Inaugural Clayco Fellows

Opera Theatre selects first program cohorts to recruit, train administrators of color

Opera Theatre of St. Louis is launching a fellowship program to recruit and train arts administrators of color.

Three fellows began work there on Jan. 4 and will stay through the end of July. Two are Black and one is Latina.

Chandler Johnson will work in artistic administration, Quentin Beverly in fundraising and Lyanne Alvarado in general administration.

The theater has recruited more artists of color in recent years, but has no Black employees among its 36-person, year-round office staff. Its department heads include three women of color.

“For years we’ve had really good intentions for becoming a more diverse company, and we’ve done so by telling diverse stories and having diverse casts on our stage,” said Michelle Myers, director of administration. “But over the last year, over the last six months, we’ve really begun to understand that good intention isn’t enough.”

In September, Opera Theatre announced its Voices Fund to support the work of young artists, particularly Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Latino artists. The organization reallocated $725,000 from donors to its annual gala, canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The fellowship program is funded for three years by gifts from Bob and Jane Clark and the construction firm Clayco Inc. The second round of fellows will begin work in January 2022. The length of the fellowship will extend to 10 or 11 months in its second and third years.

Johnson, who pursued a career as a singer before shifting his focus to arts administration, said he’s shared the stage with other Black artists, but the decision-makers typically are white.

“I never saw anyone that looked like me behind the table, behind the scenes," Johnson said. "Anyone that was doing the casting, doing the conducting, doing the stage management, the directing.”

A relative lack of opportunities for Black artists and other artists of color is widespread in the opera field, though Opera Theatre is among the organizations that have begun diversifying their stages.

Metropolitan Opera in New York recently announced it will open its 2021 season with “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” by jazz artist Terence Blanchard. It will be the first opera by a Black composer to appear at the Met. Opera Theatre St. Louis presented the show’s world premiere in 2019.

Opera Theatre premiered “An American Soldier” the year before — an opera about Danny Chen, a Chinese American man who died by suicide while serving in Afghanistan after enduring racially motivated hazing.

Yet Andrew Jorgensen, general director, described his organization’s administrative staff as “almost entirely white” in September. He and Artistic Director James Robinson are white.

Myers said a lack of diversity in Opera Theatre’s office staff hurts the organization's ability to reflect its full community.

“When you don't have a diversity of voices represented in planning the art and creating the art, it just doesn’t connect with people as well,” she said.

She said she doesn’t expect Opera Theatre to have open positions available for Johnson, Beverly and Alvarado when they finish their fellowship next summer. But the program aims to help them develop personal networks among other professionals in the field, to help with future job searches.

Jeremy Goodwin is arts and culture reporter for St. Louis Public Radio, a reporting partner with The St. Louis American.

republished with permission of St. Louis Public Radio:

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