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Boston Lyric Opera launches series on classical music’s reckoning with racism

Celeste Headlee hosts Boston Lyric Opera's new "We Need To Talk" series. ,Tamzin B. Smith/Courtesy Boston Lyric Opera

As the national conversation on racial justice continues to reverberate across the performing arts, the fields of classical music and opera have begun what many hope will be a searching process of self-examination. On the local scene, Boston Lyric Opera is now adding its voice to national discussions on equity and diversity through a new three-part conversation series entitled “We Need to Listen.” Its host, public media anchor Celeste Headlee, herself a trained singer, recently spoke to the Globe about her hopes for a fearless conversation about the field’s deeper structural problems. The show’s first episode, entitled “Pipeline,” aired on Oct. 27 and is viewable on demand at

Q. What is your goal with the new series?


A. The idea has been to create discussions that are not just listening sessions, not just another forum in which people talk and bare their souls, and well-meaning executives nod their heads and then change nothing. We want discussions centered around finding practical, actionable solutions, and an environment in which people can voice hard truths without others feeling defensive.

Q. Existing efforts in the field to address these problems have clearly fallen short.

A. If your idea about solving diversity in opera is to have a month of music by people of color, that doesn’t change anything. That means for 11 months of the year you do everything exactly as you’ve always done it. Or if you create a scholarship or fellowship for a musician of color, all that does is allow us to maintain the same hiring systems that have been inequitable, unfair, and exclusionary in the past. The existing policies and procedures might feel right — because they’ve always been that way — but they’ve also brought us to a deeply inequitable place.

Q. You mention the issue of diversifying the repertoire, which will be the focus of the second episode of the series. You come to this subject with a unique vantage point since your grandfather was William Grant Still [1895-1978], a distinguished Black composer whose music is only now beginning to receive its due. How well did you know him, and to what extent do you see these issues playing out in the reception of his music?


A. He died when I was quite young, and I didn’t know he was famous at that point. He had a whole cabinet of awards, and keys to cities, in his living room, but I thought everyone did!

The reason we know the name Copland better than we know the name Still is because Still was the Black one. Obviously I’m biased, but even taking my bias into account, the quality of the music, and its popularity once it’s actually performed, leads you to the inevitable conclusion that he’s not performed more than he is because of his color. And I could tell you so many stories from his lifetime. He was once getting an honorary degree from Oberlin and had to drive there with his family. But he couldn’t stay in the white hotels because he was Black — and not at the Black hotels because his wife was Jewish. So he had to drive all the way to Oberlin without stopping. This kind of thing happened over and over again. By the time he was in his 50s and 60s, he couldn’t get commissions anymore, so his friend [conductor] Leopold Stokowski got him a job writing music for elementary school textbooks.


Q. Do you see the standard repertoire itself as part of the problem?

A. Classical music to my mind belongs as much to people of color as to any white communities. This idea that classical music is a white or European art form is ludicrous — it is as much my inheritance as it is yours. But it’s true that the art form has been used in elitist ways as a weapon to exclude people and groups. And that’s what we can absolutely dismantle. Will it be painful and difficult? Yes. Does it mean giving up on some cherished traditions? Yes. But those traditions are part of the problem and always have been.

Q. For example?

A. Like the tradition not to clap between movements. Why not? What it means is that somebody who hasn’t come to a concert before will start clapping, and then everyone turns around and glares at them like they’re an idiot. So stop it. It also might mean you don’t have to have Beethoven on every single season. I know this feels impossible, and yet it’s absolutely possible. In fact I think we should make music directors accountable for diversity in their programming. I’d like to see it as part of their job description.

Q. How would you reply to the orchestra or opera executive who says they share your goals but that without their crowd-pleasers, without their Beethoven Symphonies and “Bohèmes,” they would simply go bankrupt?


A. These are business models that make people comfortable with exclusion — and they’re always difficult to let go of. I bet it was difficult for carriage makers to let go of their business models when automobiles came around. We should have diversified classical music a long time ago. Instead we have invested entirely in one demographic. And now that demographic is aging, and suddenly the symphony directors are saying “our audiences are shrinking, oh my God!” Of course they’re shrinking. The gate to classical music has been so narrow for so long.

Q. Many of these traditions are very deeply engrained. Do you worry the field won’t be able to change quickly enough?

A. I’ve worried about classical music my entire life, and I’m 50. Part of the reason classical music is failing is because it’s so risk averse. But Beethoven was a revolutionary! Mozart and Bach were experimenting and changing. And now we’re keeping their music alive by being turtles inside our shells. This is not going to be like flipping on a light switch. It will take time to get it right, but it’s do-or-die at this point. And here’s what you have to remember: people aren’t complaining and calling for change because they hate classical music. It’s because they love it and they want to save it, and honor it, and uplift it, and spread it to new generations. So it’s time to take risks. Too late is almost here.



Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. New episodes posting Nov. 10 and 24.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at, or follow him @Jeremy_Eichler.