the paula problem
Hello! I am back from Chamber Music Campania (which is still going on, so I am way jealous of my wind quintet peers) where I was composer-in-residence for one week livin' up the fantastic glutenous glamorous life of southern Italian sun, relaxation, and gargantuan plates of food. Did you know southern Italians put red pepper chili flakes in their olive oil? Amaze-balls. Did you know their regional pasta sauces made from peas or chickpeas are divine? They are. And because of this, my pants and lap belt and seat belt made my pleasantly plump self slightly uncomfortable.
Well, that's not the only thing that has made me uncomfortable.
Just two days after I return, I am greeted with this news. (“The…the N-word? Uh, which one did she use 'cause I know it wasn't ‘non-fat.' BOOM!" —John Oliver)
Many of my friends have asked me what I think of this comedic land mine, and even what will happen to the future my Paula Deen opera and if a potential opera franchise/ring cycle will come of it. Well, I'll be honest—I initially wasn't thinking about my nano Zeitoper's future. I was thinking of the women who brilliantly created the role of Paula Deen. Have you met Christine Danielle Lyons? That girl can sing. And she's a sweetheart. And here she is backstage at a NANOWorks show in Lexington Kentucky (as part of LexArts) about to reprise her role.
I know what you're thinking. Here she looks SO happy and excited in this photo. And I was too. My co-founder and I knew that we had to fly her in for this performance because her portrayal of Paula Deen was so spot-on at the Atlanta Opera 24-Hour Opera Project premiere (and memorized in twelve hours nonetheless!). How was Christine given the opportunity to play Paula? My guess (since my librettist Vynnie Meli and I were excluded from the casting process) was that she was the best person for the role. She had the right voice type, acting chops, and Southern-diction (since Christine also hails from Georgia).
Of course, everything is fun and games when writing an opera about Paula, until you realize your larger-than-life main character is probably racist toward the woman who created that role. Interestingly enough, three out of the four women who have performed this role are women of color.1
Does this matter? A few months ago I believed anyone can play Paula: her character transcends race. Now I wonder—can anyone play Paula now?