116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The color of an artist’s skin has never been a factor for Daniel Kleinknecht when casting Cedar Rapids Opera roles.
He founded the professional troupe in 1998, and when it came time to mount its first major production the following year, he cast a Black man and a white woman as lovers in “Tosca.”
“It didn’t occur to me,” he said of the mixed-race casting. “I was listening to their voices. … Only one person asked me about that — ‘Does this matter?’ And it didn’t occur to me, but for some people, I guess it does.
“I know what my answer is: It's never been anything for me.”
But he also knows that as he auditions singers around the Midwest, “99 percent of them are white,” he said, so he’s exploring ways to look farther afield when seeking out artists, to act on the company’s diversity and inclusion objectives.
And in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, he felt it was time to turn a spotlight specifically on Black operatic performers — to showcase their musical influences and discuss the challenges they face in their professional lives.
From that desire has emerged a three-part Juneteenth celebration, honoring the end of slavery in the United States. The Eastern Iowa events begin with outdoor concerts in Iowa City on June 18 and in Waterloo on June 19, featuring soprano Whitney Morrison of Chicago, baritone Sidney Outlaw of New York City and pianist Pedro Yanez of Chicago, a frequent Cedar Rapids Opera collaborator.
Cedar Rapids Opera Juneteenth concerts
• Featuring: Whitney Morrison, soprano; Sidney Outlaw, baritone; Pedro Yanez, pianist
• Iowa City: 7 p.m. June 18, Riverside Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City; plus Lifetime Achievement Award presentation to Simon Estes; rain date: 7 p.m. June 20, same location
• Waterloo: 7 p.m. June 19, RiverLoop Amphitheatre, 225 Commercial St., Waterloo
• Admission: Free to both concerts; preregistration required at Eventbrite.com
• Other: General admission seating; lawn chairs permitted on grassy areas
• Details: cropera.org/juneteenth-concerts-panel
Panel discussion, “Does the Color of My Skin Really Matter?”
• Featuring: Simon Estes, Whitney Morrison, Sidney Outlaw, Pedro Yanez and moderator Myron McReynolds
• When: 2 p.m. June 20
• Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• Admission: Free; preregistration required at Eventbrite.com
• Other: General admission seating according to venue regulations; masks required to be worn at all times by all patrons
• Livestream: facebook.com/africanamericanmuseumofiowa
• Details: cropera.org/juneteenth-concerts-panel
During the Iowa City concert, Centerville native Simon Estes, 83, who has spent his storied career breaking barriers, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the company that recently shortened its name to Cedar Rapids Opera.
“He’s an icon,” said Outlaw, 39, a professor and much-lauded performer heralded as “an opera powerhouse” by the San Francisco Chronicle. “And because he went before me, he opened the door for me and made it a little easier for me. He sacrificed. I don't know him personally, but through his art, through his work, through his advocacy, through his being — his being — just being there, that is why I'm here now.”
On June 20, he’ll get to spend more time with Estes, as well as the other artists, as they gather at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids to discuss “Does the Color of My Skin Really Matter?”
“It matters,” said Morrison, 31, who already has garnered glowing accolades from the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. And after viewing a pandemic production in which she participated, an Opera News critic declared: “Morrison’s is such a large voice that it was the only one during the streamed event that my speakers couldn’t handle. This is a voice we need to hear live.”
Now Eastern Iowa audiences will not only hear her sing live, but hear her thoughts on the role race plays for artists of color.
Race in artistry
“I cannot talk about a career without talking about my life in general,” Morrison said by phone from her home in Chicago. “The fact that we have this construct of race that puts my features, my hair, my nose, my skin in a certain category, and it being a part of the way the society is structured in the way it functions, it always, always, always has mattered and does matter.
“Sometimes I think the way it is mattering is changing a bit. Sometimes it is improving, I hope. But at the end of the day, in a white supremacist society, it always matters to me because I have to be careful, and it matters to the things that I've done. It matters to the places where I’ve been,” she said.
“I went to a historically Black college. There I understood that the best and the brightest and the worst and the silliest were all the same color. And so I saw the gamut run. So stepping out into society and knowing that is not how other people have experienced blackness, I have to be aware that there are so many signals and so much messaging that tells people who I am and what I look like is less than. So I have to always be aware of that for my survival.”
Outlaw said he used to be afraid of talking about whether race has been an issue in building his career. “But now that I’m (approaching) 40 — yes, it was.”
But that situation has improved for him, he said by phone from his office in the Aaron Copland School of Music in Queens College, New York.
“As time has passed on, my reputation preceded me, and I don't have that issue as much anymore,” he said. “I do still have it sometimes, but it doesn't affect me and make me sad as much as it did when I was younger. I’ve learned how to process it, and rejection, in that capacity. I have two wonderful managers who I believe protect me. You know, there's probably more to tell that I don't know,” he said with a laugh.
Turning serious, he added: “I've experienced racism. I'm not going to pretend like I haven’t.”
Words of wisdom
But one piece of advice he received early on has stayed with him. After hearing Outlaw sing, George Shirley, the first Black tenor to play a leading role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, told him:
“Make the only reason that you don't get a job be for the color of your skin, because you can't change that. You continue to grow; you continue to do the right thing and do the work; continue to love and be loved; and be open to trying new things; and continue to soar.”
Now, when offering advice to his students of color, Outlaw not only passes along Shirley’s words, but also invokes the words Outlaw’s father still says to him:
“You need to be 110 percent better than your colleagues to get half of what they got or what they have.”
While he strives to be fair to all of his students, and set a good example in teaching, rehearsing and performing, he also hopes that when any of his students do face barriers, they will remember:
“Professor said this might happen. OK, here's how I'm going to handle this with grace.”
Family and heritage
Both Morrison and Outlaw have strong family support and roots in music and in the church, which will be reflected in the songs they’ve chosen for the concerts. Songs that range from opera arias and duets to Broadway, gospel and lyrics of inspiration and the Black experience.
“I believe the Black church to be the epicenter of Black culture, and I was raised in that,” Outlaw said.
He also comes from a family of civil rights activists, and grew up knowing the significance of Juneteenth. His parents marched for the causes they championed, and his mother and aunt integrated the North Carolina high school from which he graduated.
“And even now, my family is pretty active,” he said, “and we use music as our line of advocacy. Nina Simone said, ’It is impossible for artists to create without reflecting the times.’‴
LaNisha Cassell, the African American Museum of Iowa’s executive director, was eager to again collaborate with the opera company, and was pleased to help facilitate the Juneteenth programming.
“We were very excited to do that, and thought it would be a great idea, and loved their idea,” she said.
In reflecting on the title of the panel discussion, she reiterated that skin color does still matter.
“People will say it doesn’t, especially here,” she said, citing cliches like “we don’t see color.” She added that she’s sure such responses “come from a good place.”
“But when you don’t see color, you don’t see culture,” she said.
“So it does matter, and I know this is specific to opera, and theater and that whole genre, but it crosses over into every other aspect of life. …
“Some of the disconnect is when a lot of the people will hear ’white privilege’ and think that means that you have special treatment or have lived in the lap of luxury, and that everybody white is affluent and wealthy,” she said.
“It’s not that. A white person can be poor and go through some very awful circumstances like anybody. That’s not the issue. The issue is that none of those things are because of the color of your skin. …
“And I’m hoping that this panel discussion can open some eyes and hearts and people can not just learn, but actually be inspired to speak out. …
“I think it will open some doors to new conversations, and that’s our big thing: conversation, engagement and reflections.”
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