Commonwealth Alumnus Juliana Pistorius is a founding member of the Black Opera Research Network (BORN). Founded in 2020, BORN is an international research collective which advocates for greater inclusivity and diversity in operatic practice and research across the US, Southern Africa, and Europe. It fosters dialogue between academics, performers, and institutions, including opera companies and arts foundations. BORN also develops resources for scholars and practitioners interested in promoting the wealth of operatic culture that exists beyond canonical repertoires and standard histories of the form.
Challenging industry norms
BORN was created to bring together operatic researchers to enrich research in this field and highlight the problems and challenges in inclusivity and diversity in operatic practice to raise awareness and find ways to address these problems. BORN is managed by a working group of researchers and university academics and supported by affiliates representing people working in the field, including performers, scholars, and industry figures.
Yet, as Juliana points out, the demographics of BORN itself is problematic. Members are predominantly white and efforts to diversify the group have revealed broader challenges within the sector. There is a limited number of researchers of colour in this field and they are relied upon to be representatives across a range of panels, committees, and working groups. As such, part of the work of BORN is to encourage more researchers of colour into this field by making its research and findings accessible. This, however, has its own challenges.
“It’s incredibly difficult to find material because it has been destroyed or it’s not documented properly, or it’s stuck in archives that are unreachable, or it’s just that we don’t know what there is. We don’t know about works by black composers, for instance, hence we don’t even know that we need to look for material.”
BORN’s website is a hub of information on black opera and the group also runs a series of events which brings together industry figures and academics to discuss the challenges of increasing diversity within the opera industry.
Whilst they are working to grow and diversify the network, Juliana highlights that one of the current strengths of the network is that working group members are located across the world. This enables them to discuss similarities and differences in inclusivity and diversity practice in different country contexts and raise awareness about this to its wider membership.
“So many of these efforts towards inclusivity and diversity and equity are quite inward looking. [In] the US, the problem of inequality or the problem of racism looks different to what it looks like in the UK, and it looks different to what it looks like in South Africa. Problems of access are different in different places so often there is no understanding.”
A watershed moment for black opera
As well as providing a network for researchers and academics in this field, BORN also seeks to foster better relationships between performers and industry figures.
“If we want to research black opera then we need to support the production of black opera. That’s how BORN came to be.”
Shortly before BORN was founded, one its members, Naomi André, published a book, ‘Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement’, which became an influential study of black opera in the US and South Africa. This coincided with Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements which were taking place across the world and shining a stark spotlight on the racism, discrimination, and racial inequality experienced by black people globally.
In this context and following a concerted effort to increase awareness about the racially exclusive nature of operatic history, opera companies became more receptive to interventions and initiatives that addressed diversity and inclusivity.
“There’s this idea that opera is still only for white people. Because of the very real challenges that opera singers of colour had been facing up to that point, it became part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Opera companies became incredibly receptive towards these types of interventions because they had to. They had a social responsibility to acknowledge the problems that characterised the industry.”
When BORN hosted its first event tackling questions of race and opera and the challenges to black participation in opera, Juliana and fellow members were pleasantly surprised to receive more than 500 people registering for the event, many of whom worked in opera companies.
Following this, BORN has worked with American opera advocacy charity, Opera America, which invests in new operas and provides information to singers, practitioners, and audience members in the US. Together, they have collaborated on ways to improve their practices.
“At all of our events thus far we’ve had representatives from opera companies who have then subsequently said, this is interesting, please send me more information. It’s clear that the interest is there and that there’s this enormous awareness that there’s a problem and it needs to be addressed.”
In October 2022, BORN hosted its first in-person meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, where they discussed and agreed future objectives and strategy. They are also in the process of developing advocacy tools, such as advice sheets based on performers’ experiences of racial discrimination and structural exclusion, which can be issued to companies as guidelines for more supportive employment and outreach practices.
How cultural boycotts change public thinking
Juliana is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, and the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Her research project, titled ‘Beyond Boycott: Musical Internationalism and the Making of Race in Apartheid South Africa’, asks how cultural exchange and political activism intersect. It traces the social and cultural history of the UN-backed boycott of apartheid South Africa and seeks to shed new light on the political and racial assumptions that underpin international cultural exchange.
“This is work that’s really tapping into current debates around the boycott of Russian artists, for instance, due to the war in Ukraine, or the boycott of Israel due to the Palestinian occupation. But also boycotts of fossil fuel companies, for instance, that support the arts, and how there are so many arts organisations now giving back that funding.”
Juliana’s research seeks to reveal the importance and function of culture within different contexts and its role in building a particular image of a country. Through her research, she hopes to shift the way people think about boycotts and, rather than asking whether they are successful, instead considering what they reveal about public thinking and priorities. Juliana hopes that understanding boycotts in this way will enable them to be used to shape policy and funding decisions.
Alongside this research, Juliana is also completing a monograph, titled ‘Postcolonial Opera: William Kentridge and the Unbounded Work of Art’, which is based on research she conducted during her first postdoc, a Leverhulme Research Fellowship at the University of Huddersfield.
On completing her current Fellowship, Juliana hopes to secure a university position to continue her work in research and teaching.
Changing perceptions as a Commonwealth Scholar
Juliana credits her Commonwealth Scholarship and time at the University of Oxford for exposing her to a vibrant and diverse international community of like-minded individuals that she would not otherwise have met.
“Universities don’t always create the circumstances in which people are forced to talk to each other and mingle with each other. Whereas in Oxford that’s what the whole system is built on. I found myself in a community that made me very happy.”
During her time at the University of Oxford she was challenged to think differently about her research and perceptions of working in music as well as her role as both a South African and an international citizen. This time made a lasting impact on how she now thinks about and approaches her work.
“My Commonwealth scholarship provided me with an opportunity to encounter ways of thinking and working in music I had never even thought of. As a result, I developed a more acute sense of the political and ethical stakes associated with being a music professional in a social context characterised by racialised violence, climate breakdown, and growing inequality. At a very basic level, the main achievement my Commonwealth Scholarship facilitated is my awakening towards my own responsibilities as a citizen—both of South Africa and of the international community.”
Juliana Pistorius is a 2012 Commonwealth Scholar from South Africa. She completed a MSt Music at the University of Oxford.