“Racism does not go away if you remain silent”

In conversation with Golda Schultz

Taboo (Issue I/2021)


The opera singer Golda Schultz. Photo: Dario Acosta

Ms. Schultz, you are a world famous opera singer and soprano. Many operas are quite old, with texts that are sometimes problematic by today's standards. Do you mind performing these pieces over and over again?

Not really. For me, Le nozze di Figaro is the perfect opera, even though it deals with difficult themes. It's about older men who chase women and think they have power over female sexuality. It's also about women who have to assert themselves in a man's world. These stories are unfortunately still very topical. And still, something so beautiful was created out of all this. Nevertheless, of course we also need new stories: more female voices, more from Asia, Africa and Latin America. For so long, our stories have been written by others. We should finally be able to tell them ourselves on the big stages.

Are there topics in your professional world that are not talked about?

Yes, politics! When I look at big pop divas, Beyoncé, Lizzo or Cardi B, it's part of their brand to be very opinionated and political. But in classical music, we are made to feel completely irrelevant as people with our own opinions. About me, for example, people refer to: “the beautiful voice of Golda Schultz”. I am supposed to be a beautiful music machine who only talks about the sacred art form. If I write something about feminism on Twitter it immediately triggers criticism. I find that very strange. In the Middle Ages, there was the figure of the jester, who was even allowed to criticise the king. And in former times, the role of artists was to address everything that was taboo. In English we say “speaking truth to power”. Somehow, we've lost that.

Who criticises you when you write something political on social media?

It comes from all sides. Unfortunately, my profession is very dependent on public opinion. If they don't like you as a singer, then they won't hire you anymore. In recent years, this phenomenon is known as cancel culture: At first you're put on a pedestal, but as soon as you make a tiny mistake, you're down.

Has something like this ever happened to you?

At least a little bit. I had a big gig in September 2020 at the BBC's Last Night of the Proms. It's a very traditional concert series at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The audience is used to certain songs being played every year, including “Rule, Britannia!”. The conductor Dalia Stasevska and I wanted to offer a little comfort in our programming, offering some consolation in these unusual times. We are all alone at home and we wanted to send out the message that no one is alone. Even the concert took place in an empty auditorium and was broadcast live. We thought that “Rule, Britannia!” wasn't the right song to send a message of unity. Apparently, others saw it differently. The audience completely freaked out because I didn't sing the song! Some politicians openly criticised us. They said: “These foreigners are taking away our British culture! And a lot of people in the audience spoke badly of me, saying: If you think our culture's so shit, then don't sing here in England!” Things like that. It really hurt. We were just trying to do our job as best we could but nobody listened to us. And that's what I mean by cancel culture: because the reactions are so extreme, many prefer to keep quiet. Unfortunately, problems do not go away if you remain silent. The same is true of racism.

Can you explain this in more detail?

For ages, many people have been pretending that racism doesn't exist. It reminds me of the game “Taboo”: You explain a word to your team, but you are not allowed to say the word, or similar words. Imagine you have drawn the word “racism” and you have to explain it but you can’t say “racism”, “discrimination” or “slavery”. Because there are so many things we can’t talk about, it gets really complicated to move forwards on racism.

Is it taboo to talk about racism in the classical music world?

Yes. It's difficult to name it because racism usually does not appear openly, but rather under the guise of exoticism: one Asian face is replaced by another Asian face. Or I hear sentences like: “Why should we hire Golda Schultz when, with Pretty Yende, we already have a South African singer?” The colour of our skin and our origin are a determining factor of our uniqueness. That is racist. I remember a teacher, back in the conservatory, who said: “If you have an African-sounding name, you should change it.” Back then I was outraged, but now, sadly, I have to say that he was right. If someone can't pronounce your name on the first try, you're less likely to get hired. As a South African living in Bavaria, I experience racism and xenophobia every day, but it's also hard to talk about it. And there are still so many sexist clichés, such as the one that opera singers are always high-maintenance divas.

What do you mean by “high-maintenance”?

I always like to quote Beyoncé who says, if you think of a diva as the female version of a hustler, then I'm a diva, working hard for my money, being well prepared, doing my best. Unfortunately, most people think of people think of “diva” as someone who is demanding, difficult, complicated, hysterical and high-maintenance. There are so many jokes about “the hysterical soprano”. Sometimes when my male colleagues tell a joke like that, they look at me, startled. and say, “Of course we don't mean you!” But if you hear something like that often enough, the message is clear: Don’t demand respect and equality. Don't complain. If you can do that, then you're a good girl. But if you complain, you'll be pigeonholed as a diva. That's what makes it so hard to talk about when things are actually going really wrong. For example, if you're being harassed or a conductor has it in for you.

What has to happen for that to change?

We have to learn to speak honestly with each other, to openly acknowledge that sexism and racism exist. And those who hold the power in the classical music world must realise that their power is disproportionate. Think of it this way: We singers are like fish in a bowl, waiting to be fished. The artistic directors and casting agents of the big opera houses are the fishermen. The problem is that these fishermen come from a homogeneous group. Their ideas of excellence are shaped by their own experiences, which are, for the most part, those of white men. Instead of diving deep into this pool of fish to look for the most talented, they just wait to see which one jumps the highest. The system is designed so that those at the top choose people who are similar to them. People from Asia, Latin America or Africa are so often excluded. That's why the whole system needs to be revolutionised.

At the moment, because of the pandemic, operas and concerts are taking place digitally, if at all. How are how are you doing?

I finally got all my sheet music sorted (laughs)! Corona forces everyone to wait and see what the future will bring. Last year I was on the road so much that I was only at home for three months. Now I would actually be in the USA, but the engagement was cancelled. If I'm honest, I'm actually a bit happy about it. Although that is also a kind of taboo ...

You mean talking about the stressful aspects of your job?

Above a certain level, it is frowned upon in my profession to talk about difficult things. Because it's a privilege to do this work, to see the world, to sing on famous stages. And that's true, of course. I'm grateful, but I can still get homesick. I can sing in Tokyo and at the same time think how much I'd like to be with the people who really matter to me. Instead, I'm sitting in a foreign country and the only person I can talk to is the interpreter (laughs). That is the human thing about art: it's exhausting, sometimes embarrassing and exhausting. But the result is unbelievably beautiful music. Art is so important because it shows us all the beautiful horror of being human. So that we can laugh, cry and feel good.

The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage
Translated by Jess Smee

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