Late American soprano Jessye Norman

Late American soprano Jessye Norma.

As the daily read of crucial issues — racial injustice, the pandemic, the political divide, the battered environment, the brutal economy — expands and deepens, I keep looking for those moments of insight and clarity that prompt a silent Yes! They are often no more than a line or two, well into the body of a story, that puts the entire subject into a focus I was struggling to find. They are, perhaps, an extension of what some of us call the “nut graf” — that authoritative summary of a story that includes a tether to the news, the context in which you’ve set the news, and some indication of the significance or scope. The “extension” factor comes when an a journalist drops greater meaning into a piece. In same cases, it captures the theme.

I found such a moment in a piece today (July 16, 2020) by Washington Post classical music critic Michael Andor Brodeur, about racism and a reckoning within the classical music world:

The systemic racism that runs like rot through the structures of the classical music world exists somewhere between broad statistical data and intimate personal disclosure. And right now, in what seems like a promising turn, a range of responses to it — individual, artistic and institutional — feels, at long last, audible.

Soprano Lauren Michelle

Soprano Lauren Michelle

Full disclosure: I don’t follow classical music — especially opera — and normally wouldn’t have paused to read this piece. But it was flagged by a close friend, who happens to be a close friend of one of the primary sources in Brodeur’s story: Lauren Michelle, a talented young soprano who has been increasingly outspoken about the glass walls that have blocked her from starring roles on the American stage. Michelle, who grew up in Los Angeles and trained at Julliard, has made a name on the European stage and been cast to sing in a few TV shows in the U.S. But as her unapologetic social media posts and blog note, that hasn’t translated to big-stage invitations in the U.S.

Back to Brodeur’s story. He makes it clear that complaints of racism within the classical music world are becoming more common, but are usually limited to the anonymity of social media. To do otherwise — to speak out by name — can be dangerous; institutions don’t like to be called out. But anonymous claims can be dismissed as just that: claims. Brodeur leans on Michelle and the late African-American soprano Jessye Norman as rare exceptions who provide personal testimony to the statistics.

The world he writes about is not limited to classical music. It is an inclusive summary of the blank space that stalls progress on many sensitive issues in society and, by extension, challenges journalists who try to illustrate distant numbers through intimate experience. Narrative journalists, especially, seek to find the right immersive examples that attach emotion to those numbers. They are beating heart and warm flesh on cold bone.

Brodeur’s second sentence in his “meaning paragraph” also does deft work: He shines a newsy light into that blank space, and gives it a twist that ties it back to both the specific culture of classical music and the general climate of a movement finding its voice with the use of one perfect word: Audible.

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