As a young Black girl in Alexandria, Virginia, B.E. Boykin believed Maya Angelou's poems spoke to her directly. On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the influence comes full circle as the Finger Lakes Opera presents the world premiere of her Angelou-inspired song cycle, Moments in Sonder.
"I love writing music and I don't think I ever really identified myself as a composer until recently," Boykin said. "That's because truth be told, there aren't a lot of composers that look like me, who are Black, and who are Black women."
Like many industries and cultural sectors over the last two years, opera has had to deal with its race problem.
The industry has "not been good," according to Elizabeth Long, the Finger Lakes Opera executive director. "The first step is recognizing that and listening to how we can be better."
Kearstin Piper Brown is featured as a soprano in Moments in Sonder; she considers Finger Lakes Opera her home company. After touring the world as a renowned performer, she found herself a part of transformative conversations concerning what needed to change in the opera industry after George Floyd's murder.
"They're killing Black folks and we're out of work," Brown said in regards to those conversations in 2020. "We had to come together. We knew it was time."
Out of those conversations, the Black Opera Alliance was established. The group's mission is to empower Black classical artists and administrators by exposing systems of racial inequity.
The organization asked colleagues and companies in the opera art form to sign a pledge. The agreement included hiring Black artists and creatives at every level of production and prioritizing works by Black composers on the main stage, especially those that feature storytelling authentic to the complexity and broad experience of Black culture.
Jorell Williams, Baritone in Moments in Sonder, believes the most prominent issue regarding racial equity in opera is representation in leading roles. Like Brown and Boykin, his resume is full of accolades; however, Williams constantly remains overlooked.
"It's not that I'm better than or less than," Williams said. "You have not afforded me the same opportunity as someone else because of the color of my skin."
The trio of Boykin, Brown, and Williams believes the issue extends to audiences, as companies have failed to program relatable content for diverse viewers.
"When you look through a program, what do Black and Brown people see that would make them want to buy a ticket?," Kearstin Piper Brown said.
Moments in Sonder is an opportunity for the Finger Lakes Opera to be a part of the change as the industry advances.
The history of classical music in Rochester is rich and diverse. From iconic composers like George Walker and Adolphus Hailstork to bass-baritone singer and actor William Warfield, Kearstin Piper Brown finds it fitting that Rochester will host the world premiere of her long-time friend's masterwork.
"What keeps me going is this brotherhood and sisterhood," Boykin said. "It's so easy to feel isolated in this industry, but when you meet people like Jorell and Kearstin, it makes the journey so much easier."
Contact Robert Bell at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @byrobbell & Instagram: @byrobbell
This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.
The Finger Lakes Opera requires either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test (self-administer rapid) result for entry for those eligible to be vaccinated. Everyone will be required to wear a mask.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Finger Lakes Opera to present world premier of 'Moments of Sonder' in Rochester