TBA Online: News & Features: September 2019

SF Opera Launches New Equity, Diversity, and Community Department

Wednesday, September 4, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Kari Barclay

Almost 100 years since its founding, the Bay Area’s largest performing arts organization is taking steps to build a more equitable future. At the start of the summer, San Francisco Opera announced that it would create a new department of Equity, Diversity, and Community. Led by award-winning educator and civic leader Charles Chip Mc Neal and a team of two full-time staff, the department is just finishing its first month of work.

“Great opera is about telling universal stories that bind us in shared humanity,” says Matthew Shilvock, SF Opera’s general director. “We’re committed to championing equity in the stories we are telling, the people who are telling them, and the audiences with whom we are sharing them.” This new department hopes to live up to that commitment.

Founded in 1923, San Francisco Opera produces a season of eight operas in its 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House. The company employs over 1,000 people each year and manages a budget of $70 million dollars.

According to Shilvock, the Diversity, Equity, and Community department hopes to build on the Opera’s record of public engagement. Its Arts Resources in Action (ARIA) residency links the Opera’s teaching artists with K-8 students and teachers to develop customized curricula around opera’s creative element. Its Community, Understanding, Engagement (CUE) programming provides adult and youth education through panels, lectures, and tours related to the Opera’s mainstage productions. The new department will continue these ARIA and CUE offerings while strengthening the organization’s internal and external commitments to addressing inequity.

Matthew Shilvock, Anne Smith, and Charles Chip Mc Neal. Photo by Julia Inouye.

At an August 21 event hosted by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and co-sponsored by Theatre Bay Area, Anne Smith, co-chair of The Arts Forum at the Commonwealth Club, sat down with Shilvock and the department’s director, Charles Chip Mc Neal, to discuss what lies ahead.

“We have to take stock of the fact that we’re part of a larger ecosystem,” says Mc Neal. “We’re part of what’s happening in California and what’s happening throughout the nation. It’s happening around the world. This department is just one step in addressing this big issue of diversity and equity in opera and classical music.”

Mc Neal, who had been senior curriculum and program manager in the Opera’s education department, has researched and advocated for equity and public engagement in the arts for over two decades. Before working at SF Opera, he directed education at the San Francisco Ballet, where he founded the San Francisco Ballet Center for Dance Education. The program reached 30,000 people annually through 1,500 events celebrating a variety of cultures. Today, Mc Neal serves on the leadership council of Create California (Create CA), a coalition aiming to increase the accessibility of high-quality arts education across the state, and co-chairs their equity committee. He is a member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s community working group on Racial Equity in the Arts.

With this awareness of the broader context of cultural policy, Mc Neal hopes to implement an evidence-based approach, particularly around racial justice.
“The first step is to look deeply at the data and ask the questions that you don’t really want to see,” Mc Neal emphasizes. “How many people of color go to the opera? How many people of color are in leadership roles? How many people of color are on the stage? These are hard questions and they’re scary questions, and the answers may be hard to take. And yet, it gives us a starting place.”

From his work with Create CA, Mc Neal knows the power of data. In the coming weeks, the organization will release a report from its Arts Education Data Project, which documents the landscape of arts education in public schools across the state. “The story is not surprising. Black and brown children get the least access. It’s not an achievement gap; it’s a funding gap. Unless we address the pipeline that gap creates, [it will affect] not only the opera goers of the future but the opera creators of the future.”

Mc Neal hopes that the new department will help address the pipeline problem by foregrounding racial equity in the Opera’s educational and community outreach initiatives. The focus on equity will also apply to the organization’s internal workings.

“We know that we have to do better,” Shilvock says, “whether it’s in our audience demographics—inside the house or outside the house—or in creative leadership.”
This June, SF Opera’s Board adopted a new strategic framework. This guiding document featured six principles for the future of the organization, half of which focused on equity, diversity, and community. Mc Neal applauds how the leadership has provided the resources to put these values into practice.

“To create a position is a substantial thing that an organization can do, but [in many cases] that position too often is embattled, and it is siloed. It often does not have the resources and the structures to create systemic change.” By contrast, Mc Neal emphasizes, SF Opera has “taken a bold step and a significant step in creating a department that has a staff and the infrastructure to actually put this change into play.”

“Great opera works when it grabs hold of your emotions and it rips them out of your body and plays around with them and puts them back in you,” says Shilvock. “When it doesn’t work, it’s often because there’s some kind of barrier there.” With an eye toward removing those barriers, SF Opera hopes to provide powerful performances in the years ahead.


Kari Barclay is a queer director, writer, and educator completing his PhD at Stanford University. kari-barclay.com