Project

PhD, Sociology, University of Cincinnati

Program

ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships

Department

Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

Work Affiliation

Brown University

PhD Granting Institution

University of Cincinnati

Position Description

Dissertation: “Voice, Body, and Identity: Negotiating the Color Line in Opera”

Despite increased diversity initiatives in recent years, there are still very few singers of color on operatic stages in the United States. The purpose of this study is to understand the embodied experiences of opera singers of color as they navigate through higher educational training to become professional singers. My overarching question is how do racial minorities navigate the institutional processes of opera which are inherently steeped in whiteness? Under this, I ask three sub questions: in what ways are racial minority singers’ experiences impacted by the current lack of representation in both professional and education settings in this field? How do racial minority singers negotiate their sense of identity as singers in a field where they are a visible minority? And, what is the impact of the idea of biologically different bodies producing different sounds on racial minority singers and their idea of belonging in this field? Drawing on data from 34 semi-structured interviews with opera singers (in training) of color across the United States, I examine how singers think about their identity and belonging and how they navigate tensions between their racial, gender, and artistic identities while training to be professional singers. I focus especially on the transitional stage from student to professional since this is a critical time of identity negotiation. In examining racial minority singers’ experiences in opera, this interdisciplinary research contributes to scholarship at the intersection of race, cultural labor, and embodiment that is concerned with understanding the experiences of performers of color in elite cultural fields. I find that singers’ feelings of being outsiders to the genre originate at a young age, before they even contemplate pursuing opera as a profession, and this outsider-ness is consistently reinforced through their experiences within their educational institutions, the professional world, and how opera is represented in media. This constant feeling of other-ness leads to identity struggles as they strive to negotiate their place in this field, particularly as their bodies – both visually and aurally - are vitally important to their success. Moreover, I find that a significant number of singers embrace the idea of differently raced bodies producing different sounds and use it to create their own sense of self-identity as singers with racially unique sounds. Overall, the results of this study provide insight into how pervasive whiteness is in opera, not just in the immediate field but how it is represented in popular culture, and the impact this has on aspiring racial minority opera singers.

(Photo credit: Stephen Michael Hanna)