured artists who will be giving the piece that “Fell Flat” another try, live. Grab a drink and come on a walk down memory lane with City Lyric Opera!
  • Holding Space
    • Take some time for you. City Lyric Opera is hosting honest and vulnerable conversations with members of our community to honor the loss of live performance and other disruptions in our lives related to COVID-19. These conversations will be bookended by musical moments to frame the conversation and act as a backdrop for a brief moment of breathing and honoring the feelings that arise from these conversations. Afterwards, CLO will release curated playlists consisting of songs that help with the emotional arc of needs during this time. Sit back, relax, and let the music do its work – whether it’s an emotional release, bringing up a past memory, or an open discussion about how you’re feeling afterwards.
  • CLO Retro
    • Katie and Megan celebrate #ThrowbackThursday with this live trip down memory lane. Join CLO’s founders as they chat about past performances – specific highlights, fun facts, and stories of legend – featuring artists you know and love.


  • Opera Philadelphia/Houston Grand Opera
    • Discover Opera Virtual Camp for ages 13-18
      • Learn songs appropriate for auditions, develop fluency in the International Phonetic Alphabet, hear from some of opera’s biggest stars, practice stage combat and movement to fight off villains, and strengthen acting skills in an online expedition of vocal prowess.
      • Guest Teaching artists:
        • Jamie Barton, Daniel Belcher, Arturo Chacon-Cruz, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Eun Sun Kim, Ana Maria Martinez, Marietta Simpson, Reginald Smith Jr. and Patrick Summers.

Opera Philadelphia has actively been working on equity in employment and are close to a 50/50 ratio of male to female administrative and artistic staff.

  • Houston Grand Opera’s satellite company HGOco is all about community engagement.
    • HGOco connects HGO’s creative resources with our diverse and vibrant community. The “co” in HGOco stands for companycommunity, and collaboration.  HGOco’s innovative and engaging programs take place throughout the Houston area—in schools, parks, community landmarks, alternative performance spaces, and at the Wortham Theater Center, providing a range of opportunities for Houstonians of all ages to explore, engage, and learn through the inspiring art of opera.
      • Veteran’s Songbook
        • Houston Grand Opera’s multiyear Veterans Songbook initiative gives voice to the stories of Houston-based men and women who have served our country and to the stories of their loved ones, sparking a community-wide conversation about conflict and courage, strength and sacrifice.
      • Marian’s Song
        • Houston Grand Opera’s 68th world premiere is the HGO-commissioned Marians Song, composed by Damien Sneed to a libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Houston’s poet laureate emeritus. The opera is based on the life of Marian Anderson, one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century, who broke racial barriers throughout her storied career.










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