In January, Houston Grand Opera, which can usually expect generally complimentary reviews from the Houston Chronicle, got hit with a double whammy.
Chronicle theater critic and classical/opera writer Wei-Huan Chen didn’t think much of the production of Nixon in China, and said so in two articles that were more columns than reviews. He found the use of “yellowface” on white actors who performed in the opera incredibly offensive, and he complained the Asians were presented through lazy stereotypes rather than as human beings. Nixon in China, he said, “does a lot of hiding behind art to avoid social responsibility.”
Given the diversity of the Houston demographic, including many of Asian ethnicity, Chen charged that minority voices were being overlooked. Why weren’t more Asians onstage in an opera, especially one set in China?
Stephanie Todd Wong, director of Performing Arts & Culture for the Asia Society in Houston, thought the ensuing furor over the dust stirred up by Chen deserved some more discussion. She thought the Asia Society would be the perfect host and when she contacted the HGO, its leaders readily agreed to collaborate on it.
And so, this Friday, March 31, starting at 7 p.m., Representation and 21st Century Responsibilities in the Performing Arts, which is both free and open to the public, will take place at the Asia Society’s Texas Center, 1370 Southmore. Sixto Wagan, director of the Center for Art & Social Engagement at the University of Houston, will moderate.
Besides Patrick Summers, HGO’s artistic director, the panel will include Pia Agrawal, program director for the University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts; Shih-Hui Chen, chair of the Music Composition and Theory Department at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music; Ryan Speedo Green, a bass-baritone making his HGO debut as Osmin in The Abduction of the Seraglio in April; and Steven Wu, festival co-director of the Houston Asian American Pacific Islander Film Festival.
But no Wei-Huan Chen.
Asked about this in a sit-down interview with Wagan and Wong, both said they didn’t want all the media there, didn’t want a media event. “We took all the voices that had already shown up in the Chronicle out of the panel. This is a bigger conversation. It was initiated by HGO’s production, but we didn’t want the focus to be just on HGO’s production or the specifics around Nixon in China,” Wong said.
Wagan said it was also really important that it was an Asian community response. “Because the dialogue in Houston has either been black and white or Latino and white and the Asians have not had much voice in that conversation. We wanted to highlight the Asian voices and experience.”
Houston Grand Opera is clearly not the only arts group that has been challenged over its use of white actors in Asian roles. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, when Miss Saigon was first performed, white British actor Jonathan Pryce played the leading man. He was the first and last to do so as far as Broadway and national tours were concerned. But protests have continued over the very way Asians are depicted in that musical.
Asked why other arts groups weren’t included on the panel – since for instance Asians are almost nonexistent in theater performances in Houston other than the annual Shakespeare Festival with its UH students (Do the Asian kids all leave town after they graduate? Is that why they disappear?) – Wong said the organizers didn’t want to put arts leaders on the spot.
Oh, why not?
In any event, Wong and Wagan say they understand artistic choice and the fact that sometimes productions are limited by the talents of the singers and actors available to them. At the same time, they said they want artistic leaders to consider what the audience reaction might be.
HGO has included Asian singers over the years in its Studio Artists program. The students and visiting Asian singers have taken on all kinds of roles, Italian lords and the like. Asked if casting should always be set along ethnic lines, Wagan said no, that he thinks color-blind casting works well in many cases.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it brings a really interesting new twist to the subject matter and sometimes it’s really problematic,” he said. “We’ve been doing Shakespeare color-blind for years. But with other playwrights and authors, it does it matter. You can’t put white people in Porgy and Bess.”
“In opera particularly there’s voice and training," he said. "It brings up a number of institutional difficulties and obstacles to be able to attain that level and that stage. I acknowledge that. But I also think it’s important for audiences and arts leaders to understand what is the reception. The audience reaction. How do we make that an open part of the conversation. I also think the intentionality of those choices needs to be made more explicit.”
And if live performances want to continue to survive, they’ve got to attract other people as part of their audiences, Wagan said. “If we’re talking about bringing more audiences in and different audiences in, what can that be and when can those magical moments happen and not be those points where I don’t see myself on stage and whatever is happening onstage might be very nice, but that’s separate from my life. “
So do they expect the two-hour program with question-and-answers to proceed with politeness and restraint? Well, no.
“This is a messy conversation. It’s not clear-cut. We’re not going to walk away with action items to fix it and we know that. It’s a conversation that needs to be had,” Wong said.
“There’s respectful dialogue and discourse; we’re not going to consensus,” Wagan said. “We don’t believe we are promoting a singular vision or a singular solution. We are hoping that if it gets heated, great, as long as people are listening and they’re responding to getting to the intention of that.”
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“We should be uncomfortable. If everyone walks in and walks out without feeling anything, we haven’t moved the needle at all,” Wong said. “We’re aiming for a respectful, messy, uncomfortable conversation.”
Arts leaders throughout town have been invited. A limited number of seats are available through the Asia Society website; you can RSVP there, or watch it livestreamed on HowlRoundTV. Asia Society is obviously walking a fine line, willing to be uncomfortable but hesitant to be seen as attacking. The group and the Houston Grand Opera are to be commended for taking this to a public forum. Perhaps this will inspire other discussions.
Even if asked, Chen might not have said yes to being on the panel. But whether you agree with him on all points or not, see him as agent provocateur or change agent, he deserves our thanks as well. Yes, Nixon in China was performed in yellowface so in that sense it started this discussion. But things like that have happened for years all over this country. Chen was the one who brought his outrage out from behind closed doors, talking about it openly. Which is why on Friday, a public forum on race in the arts will commence. It's more than time for that discussion. What, if anything, happens next, well, that's the really tough part.
As Sixto Wagan said, “One of the questions I’m going to ask is what is everybody on the panel doing specifically in order that this conversation a year from now is not the same conversation.”