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Reflections from Associate Professor of Voice Dr. Lonel Woods
“Being in the classical field and liking the classical arts and being black— it’s tough. For a young black boy, for Shakespeare to be your favorite playwright, it’s a crazy thing. Because you’re supposed to like basketball, you’re supposed to like hip hop, you’re supposed to like all of these other things, and I didn’t like any of those things. I mean, I listened to them, I watched them, but I really loved something else.
“In college, I got into my first opera chorus for ‘The Magic Flute,’ which we did here at Crane last year. I realized that performing was natural for me and I realized I really liked this. I liked to dress up, and being gay on top of it, it was like, oh, finally! You know, I can sort of be me, and it’s not necessarily a stigma, but it’s an art, to dress up and put on makeup and express myself.
“But in many ways, opera is still 50 years behind the times. There are still opera productions where they put someone white in blackface to sing in ‘Aïda’ or something like that. I always thought they would never do the inverse of that. They would never paint my face white to play a character. I say this kind of with a tongue in cheek, but it’s true—I have played every messenger and servant that’s a tenor in opera. Name the opera, and I’m sure I have done that part. But at the same time, if it wasn’t for those parts, I wouldn’t have a career. I have done all of those parts at the great opera houses. For young black singers, you might get cast in ‘Porgy & Bess’—which, I have done five productions of that, all over the world— but they might not consider you for the Mozarts and the Verdis. That is definitely a problem.
“Classical academia, I think, sometimes looks down on American music because it’s not as old, as if it’s not as valid. But I think in fact it can be even more valid. America, because the country is so diverse, its music is so diverse. That’s why I think it’s really important that we have the [Domenic J.] Pellicciotti [Opera] Prize and the Fall Island [Vocal Arts] Seminar here at Crane, to really encourage and celebrate the creation of new works that speak to a more diverse experience. I also think having the LoKo Festival of the Arts creates opportunities for students to explore their own tastes, and work on what they find interesting.
“Right now, in not only musical theatre, but also in television and plays, there’s also more nontraditional casting, where people are able to explore more. We are doing more of that here at SUNY Potsdam too. You just work to find the best actor, and don’t worry about their appearance fitting the part. So you could have a brother and sister played by people of different races. That is exciting.
“We have an obligation to make our concerts as diverse as the world, because North Country audiences can’t easily go to another recital hall. If we don’t do music by African-American composers, where are they going to experience that? If we don’t do a concert of gospel music, where are they going to get it? Especially a gospel concert where it’s really trained, and where we take the opportunity to educate people about what it really is, versus what they think it should sound like.
“Diversity itself is important. It takes away nothing, but it gives you more. Diversity of thought, diversity of learning—it just makes everybody somehow better.”