Bringing opera to the Black community

Bringing opera to the Black community

SU freshman Gabrielle Pinkney wants to help encourage the classical music and opera community to become more diverse.
Published: January 11, 2021

Gabrielle Pinkney has sung for large audiences and even the competition show “America’s Got Talent.”

Standing at five-foot, freshman student Gabrielle Pinkney doesn’t look like she carries the powerhouse voice that’s inside of her. But the vocal performance major with a concentration in classical music is sure to awe audiences with her ability to sing opera.

Pinkney who started singing in church choirs as a kid, was introduced to the classical world by a church friend who heard the potential in her voice.

“When you go to see an opera, there’s such a dramatic sense,” said Pinkney. “You’re literally at the edge of your seat. It’s so entertaining and you’re just mesmerized.”

As a child, Pinkney sang for audiences whether it was a solo performance or even for a competition show like, “America’s Got Talent.” But now at Syracuse University, she is excited to expand her skillset but also advocate for representation for other African American singers like herself.

“I feel like I have so much I can contribute to how the culture of opera is and how it’s reflected into society,” said Pinkney.

Her vocal teacher, Professor Martha Sutter has been teaching at Syracuse’s Setnor School of Music since 1986 and is well-versed of the discrepancies in the classical industry and opera world specifically.

“Historically it (opera) has been dominated by white European males,” said Sutter. “And unfortunately, that’s persevered for an awfully long time but things are getting better for musicians of color and women.”

Being a smaller African American woman, Pinkney says she is typically expected to sing her one piece and hurry off the stage. For her, that’s not acceptable.

“I’m the only African American woman in my class and I hope that as we go that changes,” said Pinkney. Within the University she says that she has seen changes and initiatives being made to address diversity and inclusion.

Within the industry itself, Sutter says that a lot of Black women had to fight for their recognition.

“Probably one of the most well-known stories is Marian Anderson who was a Black soprano and was denied many things,” said Sutter. “She was supposed to sing at the Constitutional Hall in Washington but was denied when she arrived. It was during the time of Elanor Roosevelt who said “this isn’t right,” and she was asked to sing at the Lincoln Memorial.”

Sutter says that while there have been Black opera singers, they’re not as critically acclaimed as their white counterparts.

Pinkney hopes to change that.

“I know how it feels to feel alone in this industry and feel that you have to do it all on your own. But you don’t,” said Pinkney.

Outside of being an opera singer, Pinkney has other aspirations to change the industry.

“As an arts manager I really want to create a performing arts school for young African American girls so they can learn more about the art form and what we do,” said Pinkney. “I also want to be an entertainment lawyer and help African American opera singers deal with the disparities that we face in the industry.”

And on top of that, Pinkney also hopes to address the own stigmatization about opera in her own community as an African American.

“There’s this stigmatized idea of what opera is within the African American community and for me I was able to learn and understand what opera is so I could approach it better,” said Pinkney. “I want to leave a mark where it becomes easily accessible for the African American community to learn more about opera and what we actually do.”

Despite the challenges that the industry will bring for Pinkney, her professor believes that she is well equipped to have a lasting and impactful career.

“She’s a super hard worker, musical, and open to suggestions and just overall a joy to work with,” said Sutter. “In order to be successful, you have to be a good musician and work hard and she has all those skills.”