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Appreciating without Appropriating

It’s February. My plan today was to write a blogpost about Black History Month, but I feel as though there are a lot of those right now and I’m questioning my place in doing this because I’m not Black.

The other day I attended a wonderful presentation by my dear Speakeasy colleagues Amanda Kaiser and Heather Statham regarding selecting pop/rock repertoire, and one thing that really resonated with me was the caution by Heather to “know the songs/shows that are culturally/racially focused and make sure repertoire is appropriate.” The subtitle under that bullet point was “appreciating vs. appropriating.”

I admit that I have appropriated in the past. I sang “Suppertime” in not only an Irving Berlin revue (1999) but also in a 2010 cabaret show that I wrote with Ryan Cappleman (and I will say it was a really great mash-up of that song and “Suppertime,” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and I hope that Ryan will do it with someone appropriate, like maybe Raven Dockery, but not with me). The first time, I was cast in the show to sing it, but the second time, it was my idea. I had my own interpretation of the song – I certainly wasn’t singing it as a wife’s reaction to her husband’s lynching, as was intended in the show As Thousands Cheer as sung by Ethel Waters. It was a song about abandonment, but I had my own spin. So that was fine, right?

I’ve sung “Wade in the water” myself and assigned it to singers – it was on the Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA) Solo-Ensemble list, so it was fair game for anyone to sing. Right?

There were shows I loved and I decided that it was okay for me to assign songs from those shows to my very white students because the songs fit their voices and the theme transcended race. That’s what I thought in 2005. So it was okay for two white kids to sing “Wheels of a dream” in a studio recital and for a young woman to compete at Wisconsin NATS with “Your daddy’s son.” It was okay for a white bass to sing “Ol’ Man River” with a couple of words changed to make it about class rather than race. It was okay for the same young man to sing “I got plenty o’nuttin'” from Porgy & Bess. (Those last three songs were also on the WSMA list.) Right?

Nopeity nope nope.

There are tons of songs to sing.  If a show is racially or culturally focused, like Ragtime, like Hairspray, like Porgy & Bess, it is not for you if you are not a POC. Pick something else. Choosing that music for yourself is not appropriate. It is appropriation.

The ultimate example of appropriation, in my opinion, is this cringe-worthy duet from 1972 on a Julie Andrews special. If you’ve read my blog for a few years, you know that I got in trouble for objecting to this before.

Enjoy. Or, rather, don’t.

Better choice:

All 4 of these singers are among my heroes, particularly Julie Andrews and Audra McDonald, who I consider inspirations for me in so many ways.  I don’t entirely blame Andrews and Goulet for this choice because, hey, 1972. But it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. Blackface is wrong. Yellowface is wrong. Whether those terms apply to:

  • Makeup, as in Otello with Placido Domingo in the title role, or
  • Makeup and prosthetics, as in the London production of Miss Saigon with Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer or in multiple versions of Madama Butterfly at various opera companies throughout the world (and another admission: somewhere in my attic, there is a picture of me with my eyelids taped in a Florentine Opera production of that very show – and I was Katisha and Pitti-Sing in The Mikado), or
  • Vocal blackface/yellowface, as in singing repertoire that is not meant for your ethnicity or race, even if someone is paying you to do it. It’s not for you. Seth Godin uses that phrase a lot to talk about your audience as a marketer, but in this case, I’m using it to say, don’t sing it.

Appreciate racially and culturally themed shows sung by actors who are appropriate to the roles. Appreciate, don’t appropriate.

There are so many songs. Find the ones that are right for you. They’re out there.

Oh, and maybe rethink those Halloween costumes you’ve done in the past as well….

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Looking for that perfect song or aria that can help you get into the show or school of your choice? Contact MVS and we’ll figure out
what is appropriate for where you are right now, and what will show you off to your best advantage and let you tell your truth.

Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

What do you think?

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