What does it mean to be Black, queer, and an advocate for the classical arts?
Paige Reynolds is all of those. As Minnesota Opera’s (MN Opera) relationship marketing associate, she is on the frontlines of initiatives set to remake the operatic landscape.
When her sister got to play one of Cinderella’s step-sisters in a high school drama club production, a young Reynolds thought it was just about the coolest thing ever. So filled with admiration was Reynolds that she decided she, too, would join drama club and study classical voice – including opera – in the future.
With supportive figures like her choir teacher and artistically inclined families both in church and at home, Reynolds saw there was a place for her, as a young Black person, to access and excel in creative forms that the white and wealthy dominate to this day.
“Growing up between Detroit and Ypsilanti, there was never a shortage of music, especially gospel and Motown. We had art books at home, and I loved looking through them, going to museums … that’s a huge part of me valuing the arts.” Reynolds reflect, “When it comes to classical art forms, they aren’t always presented as options, but I was surrounded by people who were very intentional about letting me know that I belonged.”
Now, in her role as relationship marketing associate at MN Opera, Reynolds is focused on paying it forward. By encouraging newer generations of Twin Citizens – young, multicultural, and gender-diverse – to access the classical art form not only at the opera house but in community-based settings, their work showcases what arts equity looks like in action.
Reynolds serves as the coordinator for Tempo, a program for opera fans and the opera-curious, aged 21-45, that provides affordable tickets to performances. With other events like Taste of Opera, attendees sit down for a meal with an artist or staff member to grasp the behind-the-scenes creation process – everything from the nuances of sound to the composer’s influences are laid bare. In addition, MN Opera is partnering with local fashion designers TIM+THOM, and Pride Festival, putting on shows outdoors, and inviting kids to performances. All this in a thoroughgoing effort to bring opera to the people; instead of the other way around.
“It’s very close to my heart. I’m 25, a queer Black woman … if I can enjoy opera and have it move me, it can do that for others too,” said Reynolds. “But there is the reality that people have been left out. We know what the barriers are, like the subject matter not always being relevant, economic access, experiencing microaggressions attending any theater … we outlined this in our charter and are constantly reassessing, thinking about this together. We’re saying, let’s take serious steps and embrace change.”
Pursuing Theatre Arts Administration at Howard University with celebrated Black Broadway and the “theatre of the people” (Howard Theatre) in close proximity, Reynolds came away with a deep sense of the legacy of people of color (POC) artists and POC-owned arts institutions, apprehending the importance of honoring and keeping them resourced. Landmark internship experiences at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Smithsonian National Museum on the American Indian compelled Reynolds to broaden her horizons.
Meanwhile, as she ground herself in the Twin Cities theater scene, Reynolds is enthralled by the change-making potential at the intersection of social justice and the arts.
“I came here for the Children’s Theatre Company, and then I also found out about places like Pangea and Theater Mu, where people are really raising political consciousness through theatre. There’s also the unique racial and ethnic demographics, for instance, you see Somali and Hmong folks in conversation over the arts. It’s incredible,” said Reynolds.
Study abroad in Hyderabad, India, saw Reynolds knee-deep in modes of performance that exploded ideas about the anatomy of theatre. From storytelling to stage, she further interrogated the Western European dogmas limiting diversity – in expression, and amongst theater-goers and professionals alike.
“I felt very encouraged to push the limits of what my idea of theater was,” said Reynolds. “The way we do it is so based in European ideas. We don’t need a conventional stage, stories don’t have to follow one structure, and dance and music can be woven throughout a production in a way that doesn’t resemble Broadway. It completely changed my perceptions. We’re trying to push boundaries like that at MN Opera. People who are truly fans of opera want to see it reflect the world that they’re living in. They want to see the art form do new things. Part of our mission at MN Opera is to sing every story, so why not have a Hmong opera based off a memoir?”
Reynolds said of an upcoming production of Hmong American poet Kao Kalia Yang’s “The Song Poet.”
“These stories resonate with our local communities. It’s about building a New American canon, and we want to see a much more colorful audience,” she said.
Yet, beyond questions of representation and inclusion, Reynolds recognizes that in an era marked by unprecedented hostility it’s increasingly difficult to make a case for the arts.
“When there’s health disparities and I’m seeing people discriminated against for their racial, gender, and sexual identities, I’m making the argument to myself a lot. But then I recall how much the arts have given me – how we can connect to other people through it. With opera, there’s just something about being there. Everyone is sharing that moment; we’re bearing witness together,” Reynolds contends. “Even if you’re watching something outside of your experience, you’ve decided to be present with this story and this person’s emotions. You stop, look, consider, and feel something; it’s building empathy. And that makes an easier way for transformation to happen.”