As one of many institutions currently disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Dallas Opera halted all stage productions, furloughed workers, and postponed its 2020 season until March 2021. In late April, under the leadership of David Lomeli, director of artistic administration, the opera’s programming pivoted the TDO Network, the company’s new in-house virtual platform for creatives working in the industry to teach and engage.
One of those virtual projects, Taking the Stage With Kristian and Quo, is led by Kristian Roberts, director of education, and Quodesia Johnson, education and company culture manager at the Dallas Opera; on the online show, they host conversations about the intersections of race, performance, and equity. Each week since April, the duo has invited coworkers, friends, and Dallas-based activists and educators to the show, providing guests a platform to discuss how systemic inequalities influence participation and access to art and education. The topics for each episode are influenced by Roberts and Johnson’s in-person conversations between meetings at the Dallas Opera, as well as Roberts’s experiences as a member of the company’s chorus and Johnson’s work as a teaching artist.
As they look forward to the Dallas Opera reopening and in-person education restarting, Roberts and Johnson pull back the curtain and allow for candid conversations. The coworkers of eight years hope to show that opera is not exempt from criticism but is an art form that must be improved. With Taking the Stage, these artists and educators invite the community into their conversations by encouraging productive conversations in their videos’ comments section and in offline dialogue.
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Texas Monthly caught up with Roberts and Johnson to talk about truth-telling, the possibilities of virtual learning, and acknowledging the racial inequities in opera.
Texas Monthly: The Dallas Opera has a long-standing educational program. What are your roles in creating and sustaining that programming?
Kristian Roberts: I oversee all of the education programming for grades K through twelve and college. That includes a team of performing and teaching artists that go into schools, do performances and workshops. We’ve had nine programs up to this point. But now with COVID-19, we’ve had to be in conversation and planning to change some of that with virtual programming. Basically, I bring kids to the opera and take opera to the students.
Quodesia Johnson: I work very closely with Kristian to manage the educational programs and to help develop ways to implement and evaluate programs we do. I serve as a liaison to our teachers and our district, while Kristian serves as a liaison for building relationships with other education organizations. I work very closely with Ian Derrer, who is the general director, to analyze the current culture of TDO, the policies we have in place, the practices, the origins of those policies, and the ways we can support the work we know is necessary to become a more inclusive organization.
TM: How has COVID-19 shifted your worlds and the work that you do?
KR: First, there was the shock of it all. But then I took the approach of going to my team and looking at things from different perspectives, and figuring out what we can do during this time. We’ve also asked the community what they need. We’ve had meetings with school districts over the past few weeks to see how we can support them. We’ve been asking how we can support and fit into planning for next year as well. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, and that has made us sit back and look at what we can provide that will be useful in the classroom.
QJ: In this shift, I’ve had to navigate what it means to use my creativity for education, because that’s where a lot of my work comes into play. Being the company culture manager, I have to create a sense of balance, create a sense of center and a foundation for employees on all levels as we all had to navigate the initial shock. Some employees were extremely creative and busy, and others were on the other end of the spectrum. So my role in that provided an opportunity for everybody to kind of see that both ends of the spectrum are completely okay.
TM: The first episode of Taking the Stage premiered in April. Take us back to those early meetings where you were figuring out the show’s structure.
KR: Quo is the show runner. Quo is the content creator. She cultivates all of that. I consider my role as more of a collaborator. When we were approached about doing the show at the opera, I was just freshly promoted. She came to me and said she had ideas about what she wanted to do and what it should look like. I know my colleague: when she puts stuff together, there’s a method to the madness and I just sit back. We talked through the outline of everything that she was thinking about doing, and I would pop in ideas here and there. She has a huge network, so she uses it.
TM: How do you decide the topics of each episode?
QJ: This work is in addition to the work that we do at the Dallas Opera. We were approached by David Lomeli, the director of artistic administration, who had this brilliant, crazy idea. He’s like, ‘I’m gonna start a network and I want y’all to have a show.’ He pretty much said we have completely complete creative control. That is when we both sat down and said that we are not going to do anything unless it’s coming from a place of healing, unless it’s coming from a place of truth, because of the work that we’re already committed to. We wanted to make sure that we talked about equity.
KR: I said, I want to make sure that the words we speak are words that help us progress toward something better. That when we say dismantle and replace, we truly mean replace. It is irresponsible to say let’s tear something down but not have something to build up in place of it. It was important for me to do the show through a lens of equity, not just because I’m a black woman living in the United States, but because of the work that I do and the role that I have and the experience that I’ve had on stage. We would talk about topics that may be uncomfortable, but for people to understand that everybody has a role to play in this work.
TM: What initially attracted each of you to opera?
QJ: I didn’t understand what the hype was about, to be absolutely honest with you. I was like, ‘These stories are stupid, why do these women keep dying? What is taking so long?’ That’s how I was, but it took me understanding as somebody who loves all types of art that it was not opera itself. There truly is something for everyone. So that is why I love opera. And then of course the music, the story lines, the composers.
KR: I had done some singing and I grew up in church. I went to a community college before I transferred to Baylor University. They told me how my voice type was rare. I was a contralto, which is the lowest female voice type. I was absolutely fascinated with the Black journey through opera. Reading about people like Sissieretta Jones, who was an opera singer in the nineteenth century in America. I was being compared to people like Marian Anderson and Florence Quivar and Grace Bumbry, all of these people I had read about. Then to hear Paul Robeson’s voice? It’s mind-blowing. I would always look for where we were. Don’t let history fool you: we’ve been washed out but we’ve been there the entire time. I’m a firm believer in paying tribute to way pavers.
TM: There is a perception and stereotype that Black people do not participate in opera. How do these misconceptions affect your work?
KR: We will have a panel of singers and artists on at some point to talk about this [on the show]. When I got behind the desk officially, I continued to sing in the Dallas Opera Chorus and work in education. Whenever I would go into the community, I can’t tell you how many times I would walk into a place, sing something for the kids, then jaws drop in the room. But on top of that, we have stories of being racially profiled on the way to a rehearsal or being othered in a space. Opera is not exempt.
QJ: It does impact my work. Just telling somebody I work for opera—I am a classically trained pianist—they kind of just look at you. What I often see is that those who are in the opera world, there is this initial defiance in accepting that I am standing in front of you. It’s been my pleasure to even be able to defy those stereotypes. We always want to make sure that as we go out in our education programs that kids who look like us see people who look like them.
TM: Your show gives a platform to Black Texans in the arts to tell their stories. How do you create a safe space for them to talk about race and inequality in fine arts?
QJ: We make sure that there is an understanding between us and between whomever the guest is at the time that they can talk about whatever they want. The conversation naturally navigates toward those things. The racial healing work, that accountability, the narrative change, the relationship-building, the policy and examination, it’s missing in the work that needs to be done.
KR: The environment that we try to cultivate with the artists or with the person that’s coming on is to make sure that you are comfortable. We want to make sure that you can speak and walk in your truth. We want to make sure that we stay away from things that might make you lose your job. We always want to be mindful of the environments that people have to walk back into after they’ve been on our show.
TM: Why is it important to keep the conversations you’ve started on Taking the Stage going beyond the virtual realm?
QJ: It’s just a matter of making sure these conversations continue. It’s a matter of what that looks like to make sure people know that they are invited into the conversation, that they are needed in the conversation, that you will not be coddled in the conversation, but that you have the space to learn with us. It’s going to take unlearning on all of our parts.
KR: Everything we talk about on the show goes into the work that we do at our company, and everything that we do with our company also relates to the work that we do. We have to live it.