Opera is in the Eye of the Beholder
by Larry Giddens
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score. But opera is much more than Wikipedia’s definition. My young career is a quilt of success, failure, bridges, opportunity, hard work, circumstance, sweat and pain. Each door that has found its way open was the result of necessity on my part and those making the decisions. I start this article with an opinion and end it just the same.
Opera is in the eye of the beholder and what his/her perception of beauty may be. Those few men and women who sit behind that table or in the house for which you have purchased an airline ticket, a hotel room, headshots, and a new wardrobe, are waiting to behold something. It could be beauty…in your smile; in your clothes; in your shoes; in your walk; in your slate; in your song choice; in your voice; in your sexuality; and maybe, just maybe, in your color. I say this because, as a young black singer, I have not experienced outright racism in the world of opera. But what I have experienced is just as depressing. I have noticed that discrimination has taken on a new color. It is not just a black and white thing or an education thing or even a who can sing or who you know thing. It is adopting the dirty underside of Hollywood’s pop culture of glamour, finding ways to show bias to physicality.
I know the struggles of my African-American male and female pioneers in opera weighed heavily on the cultural taste of the day, particularly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Society was unable to stomach the sweet sounds of a man of color playing the romantic lead in La Bohème, Don Giovanni, and Romeo et Juliette, to name a few. But let’s say we imagine a young Robert McFerrin or George Shirley in their late 20s early 30s, both handsome, well kept, well studied, and extremely gifted singers. Imagine we find them among the many hungry artists in the fall and spring audition hustle of today. Yes, New York or L.A. in this time, our time, a time that boasts a black president and elected officials of color, improved gay rights, interracial marriage with children, and a list of growing changes every day. As socially aware and hip readers, you assume the issue of race is dulling in our American opera houses. Now, I pose the question: Could we see Mr. McFerrin and Mr. Shirley as leading men of today in our opera community? With a respectful “Hell YES,” I throw my hand up and wave it from side to side. But if I leave this article right here, then I have failed to express my clear opinion to you as a writer. We must go even further.
Imagine those pioneers of grand opera were large men, the type of opera singer we remember from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Now take a moment and let the new story form. These singers are in the hustle of New York auditions, possessing great voices but body types that would not allow them to be TV or film stars. Operagasm community, I pose the same question.
I am a six foot, 300 lb. black male opera singer with a pretty decent voice. I am like some of my contemporaries but not most, and I am fortunate enough to have worked professionally since I was 21. My experience thus far hasn’t led me down a road of racial discrimination that my God-given ability couldn’t turn around, but I have not gotten roles because the director wanted a Hollywood leading man type.
I think as performers in general we have more to compete with today than just race. The market is flooded with great singers, but these aren’t necessarily the artists we see succeeding. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I stated it at the beginning of the article and here is my opinion. As aspiring professionals we can either find ways to improve upon ourselves with exercise, hair renewal, expensive clothes, whiter teeth, tanning, bleaching…or we can adjust companies’ conceptual glasses with our voices, hard work, and dedication. Blow them away as it’s said. If we talk about physical discrimination and how it dictates the existence of young artists, then maybe our stages will be flooded with great sounds and not just great visuals.
Larry Jay Giddens (baritone) is a native of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He recently performed Germont in La Traviata with CU Opera and made his musical theatre debut with the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities where he understudied the role of Jim in Big River. Last season, he was seen as Schaunard in CU Opera’s La Bohème in which he performed “the usually comic role … with an impressive gravitas” (The Daily Camera).
In 2008, Mr. Giddens completed a European tour of Porgy and Bess (Crown) with New York Harlem Productions and made his Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh debut as The Leader in Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars under the baton of Julius Rudel. Praised by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a voice that “commands the ear with a stentorian high baritone that soars magnificently through the spaces of the theatre,” he reprised the role with Virginia Arts Festival. Mr. Giddens has appeared with Hamburgische Staatsoper, Sarasota Opera, Virginia Opera, Edmonton Opera, State Opera, Stagione D’opera, National Philharmonic, Greeley Philharmonic, and Arvada Center. He has toured Europe, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand in the roles of Crown and Jake in Porgy and Bess. His other roles include Abduction of Figaro (Captain Kadd), Faust (Valentin), Fidelio (Don Fernando), Carmen (Morales), Così fan tutte (Don Alfonso), Don Giovanni (Don Giovanni), La Bohème (Marcello), Gallantry (Dr. Gregg), and Dido and Aeneas (Aeneas). He has performed in concert with Paul Plishka, Douglas Moore, Michael Forest, and members of Three Mo’ Tenors.
Larry currently resides in Boulder, Colorado with his wife Jennifer, son Trey (Larry Jay Giddens III), and daughter Ellery Isla Grace. He is completing his studies at the University of Colorado and aspires to innovate the arts through creative ventures for our youth.