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Our inaugural series of events is curated to explore critically BORN’s terms of engagement.

Black experiences in opera: perspectives from South Africa, Europe, and the US 

Time: Friday 21 August 2020, 11am EDT / 4pm BST / 5pm CEST.

Platform: Zoom

Moderator: Prof Naomi André, University of Michigan

Panelists: Louise Toppin (USA), Patrick Dailey (USA), Njabulo Madlala (South Africa), July Zuma (South Africa)

Historically, access for black talent has been strictly regulated in opera as an industry. Recent research has begun to examine critically the myriad victories of black talent at the highest levels and in the most public stories of diversification in opera (André 2018, Roos 2018). Until now these victories have been seen in isolation and always peripheral to the bulwark of white arts. But in recent months, the struggle for acceptance has been overtaken by an activist drive to share publically performers’ and industry members’ experiences of being black bodies in operatic spaces (@operaisracist). These narratives provide alternative perspectives on the often celebratory accounts of top-level artists’ introduction to and immersion in opera. Instead of allowing themselves to be co-opted into manageable narratives that continue to praise the black presence in opera as idiosyncratic, artists and practitioners are increasingly urging for a more honest and representative account of the quotidian experiences of black talent in opera.

Please register for the event here.  Upon registration you will receive the Zoom link and password for this panel.

The conversation will run for an hour, followed by twenty minutes for audience exchange. Talking points may include, but won’t be limited to:

  • @operaisracist Instagram account, and similar recent interventions
  • intersections between race and gender hierarchies in operatic activity
  • the hidden labour of black opera scenographers, choreographers, librettists, and other largely unacknowledged creative agents
  • routes to participation and empowerment in South Africa and the USA


Louise Toppin is Professor of Music (Voice) at the University of Michigan. She is a noted performer, scholar and professor who specializes in the concert repertoire of African American composers. As the administrator of the George Shirley Vocal Competition and Videus (a non-profit organization that promotes the concert repertoire of African American and women composers), she encourages the performance and scholarship of African American compositions by students and scholars.

Patrick Dailey, countertenor, has earned awards and honors from the NAACP ACT-SO, Harlem Opera Theater Vocal Competition, and the National Classical Singer Magazine University Vocal Competition. He is an alumnus of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist program and Opera New Jersey’s Emerging Artist Program. He performs widely across the USA and the UK, and conducts research on the construction of the black voice. Dailey is Adjunct Professor of Voice at Tennessee State University.

Njabulo Madlala was born in Durban, South Africa and trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Cardiff International Academy of Voice. He has been a Britten-Pears Young Artist, a Samling Artist and a young artist at the Ravinia International Festival. In 2010 he won the Kathleen Ferrier Award. As a baritone, he regularly performs with English National Opera, Royal Opera House, London Philharmonic Orchestra and further afield. He is a founding director of the Voices of South Africa International Opera Singing Competition.

July Zuma is a freelance lyric tenor from Durban, South Africa who has resided in Berlin since 2012.  He has performed in numerous international operatic stages and festivals. He graduated from the University of Cape Town Opera School under Prof. Angelo Gobbato and continued his Honors Studies at the Conservatori Superior de Música del Liceu in Barcelona with Prof. Eduardo Griminéz. He was Cape Town Opera’s Company Manager from 2005 to 2009 and was the Production Manager for Umculo Festival’s productions under Shirley Apthorp. July is also one of the Directors for Umthombo Arts Development based in the Eastern Cape and a Director in his own organization, Kwa-Mashu Community Empowerment Organization, based in Kwa-Mashu Township.

Africa and the Diaspora on the Contemporary Opera Stage

Details to be confirmed

Black politics is in a phase of global renewal and alliance-forming, with TikTok activists engaged in #BlackLivesMatter and Hong Kong protests, repurposing social media platforms to diverse causes. Colonial, Confederate and slave trader memorial statuary has fallen from Cape Town to Bristol, signaling global trends in protest and resistance to long-established hegemonies. Artists and audiences are also listening outside traditionally assigned genres, and this listening is not merely random, but signals new identity formations. Contemporary opera has heard voices of both a renewed black polity and the willingness to work outside inherited genres. Likewise, however, composers and practitioners are embracing opera as ‘traditional’ form, to reinscribe it with previously untold narratives and meanings. In what ways are Africa and its diaspora telling their own stories on the contemporary opera stage?

Talking points may include, but won’t be limited to:

  • operatic adaptation of existing works (within and across genres)
  • the re-appropriation of contentious forms
  • formal experiments, such as Mthwakazi’s Xhopera
  • ‘traditional’ opera by black creators
  • opera and/as activism

The Operatic Enterprise and the Racialised Politics of Place

Details to be confirmed

For all the international and global aspects of current opera-making, each operatic event unfolds in a particular place and time. In these contexts local, regional and national realities inflect the work’s significance. In tension with the local context, discourses of race, ethnicity, class, empire, nation and gender play out across the stage even before the first note is sung.

Relevant works and productions for consideration may include, but won’t be limited to:

  • Memories in Mind: Women of the Windrush in London (2019)
  • Princess Magogo at the Ravinia Festival, Italy (2004)
  • Romeo’s Passion, a community opera presented in Johannesburg (2019)
  • Brett Bailey’s free translation, truncation and polemic recontextualisation of Verdi’s Macbeth in Cape Town (2014)
  • Aida in Cairo

The First Black Opera Research Network Symposium

University of Huddersfield

March 2021

Details for this event will be finalised once greater clarity about the Covid-19 pandemic exists.