Opera Philadelphia

Published16 Dec 2021

Dr. Derrell Acon appointed as Opera Philadelphia's first Vice President of People Operations & Inclusion

Opera Philadelphia announced today the appointment of award-winning activist, arts administrator, and bass-baritone Dr. Derrell Acon to the position of Vice President of People Operations & Inclusion. Currently the Associate Artistic Director & Chief Impact Officer at Long Beach Opera, where he has led equity and engagement efforts since 2018, Dr. Acon will join the senior management team at Opera Philadelphia on January 10, 2022. He will also continue to serve as associate artistic director and creative producer for the New York-based Heartbeat Opera.

A Fulbright scholar and co-founder of the Black Opera Alliance, Dr. Acon understands the power of the performing arts to foster human compassion and catalyze conversations on challenging subjects. He has over 15 years of experience as an equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) practitioner and continues to establish himself as a leader in classical music, education, and ethnic studies as relates to the role of the artist-activist. In addition to his extensive expertise in the EDI space, Dr. Acon also brings senior-level experience in human resources strategy (HRCI, HRU) and business analytics & impact (Harvard Business School CORe, OPERA America Leadership Intensive). He is known for his unique and provocative presentations, which often combine performance and scholarship. On stage, he created the role of Antron McCray in Long Beach Opera’s 2019 world premiere of Anthony Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, The Central Park Five, and curated and managed a series of community conversations about the opera. The Vice President of People Operations & Inclusion position has been supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Dr. Derrell Acon
Dr. Derrell Acon Credit: Carell Augustus Photography

In the newly created role of Vice President of People Operations & Inclusion, Dr. Acon will report to General Director & President David B. Devan and serve on Opera Philadelphia’s senior management team. The organization is committed to equity and inclusion practices and see this new senior management position as instrumental in holding the organization accountable to the work. Dr. Acon will guide the organization in determining and directing staffing goals and strategies to support the fulfillment of their mission. He will encourage, model, and promote an anti-racist workplace culture as real-time situations arise and by supporting conflict resolution and harm prevention and reduction strategies to promote, increase, and make paramount safe and structured opportunities for all staff, management, and the board of directors. He will provide compassionate individual and organizational support by helping to guide and create a safe, educated, and impartial environment to assist employees when problematic situations arise, managing with grace and with an eye to empower and guide conversations, amongst staff, during union negotiations, with leadership and the board. He will support the evolution and formalization of practices related to the operation of the company’s Equity & Inclusion Team, formed in summer 2020, ensuring it supports the organization in a sustainable way over the long term. He will also be accountable for all aspects of HR compliance and implementation for all members of the Opera Philadelphia team.

Dr. Acon’s role at Opera Philadelphia will help bring to fruition practices and initiatives stemming from the work of the Equity & Inclusion Team. The cross-departmental group has provided foundational work focused on fostering a sense of belonging at the company, having difficult conversations with other creators and thought leaders to decolonize the way we think about opera, reducing hierarchical structure in favor of collaboration, using community agreements to support honest conversation, and organizing facilitator-led anti-racism training sessions for both staff and board. It was this work that brought into focus the relationship between HR and inclusion and led to the development of this new position. Moving forward, Dr. Acon will work closely with the Equity & Inclusion Team to help shape the composition and role of the group as it works to provide accountability on the company’s equity and inclusion journey. 

Dr. Acon’s appointment culminates a national search conducted by Work Shouldn’t Suck and a search committee of company employees including Catherine Perez (Development Services Coordinator), David B. Devan (General Director & President), Derren Mangum (Director of Institutional Giving), Michael Eberhard (Director of Casting & Artistic Administration), and Veronica Chapman-Smith (Vice President, Community Initiatives). The posting and process were specifically designed to reduce bias.

From Dr. Acon: “I am absolutely thrilled to join the amazing Opera Philadelphia team. This company has emerged as one of the true leaders in the field not only for its superlative artistic boldness and innovation, but also a full-throated approach to substantive equity and inclusion work. It will be my genuine honor and pleasure to work under David Devan's powerful leadership and alongside brilliant colleagues to further realize the company’s clear vision for a more artistically and ethically compelling industry. I am eager to dig into this mightily important work ─ throughout all facets of the organization and its operations ─ toward deep, verifiable, and sustainable change and action.”

“Opera Philadelphia is excited to welcome Dr. Derrell Acon as a member of our dedicated and talented team,” said David B. Devan. “His leadership in our field and his breadth and depth of experiences and skills distinguish him as a leader with tremendous ability to collaborate and facilitate change. He will be an exemplary partner in working with our staff, artists, and Board of Directors in our collective effort to build artistic and community impact that honors and advances all voices and identities. I have experienced first-hand Derrell’s capacity for honest and deep inquiry and to move ideas and insights into action. It will be an honor to work with him as he brings his immense talent and experience to benefit the company, our community, and the art form and industry.”

About Dr. Derrell Acon

Bass-baritone Derrell Acon holds a doctoral degree in 19th-Century Opera History and Performance and a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). He graduated summa cum laude from Lawrence University with a B.Mus. degree in Voice and B.A. degree in Government, with a minor in Ethnic Studies. Prominent operatic roles include Rocco in Fidelio, Leporello in Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, Kecal in The Bartered Bride, Escamillo in Carmen, and the title role in Don Bucefalo. He is the Associate Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera in New York City and the Board President of the international grassroots advocacy organization Black Opera Alliance (BOA).

His experiential workshop “An Absurdist Conversation on Rainbows and COLOR” boldly explored the queer experience within Black culture, while his performance-presentations “Ay Blackity Black; Classical S$#t that ain’t Wack,” “Old Opera, New Opera, Red Opera, Blues Opera,” and “poems are bullsh*t: Demanding Black Space in Opera” explored the barriers inherent to classical music education and performance. Recent consulting and lecturing engagements include Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee, The Glimmerglass Festival, Des Moines Metro Opera, Portland Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, International Contemporary Ensemble, Fulbright Association, U.S. Department of State, and strategy sessions with over 35 opera companies of varying budget sizes on equity, inclusion, and organizational strategy. He has worked as the Arts Equity Specialist for the OPERA America New Works Forum and as a leadership councilor for BOA. He has taught at all levels on topics in 19th century opera, Black Art, and artistic activism, including a course entitled “The Musician in Society” at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and an online seminar entitled “Viva VERDI: Why Giuseppe and Gang would be BLM Activists.”

Dr. Acon is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grantee for his work in challenging the traditional narrative in opera and is a frequent presenter throughout the U.S. at venues such as the National Association for Ethnic Studies and National Association of Negro Musicians conferences, and internationally at venues in Europe and Africa. His publications include “From Without the Veil” (“In Mourning and In Rage” conference papers out of Rome, Italy), “Neglected Legacy” (OPERA America Magazine), “Whence Comes Black Art” (Lawrence University), and “This is Just My Job: Duty and Intervention in Our Fidelio” (Septentrion University Press out of Lille, France).

About Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia,
 the only American finalist for both the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company and the 2020 International Opera Award for Best Festival, is “the very model of a modern opera company” (Washington Post). Committed to developing opera for the 21st century, the company is recognized as “a hotbed of operatic innovation” (New York Times). For more information, visit operaphila.org.

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