Boston Lyric Opera’s Omar: Belonging on the Operatic Stage

Ilana Coolidge
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The Boston Lyric Opera’s co-commissioned production of Omar, which the company presented this past May, won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music for the production’s blend of Western orchestral music with Americana, Arabic, and West African folk music. Based on the 1831 biography of Islamic scholar Omar Ibn Said, the story follows his journey from West Africa to being sold into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina. BLO has worked with YW Boston’s InclusionBoston program to bring DEI into every aspect of the organization. We sat down with BLO’s General Director and Chief Executive Officer Bradley Vernatter (LeadBoston Class of 2022) about Omar, BLO’s work with YW Boston, and how DEI work has benefited the organization.

YW Boston: Tell us about the journey of developing and staging Omar, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Bradley: I first heard Omar in January 2020 at a workshop held by OPERA America, the national service organization for opera. That performance was excerpts only, but it was clear that this opera would be extremely powerful. At that time, BLO became a co-commissioner, one of the organizations supporting the development of the piece and providing financial backing to bring it to the stage. COVID delayed and postponed its debut, but development continued behind the scenes, leading to the eventual world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA in 2022.

BLO continued to be involved throughout the multi-year process of bringing Omar to Boston. We saw interest in our production grow steadily as we got closer to its New England opening. The night we opened Omar was such an incredible moment. Not only had we sold out the entire run before opening night with a waiting list of over 200 people, but we were also overwhelmed by excitement and positive responses from artists, audience, and critics. It became clear that we had created a profound theater experience for both the artists and audiences.

YW Boston: In 2021 we worked together through YW Boston’s InclusionBoston program and more recently, through LeadBoston in 2022. How did your internal diversity, equity, and inclusion work translate to your production of Omar and other productions?

Bradley: Although our production of Omar was underway several years before our work with YW Boston, our approach to preparation was significantly shaped by the internal work we did through InclusionBoston. Most significantly, our participation was at the beginning of BLO’s journey to center inclusion, diversity, equity, and access throughout all facets of the organization, from the board to artists, and from our staff to unions. Through this program, we entered the preparation period for Omar with a deeper understanding of identity, and how it shapes all of us as we work together. Had we not built that scaffolding and shared language through InclusionBoston, we would not have been able to support our artists as well or have the same impact on audiences for Omar.

This foundation has also supported BLO’s work as we move beyond Omar, particularly as we look to our next season. This fall, we will stage a new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally scheduled to be produced prior to the pandemic, we paused bringing this opera to the stage as we took a step back to examine its legacy. We incorporated learnings from our work with YW Boston as we undertook The Butterfly Process, our year-long examination of Madama Butterfly and how we can approach it — and similar operas from the inherited repertoire — more inclusively. As we ramp up for this production in September, we continue to carry these learnings through our approach to this upcoming production (and beyond).

YW Boston: What contributed to your decision to participate in InclusionBoston and LeadBoston?

Bradley: Members of our board, staff, and artists participated in the Cultural Equity Learning Community in 2020, which was the first time BLO had participated in a company-wide inclusion, diversity, and equity training of any kind. At its conclusion, we knew we needed to continue this work. InclusionBoston’s program offered a longer, deeper commitment that we felt would enable us for lasting change. We wanted to pursue a long-term view that helped us build a framework to bring our full staff, artists, and board deeper into these conversations.

Personally, LeadBoston allowed me to continue that work, and to expand my network of like-minded leaders who are growing, and thinking about equity and belonging more comprehensively as a community and as a city. LeadBoston and my colleagues in the program broadened my thinking and helped me to understand the principles, application, and impact of equity in other sectors of our community. I learned a lot that I took back to my own work. Most importantly, I gained new tools and a network that will support my lifelong development.

YW Boston: Why do you think Omar is so important within the performing arts right now? How has your industry responded to your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts?

Bradley: Like many sectors of our society, the opera field elevated diversity, equity, and inclusion work in 2020, in some cases going from near zero to 100 with a very short ramp-up. The opera industry did this with an acknowledgment that the artform has not traditionally prioritized inclusivity in whose stories get told or who sits at the table to decide which stories get brought to the stage. Here in the United States, we originally inherited opera from Europe, and though many companies have been championing American opera for decades, much of the industry continued to prioritize a rotating list of Euro-centric operas.

Since 2020, we have experienced an inflection point in this trend and are now seeing not only more American operas, but we are also seeing a broader range of stories told through an American lens, shaping it into a more American artform. And this is a very good thing. With operas like Omar, we are beginning to see more music and storytelling connected to the realities American society has experienced, alongside a broadened cultural lens willing to engage with the complexities of our nation’s present and past. Having operas like Omar join the inherited repertoire, like Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s La Bohème, better reflects the fullness of the art form itself and creates a more inclusive experience for today’s audiences. It creates an opportunity for more creators to tell their stories, and for more people to see themselves and their histories reflected on stage.

YW Boston: How has working on the production of Omar impacted your staff?

Bradley: It’s always exciting to be a part of something new, especially a new commission, as it’s coming to life from the ground up. There’s a lot of energy in the weeks leading up to opening night, especially for staff, artists, and the creative team. Omar prompted particularly deep reflection for all of us at BLO during those weeks. As a primarily white-led organization producing a story of Black experience with a primarily Black cast and creative team, we recognized that we needed to take more steps to support everyone involved. With foundation from our work with YW, we assembled a cohort of Black and BIPOC professionals to provide additional resources for both artists and staff. This included our standard supports, such as an onsite intimacy coordinator and no-cost mental health and wellness benefit for artists, in addition to an independent consultant to serve as a mediator for conflict, should it arise.

Even with these supports, the process wasn’t without moments of tension. There was inherent conflict because of the opera’s subject matter and our position as a primarily white institution, all of which resulted in learnings that we will carry forward. Our learning from YW helped us acknowledge and address the shifting power dynamics and keep us focused on our shared humanity as the storytelling focus. As we reached opening night, we experienced a sense of pride and responsibility that BLO was using its resources to produce this opera with these creators. The choice to produce Omar reflects the heart of BLO’s vision and strategy to ensure that diverse experiences guide our decisions.

YW Boston: What have you heard from audience members? Are there themes that emerged from their feedback?

Bradley: We regularly survey our audiences after a production, and Omar was no different. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive – particularly in response to the music and the artists’ performances. We also received positive feedback on the ways BLO has engaged audiences surrounding the production itself, from our Scholar Perspectives event at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center to providing prayer space for our Muslim audience members during Ramadan.

For some audiences, however, this is a very difficult piece. We knew it had the potential for emotions to arise in unexpected ways – both in the rehearsals and onstage. For some, it was very difficult to sit through, as the piece chronicles events of the transatlantic voyage and experiences of American enslavement. That is deep generational trauma for many people. We made sure that audience members who needed to step out and take a break were able to do so, and to rejoin the audience when and if they felt ready. This isn’t always a common practice in theater, and we received feedback that creating that flexibility was meaningful. This is a practice we will continue to implement going forward.

Overall, we experienced significant enthusiasm for this opera, particularly the representation it provided. We are comfortable with the fact that this isn’t for everyone. This is why Omar was part of our season, and why we create variety in what we do. It’s the beauty of opera that there is, and should be, something for everyone.

YW Boston: How do you think about cultivating an inclusive theater experience in Boston?

Bradley: It’s a necessity, and it is happening at BLO and elsewhere. The conversations for us are not just about how can we do business as usual, but how can we make each theater experience a place where anyone can experience a sense of belonging? Whether it’s refining support structures for artists or finding new ways to navigate the physical challenges presented by historical buildings, BLO’s team is prioritizing the ever-present questions “how can all be welcome? How can all belong?”

The word “belonging” has become very special to BLO. We recently completed a five-year strategic plan.  During that process, we identified five core values to guide the work ahead: boldness, connection, collaboration, learning, and belonging. It was important to all of us to center belonging as a stated value, to serve as an underpinning for all we do. And we’ve started to see the difference centering belonging can make. This spring, over 50% of our attendees at each mainstage opera (including Omar) were new to BLO. That’s a clear sign that inclusion matters, and that it can have a tremendous impact on the success of any endeavor.

YW Boston: What would you say to other organizations about why they should pursue DEI work in general? What about with YW Boston in particular?

Bradley: At its heart, DEI work is about seeing and valuing the uniqueness and humanity in each other in practical, tangible ways. No matter what the sector, all organizations accomplish their mission through the humans who show up every day to offer their skills, expertise, and identity. DEI work is simply investing in the greatest resource any organization has – its people.

YW Boston provided BLO with the right partner at the right time to meet us where we were with compassion, insight, and measurable change. For us, our participation in InclusionBoston gave us scaffolding for the long haul and partners who continue to serve as a resource for BLO’s growth in DEI.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About Boston Lyric Opera

Now in its 47th Season, Boston Lyric Opera is dedicated to creating compelling operatic experiences throughout the greater Boston area that welcome new audiences, break new ground, and enrich community life. Since its founding in 1976, Boston Lyric Opera has produced world and US premieres, Pulitzer Prize-winning operas, and notable commissions and co-productions, ranging from live stage shows to films streamed worldwide. Alongside its mainstage season, BLO presents wide-reaching community and educational public programs and performances year-round, some at its Midway Artist Studios headquarters, others in partnership with the Boston Public Library, Boston Public Schools, and cultural organizations across New England. BLO employs nearly 500 artists and creative professionals annually — vocalists, instrumentalists, artisans, stagehands, costumers, scenic designers, administrators, and beyond. Learn more here.

About InclusionBoston

InclusionBoston engages organizations in long-term partnerships to create unique solutions to a variety of diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges. Using a customized and measurable change management process and range of training and services, InclusionBoston helps organizations create the necessary cultural shift that will support inclusive policies and practices. Our evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and a plan for cultural change while supporting organizations every step of the way. We deliver our services in person, remotely, or as a combination tailored to our partners’ specific needs.

YW Boston can help you develop a strategy that tackles issues that are important to your employees. Learn more here.

About LeadBoston

Our signature leadership program, LeadBoston, supports all individual participants as they create and implement a leadership commitment. This leadership commitment is an action plan that confronts some of the systemic inequities they’ve learned about and that are showing up in their organization. This plan, and the collective LeadBoston experience, empowers leaders to create meaningful change in their workplaces, in their communities, and in the city of Boston itself. Staff work alongside alums for a year following the program to ensure participants have what they need to see their plan through.

We are currently accepting applications for the LeadBoston class of 2024! Click here to learn more.