Karen Slack

Dress by Rosie Assoulin

Live from New York: Karen Slack

In 2020, when the arts were shaken by the Covid-19 shutdown and a reckoning over America's lengthy history of racial injustice, classical music, the most tradition-bound of genres, had the most catching up to do. The soprano Karen Slack, a longtime advocate for equity and representation in opera and classical music, suddenly found herself at the forefront of both movements. With her calendar of recitals and opera roles abruptly cleared, she shifted quickly to live-streaming performances and launched her own Facebook Live series, #KikiKonversations, spotlighting a different artist in each episode to keep herself and her audience inspired. "It's been challenging because we are not used to doing a lot of the digital, virtual things that some of the other art forms have been doing longer than we have," she explains. "We were trying to pivot from live and still try to keep our industry relevant and keep up with all the things that were happening and keep artists and companies going during this time."

As orchestras and opera companies have gradually begun to return, Slack says she is optimistic about the advances her community is making, like the Metropolitan Opera's premiere in September of Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, the first Black composer in the company's history, but remains wary of settling for shallow, temporary fixes. "While I do see a lot of change and I do see a lot of companies expressing the need, I'm not sure if we got it all the way right," she says. "We rely so much on private, rich donors to support what we do, a.k.a. old white people who aren't necessarily always the most progressive or forward-thinking or inclusive." A recipient of the 2022 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which honors Black and Latinx musicians, she is focused on using her expanding platform to pioneer the kind of work she believes needs to be seen, like "Of Thee I Sing," a program she created in response to the murder of George Floyd and which she will perform at Brooklyn's National Sawdust in June. On Friday, she'll debut a new work by James Lee III based on the poems of the Black female abolitionist Frances Harper with the Pacifica Quartet at Carnegie Hall.

After working tirelessly for years to create space in a realm that is accustomed to moving forward only in fits and starts, Slack says it is now time for others to take up the charge. "For me, I think the most important thing is that people who are in positions of power and leadership recognize that when they walk into a space and the space looks like it did pre-pandemic, that they get uncomfortable with that," she says. "What I would hope for is that people acknowledge the privilege and be uncomfortable with the status quo and acknowledge that we need to change."

A Double Standard will have its world premiere this Friday at Carnegie Hall, New York. Slack will perform "Of Thee I Sing" on June 16 at National Sawdust, New York. Read this story and many more in print by ordering our third issue here. See the full Live in New York series here.

Hair by Tina Outen at Streeters. Makeup by Andrew Colvin at Streeters. Set design by Jacob Burstein at MHS Artists. Photographer's assistant: Kyrre Kristoffersen. Stylist's assistants: Maria Montane and Malén Denis. Hairstylist's assistant: Amesha Alston. Makeup artist's assistant: Crisdanil Hidalgo. Set designer's assistant: Casilda Garcia Lopez. Digital technician: Leslie Knott. Production by Heather Robbins at CLM.

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