I’m sorry…you just don’t LOOK the part!
by Oaklea Rowe
I began classical voice lessons at the age of 14, the summer before my freshman year of high school. To be honest, I had no intention of making it a career. I sang in the school choir and various musicals and I really enjoyed being onstage. My teacher at the time thought that I might be headed in the direction of a music major after graduation, but that seemed insane to me! Did students actually go to college for that??!
After four years of lessons, competitions and recitals, I decided that it was enough. I enrolled in community college, worked awful jobs and did the normal teenage stuff. Then, on a whim, I approached my parents about auditioning for music school and they were, as usual, completely supportive.
I was the ONLY black opera singer in the school at the time. Having grown up in a white suburban area (with white parents!) I didn’t think it was strange that I was the only black singer; I was used to being the only black “a-lot-of-things” back then. One day I was called to the academic adviser’s office and told that I needed to audition for the jazz ensembles. I said, “I don’t sing jazz, I sing classical music.” They were all confused and looking at one another with vague expressions. Everyone assumed that because I was black, I must be a jazz singer — not an opera singer! Thus began the, “You don’t look the part” hoopla of my opera career.
When I was younger there was racial tension between white and black kids in my neighborhood. I was spit on and called names, and it hurt. Thankfully, I had older brothers to stand up for me. In the opera world however, you have to learn to stand up for yourself. Growing up in a mixed-race family, I have never tried to turn anything in my life into something racial.
In my freshman year of college I was told that I couldn’t sing the part of Baby Doe in Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe because I didn’t look the part. Later that year, the same director cast me as a boy for a chorus part in Candide, which to me was a ridiculous slap in the face! It was just me — this happened to no one else! I put up with it and told myself it would get better.
Since then, I have knowingly been turned down for parts and roles because of my skin color. It’s not an assumption; casting directors have had the audacity to tell me to my face! When I was in high school I didn’t get that this was how theater, opera, and show business in general worked. Sure, we’ve come along way since the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King, but the stunning truth is that casting discrimination has happened to me and to other colleagues of color with whom I have spoken. Even today I get the silliest looks from people when I tell them what I do.
When Marian Anderson debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, she was the first black singer to do so and it was an amazing achievement. She had already been singing for many years in Europe. I think that it definitely shocked people to see her on the Met stage singing the role of Ulrica in Guiseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (The Masked Ball). She did it with beauty and grace using her mastery of vocal technique, passion, and musicianship. I believe that that is what should be considered above anything else when making casting choices for opera.
A few years ago, I was a finalist in the Harlem Opera Vocal Competition in New York City. I was so excited to compete with other black singers and was amazed to hear their incredible talent! Most of the singers had studied at the Manhattan School of Music or Jiulliard. I spoke with a couple of them and got the feeling that, in general, they had the exact same experiences as me! The great thing about Harlem Opera is that they really try to encourage and coach young, black singers to look past obstacles and just be an authentic singer.
I truly believe that if a vocalist has the right “stuff”, they should not be overlooked or ignored because they may not “look the part”.
Ms. Rowe is a Denver area soprano who studied vocal performance at University of Denver, Lamont School of Music. She has proven to be a versatile singer having performed in various musical styles including classical, jazz, and musical theater. Oaklea has had the pleasure of singing with many established musicians and organizations including Opera Colorado, The Denver Brass, The Colorado Chamber Ensemble, The Shadow Theater, The Spirituals Project, Opera Company of Brooklyn where she was a 2008-09 Resident Artist, and West Side Opera Society NY. In the summer of 2011 she traveled to Italy to sing the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with Opera Orvieto and this past fall she made her Lincoln Center debut as a chorus member in “Messiah Refreshed” under the baton of maestro Jonathan Griffith with Distinguished Concerts International NY. Most recently, Oaklea toured throughout South America with Harlem Opera Theater.
For more information about Oaklea Rowe, please visit Ms. Rowe’s website.