Opera Philadelphia

Reimagining Opera's Heroines for the Modern Age

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A roundtable conversation with Dr. Naomi André, Aria Umezawa, and Karen Slack, moderated by Dr. Lily Kass, about portrayals of women in opera.


Dr. Naomi André

Dr. Naomi André is Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Residential College at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race in the US, Europe, and South Africa. Her publications include topics on Italian opera, Schoenberg, women composers, and teaching opera in prisons. Her book, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (University of Illinois Press, 2018) won the Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music and Judy Tsou Critical Race Studies Award from the American Musicological Society. Her earlier books include Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera(2006) and Blackness in Opera (2012, co-edited collection). She has edited and contributed to clusters of articles in African Studies, Journal of the Society for American Music and the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Currently she is a co-editor for the essay collection African Performance Arts and Political Acts (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming in 2021). She is the inaugural Scholar in Residence at the Seattle Opera and a founding member of the Black Opera Research Network (BORN).


Dr. Lily Kass

Dr. Lily Kass is an interdisciplinary scholar, educator, and artist. She teaches music history courses on topics such as “Powerful Women in Opera,” “Mozart Operas,” and “Exoticism on the Musical Stage” across the Mid-Atlantic Region, at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She earned an A.B. in Literature from Harvard University in 2010, and a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017. Lily’s research focuses on how operas are reimagined, adapted, and translated to meet the needs of new audiences. Lily shares Opera Philadelphia’s passion for making opera accessible and inclusive, and she has been a frequent collaborator with Opera Philadelphia’s Community Initiatives department since 2014. She has also lectured for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. In 2011, Lily served as a Lectures and Community Programs Fellow at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, promoting and developing lecture series and facilitating backstage tours of the Metropolitan Opera House. Lily is a trained coloratura soprano, and she co-founded the opera scenes program at the University of Pennsylvania, which she directed from 2014-2018. She is currently honored to serve as a Marian Anderson Scholar Artist with the National Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society. 


Karen Slack

A recipient of the 2022 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, celebrated American soprano Karen Slack has garnered international renown for her artistic versatility, charisma and entrepreneurial endeavors. She has received critical acclaim for her dynamic and passionate performances in both lead operatic roles and on the concert stage, and as a sought-after collaborator who is known as a leader and advocate, as a curator and artistic advisor, and for her ground-breaking approach to engagement. 

Hailed for possessing a voice of extraordinary beauty, a seamless legato and great dramatic depth, Ms. Slack has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera. In recent seasons, she has been seen as Alice Ford in Falstaff, Leonora in Il trovatore, and Tosca with Arizona Opera, as Aïda at Austin Opera, Emelda Griffith in Champion with New Orleans Opera, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with Nashville Opera, Violetta in La Traviata with Sacramento Opera and Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking with Minnesota, Atlanta and Vancouver Opera and made her Scottish Opera debut as Anna in Puccini’s Le villi. Additionally, Ms. Slack portrayed a featured role as the Opera Diva in Tyler Perry’s movie and soundtrack “For Colored Girls.” Ms. Slack is an Artistic Advisor for Portland Opera, Co-Director for the 2020-21 Opera Program at the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts, Co-Chair of the Women's Opera Network with Opera America, and serves on the board of the American Composer’s Orchestra. In January 2022, Ms. Slack will take on the role of Creative Partner with National Sawdust opening with a solo recital and continuing through multiple programs in the upcoming season.

During the 2020-2021 season, Ms. Slack drew on her experience in film to expand her artistic platform through premiere digital performances with Houston Grand Opera, Madison Opera, and Minnesota Opera, taking on a starring role in Driving While Black with urbanarias and launching her digital talk show, #kikikonversations, which garnered critical acclaim from both Opera News and The New York Times. Additionally, Ms. Slack became a sought-after collaborator to create bespoke content for the digital concert stage.  She co-created and performed in  #saytheirnames – Women of the Movement, a film recital and production in partnership with lyricfest, performed in recital for Opera Philadelphia, and was the featured vocalist alongside actor/narrator Liev Schreiber in Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s “Speaking Truth to Power” program, presented in October 2020 and hosted by livestream platform Idagio.com.  

Equally at home on the concert stage, Ms. Slack has performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder and the Verdi Requiem with various orchestras throughout the US, and was featured in her first performances of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et la mer with the Omaha Symphony in collaboration with Opera Omaha. Abroad she has appeared with the Melbourne Symphony, Sydney Symphony, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestras, and most recently, with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in celebration of the 80th birthday of Mo. Yuri Temirkanov. She made her Carnegie Hall debut as Agnes Sorel in Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans with Orchestra of St. Luke’s and will return with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for Beethoven’s Egmont. During the 2021-2022 season, Ms. Slack makes her stage debut with the Houston Grand Opera in the world premiere of Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pinkney's A Snowy Dayand performs the title role in Verdi’s AIDA with Opera Carolina, and on the concert stage she will be featured in recital with organist Alan Morrison at Atlanta’s Spivey Hall, Verdi’s Requiem with the Highlander Concert Series at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilerias No. 5 with Symphony of the Americas, Derek Geter’s Justice Symphony with The Washington Chorus and  in May 2022, will perform the World Premiere of a new work by James Lee III, written for her collaboration with the Pacifica Quartet and presented by Carnegie Hall and the Shriver Hall Concert Series. A graduate of the Adler Fellowship and Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera, the native Philadelphian is also a graduate of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. She is a winner of numerous competitions and awards: most notably the Montserrat Caballe International Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, George London Foundation Award, Marian Anderson ICON Award, Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, Rosa Ponselle International Vocal Competition, Portland Opera Lieber Award, Liederkranz Foundation Award and the Jose Iturbi International Competition for Voice. 


Aria Umezawa

Aria Umezawa is a director, producer, and writer, who recently completed her time as an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera — the first stage director to be awarded the fellowship in fifteen years. Upcoming directorial engagements include The Raven at Opera Philadelphia, Orphée et Eurydice at Hawaii Opera Theater,Madama Butterfly with New Orleans Opera, Turandot with Opera Colorado, and Acis & Galatea with Philharmonia Baroque. During the 2021-2022 season, Ms. Umezawa was set to direct Madama Butterfly with Hawaii Opera Theatre and the Canadian Opera Company (COVID19). In 2020-2021, Ms. Umezawa joined Calgary Opera to direct their production of Vastation (Moussa), directed The Singing Garden for The Amadeus Choir and was set to direct As One with Opera McGill and OURpera with Amplified Opera (COVID19). Other recent directorial credits include La voix humaine with Against the Grain Theatre, La bohème with Fraser Lyrique Opera, L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi with Musique 3 Femmes, The Way I See It with Amplified Opera,The Future is Now: Adler Fellows Concert with the San Francisco Opera Center, Op Shop with the San Francisco Conservatory, Ariodante with Opera McGill, Christmas With SOL3 MIO with San Francisco Opera, Die Fledermaus with Opera 5, and Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet with West Edge Opera.