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  • Ruchi Kapila

EDIntegration at Festival Opera: Authentic Changes Driven From Within

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Justice. Intersectionality. Representation Matters.

These terms and their cousins broadly made the rounds during 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the ubiquitous nature of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. In rapid fire succession, we witnessed every association, conglomerate, corporation, small business, and family member on social media scramble for words to show solidarity and recognition of the microaggressions, verbal assaults, barriers, and physical and often fatal violence experienced by Black Americans every day. This urgency extended to performing arts organizations across the country with the realization that a singular public relations statement would not be sufficient to meet the demand for racial equity and representation posed by artists and audience members.

DEI/EDI committees and caucuses are popping up in response to this demand within arts organizations or as a part of unions and alliances. However, the impact of these efforts are often muted or hindered by barriers to diversity and inclusion when they are not adequately investigated, excavated, and deconstructed to allow for functional changes to permeate an organization. We need organizational “buy-in” and systems of accountability so that board members, artists, audience members, and other collaborators know that their experiences, perspectives, and concerns are worthy of report, consideration, and actionable response. Without that, DEI committees quickly become a dusty antique on the shelf - a curiosity to point out when the guests ask about diversity and inclusion, but something that does not serve a specific and continuous function.

When Festival Opera's general director, Zachary Gordin asked me to take part in Festival Opera’s EDI committee along with Nick Ishimaru and Timothy Evans (both ethnoculturally diverse board members and friends), my immediate response was “we can continue to build a safe space in performing arts with Festival Opera.” FO already had a reputation for hiring diverse artists across productions and not just for productions written (often with use of stereotypes) for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) performers.

Given Timothy and Nick’s DEI efforts with other professional organizations along with informal conversations we had regarding race and gender intersectional considerations, I felt safe discussing how we could continue to push forward in making FO a mindfully inclusive environment, a second home for our artists and audience members. We all had our memories and experiences ranging from feeling truly seen and validated in artistic spaces, to microaggressions and more obvious examples of prejudice we encountered as artistic contributors and patrons.

From personal experience-based interventions supported by a board dedicated to continued change, we invite and welcome communities representative of the East Bay with content that features nuanced and powerful representation. We are continuing to build and cultivate an organization that we see ourselves at home in and celebrated with for our efforts. We are building more approachable content with our Mixtape and SalON Demand programming and post-talks, and our Behind the Mask podcast to elucidate the experiences, hardships, triumphs of our artists and all the specific, intersectional perspectives that inform a truly cultivated performance that connects with so many of our audience.

Beyond these more intimate musical shares, our committee looks forward to the potential in our mainstage productions. In classic opera fare, how do we cast and stage familiar stories in diverse new territory without being mired in the more superficial differences? Instead, can we discover and highlight culturally specific and meaningful content for a successful reframing of these narratives? For more underground or less familiar operas, how do we feature underrepresented composers to a diverse new audience and foster collective excitement to see and support these works? What effective systems of accountability can we design and model for others in order to ensure our artistic output is representative and celebratory of diverse and underrepresented communities so we do not partake in tokenism?

We are legitimately excited to tackle these questions together. We do not assume building meaningful representation is a clear direct path. We do have a team prepared to be honest, reflective, and transparent about this process. We do hold ourselves accountable to our communities in the East Bay and broader BIPOC communities across the United States in our aim to cultivate opera productions that speak to our modern audiences across spectra.

Come join us for these conversations and lend us your support, strength, and feedback while we stay the course.

- Ruchi Kapila (she/her, they/them), M.S., CCC-SLP is a Bay Area-based speech-language pathologist, vocologist, presenter and soprano with experience in acute care and acute rehabilitation hospital-based speech therapy. Ms. Kapila currently provides singing- and speech-based gender affirmative voice services. She is co-founder of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultation and resource firm, interVESTED: Raise Your Voice and co-creator/co-host of the podcast The Hyndsyte Project, an interview series focusing on the experiences of Black and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming activists and artists. Ms. Kapila is thrilled to support Festival Opera's media presence and EDI committee to reach underrepresented audiences with her dedication to mentorship, leadership, and outreach.

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