Classical Music’s White Male Supremacy Is Overt, Pervasive, and a Problem

Daniel Johanson, Scapi Magazine, February 18, 2018

Over the week, there have been waves of backlash at The Metropolitan Opera’s newest season announcement. A recent Washington Post made the rounds, taking to task the institution’s insistence on an entirely white and male composer list, as well as a completely male roster of conductors taking the podium.

Chicago is especially no exception, as evidenced by the Lyric Opera’s lack of awareness in their recent copy for their 2018/2019 season right on their website:

“We pride ourselves on bringing you diverse programming, and the 2018/19 Season is no exception. Verdi and Puccini in all their passion, elegant Handel and Mozart, romantic Massenet, mighty Strauss and Wagner—there’s no end to the riches that will make this season one to remember.”

As a white man, there have been and continue to be countless times in which I have needed to recognize that privilege, white supremacy, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and gender normativity are layered issues. It’s easy to call a Nazi a racist because they are so obviously a racist. Not all racists are willing to take up that mantle.

Recognizing that Classical Music has implied White Supremacy for centuries is hard for those that study the art form. In fact, that correlating The Met’s continued programming of dead white men to the rise of White Supremacist tendencies in America is not a far stretch is starting to become apparent to those that follow and review the company’s season announcements.

Of course Italian Opera traditions are rich and are the backbone for many composers, but when an American institution, founded on the grounds of Natives and whose nation’s economy was fueled by the labor of slavery continues in 2018 to program exclusively white men, there’s a message being sent to those who don’t fall into that category.


In the work Blackness in Opera, edited by Naomi André, a series of black scholars take to task a series of historical placements that have helped to create the space in which we find the art form today. In André’s own chapter, “From Otello to Porgy, Blackness, Masculinity, and Morality in Opera,” she points out where even Classical Music’s best intentions can go horribly wrong.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work heavily influenced by the jazz movement, was the first representation that the art form had, but at the time it was clear that its warm welcome was thanks to Gershwin’s whiteness. Gershwin then followed this work up with Porgy and Bess’ predecessor, Blue Monday. This work was panned heavily by the black community of the time, and André documents this extensively.


To be frank, Blue Monday was a minstrel show. The work Gershwin did before he wrote Porgy and Bess was appropriating black idioms through blackface.


It was Duke Ellington himself who said that “The times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack negroisms. The music does not hitch with the mood and spirit of the story. It does not use the Negro musical idiom.”

Ralph Matthers, music critic for The Afro-American, agreed that ‘it most certainly isn’t Negro.’ The music, he said, had none of “the deep-sonorous incantations so frequently identified with racial offerings. The singing, even down to the choral and the ensemble numbers, has a conservatory twang. Superimposed on the shoddiness of Catfish Row the seem miscast.”

Circling back to the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming season, the company will continue its production of Otello, with white tenor Stuart Skelton singing the title role, which for those not familiar, is a black character whose race is central to the plot.


I quote Blackness in Opera here so heavily because it is not a new book. Compiled in 2012, the Met’s continued practices is evidence that although it can seem like consulting with a black person at all would be a simple task, White organizations are incapable of doing that in fear of confronting perceived standards that classical music imposes.

In fact, The Met goes out of its way to celebrate its season. In the Washington Post article mentioned above, writer Anne Midgette notes that “The Metropolitan Opera’s announcement on Thursday capped a whole chain of seasons heavy on standard classics, like pantries laden with white bread, touting the appearance of a single piece of olive focaccia as if it demonstrated a commitment to range and variety.”

That’s the problem. Classical Music is so Eurocentric that it sees Eastern European programming (or, GASP, Russians) as a commitment to diversity. It doesn’t recognize that promoting the works of the diverse people in its own country is what 2018 is actually craving.


Opera will always, and I personally think should always have some callbacks to its traditional roots. I am definitely not calling for the striking of the record of Puccini, Verdi, or Rossini. I am calling for — even just a little — consideration. An outreach program that actively trains women, trans, gender non-comforming, and POC folks. Programming more than one new Opera. Lowering the “production value” bar a smidge to make room for actual current day artmaking.


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