Arkansas opera company builds its entire season on the Black experience, with casts, composers, acts  

Opera in the Rock's season begins in September with a "Masked Gala," featuring acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Every performance this season by the Opera in the Rock company in Little Rock, Arkansas, will feature either a Black composer, a Black cast, a Black featured cast — or all of the above. 

Arkansas Online reports that the opera company will be the only one in America “dedicating its entire season to build the Black experience,” according to Fred Owens, its president and chief executive officer. 

Acclaimed mezzo-soprano opera singer Denyce Graves performs at the 2021 National Memorial Day Concert in the nation’s capital. Graves will headline a gala event for Opera in the Rock company in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

“Fred and I decided to dedicate a season to Black artists because all of our senior management team are technically ‘racial’ outsiders,” Ella Marchment, Opera in the Rock’s artistic director, says in the company’s season brochure. “I myself, am of mixed-race Asian, South American heritage and my family is more predisposed to listen to reggae music than opera.”

The 2022-2023 Opera in the Rock season begins in September with a “Masked Gala” event featuring internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as its headliner. In November, they’ll present Porgy and Bess, performed by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

During Black History Month 2023, a “Divas in the Rock” fundraiser will pay tribute to late singer Whitney Houston. The following month, there will be a recital by soprano Takesha Meshe Kizart-Thomas honoring Black opera luminaries and jazz stars, including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Ella Fitzgerald. Then, next June, the Arkansas company will stage its full opera, Highway One, by native son William Grant Still.

On Wednesday, Opera in the Rock hosted an event featuring performances from area talents and a talk with officials from affiliated performance companies and fine arts museums, who discussed sustainable community-centered art organizations and the importance of diversity, inclusion and equality. There, Marcia Sells of the New York Metropolitan Opera said it was vital to make “sure organizations and the people who manage them are thinking about the communities where they are sited; that conversations are not just surveys, but real, actual conversations.”

According to Opera in the Rock’s website, the company seeks “to enrich the cultural life of Arkansas through professional opera performances emphasizing collaboration and diversity to build future audiences for this rich art form.” 

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