“South Pacific” at the Aspen Music Festival
In July 2019, the Aspen Music Festival and School staged a concert production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” This was a performance of the show’s 2006 revised concert score, a score that had preserved Pacific Islander stereotypes and an anti-Japanese racial slur. It was so offensive to one student in the orchestra that he decided to approach festival administrators with his concerns. He alleges that they did not respond positively to this conversation. Shortly afterward, he received a message from his private teacher. “You need to apologize,” said the teacher, “for the sake of your career.”
This student asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution. He described feeling as though a boundary had been crossed when he received this message from his teacher. “It felt like an insurmountable wall suddenly appeared in front of me,” he said. This was the last time he would feel comfortable discussing his concerns with this festival.
Jay Julio was another student at the festival involved in this production. (Julio is the only student interviewed by VAN who did not request anonymity out of fear of professional retaliation.) Julio had contemplated speaking to festival administrators about their concerns. But then they heard the private teacher’s message. They believed that students who were speaking out against the production were being labelled as “problems”—they didn’t know how this might affect their career.
Julio described a recorded message from a private teacher as “political pressure.” They felt that it “drew an isolating line because it showed us that if we stood behind [the student who’d spoken to the administration] there would be repercussions with our relationship to our private teachers.” (In a statement to VAN, Jennifer White, the Vice President and Dean of Students at Aspen, wrote that Aspen was “not aware of a private phone conversation between a teacher and student.”)
Julio and a handful of fellow students felt that without historical context about the show’s World War II-era anti-Japanese sentiment and garden-variety racism, the festival had failed in their educational obligations. These students continued to speak out, engaging in cautious dialogue with Alan Fletcher, the President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School. But the resulting conversations, in their view, hinged more on Fletcher’s defense of the festival’s programming decisions than it did in critical conversations around the show’s treatment of race.
Aspen has spent the past three months issuing public statements about their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. They’ve attempted to position themselves at the forefront of the post-George Floyd Black Lives Matter performing arts movement. In statements to VAN regarding “South Pacific,” White wrote that Aspen “worked closely with students who expressed concerns over our production of ‘South Pacific’—[Aspen] leadership hosted a discussion with the actors and musicians, engaged in additional smaller in-person group conversations, and issued a survey to all production participants, in order to make sure we were hearing all concerns and continuing the dialogue.”
She added, “Artists of color, professional and student, didn’t all agree that the production of ‘South Pacific’ was problematic. Students were able to decline to participate with no judgment or repercussions, and some did.”
But to the students who did agree that the show was problematic, Aspen’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion feels disingenuous. As the student who received the message from his private teacher said, “I’ve always felt like everything they’re doing is just to save their reputation. I feel like they are just cleaning up after themselves.”
“South Pacific” is a staple of the musical theater repertoire with a complicated legacy. Widely considered to be one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest successes, it opened on Broadway in 1949 at the height of America’s anti-miscegenation laws and Hollywood’s Hays Codes specifically preventing depictions of interracial couples. In this context, the show’s interracial relationships were decidedly progressive. One particular moment that has garnered much attention is the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” in which the main character denigrates racism as a learned, not innate, mindset.
But 1949 was also a time of strong anti-Japanese sentiment. The internment of Japanese Americans had ended in 1946—the scars of anti-Japanese propaganda had not yet faded from the American psyche. “South Pacific” depicts Pacific Islanders from the fictional island of Bali-ha’i through this orientalist lens. To contemporary audiences, these Pacific Islander stereotypes can be shockingly offensive.
“The whole musical’s motif is this mysterious, fantastic, dreamlike place that seems to exist only for the pleasure of white guys as opposed to the people who actually lived there,” said Donatella Galella, an Associate Professor of Theatre History at the University of California, Riverside. “It goes with a trope of Asian women that are often seen as very available. And there’s a whole history of Asia itself being feminized in order to rationalize invasion and rape.”
This summer production was both a money-making venture for the festival and an educational experience for the students. University of Arkansas Professor of Musicology Micaela Baranello expressed concern over presenting this show in an educational environment, especially when done without a focus on historical context: “As an educational enterprise it’s highly questionable. As a professional [enterprise], I think it’s a bit more elective. But I think you have to be very careful about the way you present it and think about what you’re really trying to achieve,” she said.
All the students interviewed by VAN suggested that Aspen’s production demonstrated little thought towards historical content and educational intent. It preserved many of the show’s Pacific Islander tropes along with broadly stereotypical (and geographically incongruous) east Asian accents. Students would later describe the production in a letter to Aspen administration as containing “men in grass skirts and coconut bras and … the comic and Asian-racialized role of Bloody Mary [pimping] out her own thirteen year-old daughter.”
The students told me that they had repeatedly requested a performance note or speech from the stage that explained these stereotypes at the beginning of every performance. They had been shocked in their first rehearsal with the cast at the show’s harmful stereotypes—multiple students had walked out of rehearsal because they were uncomfortable participating in this production. (In an email to VAN, White wrote: “Two students did leave at intermission of a rehearsal, which we observed and had known about ahead of time.”) Aspen administrators dismissed this request; to the students, it remains unclear if it was ever seriously considered.
One aspect of the show that caught many students’ attention was the use of the racial slur “Jap.” “I’m Japanese,” said the student who received the message from his private teacher. “As soon as they started using the term I was like, ‘It’s over. I don’t want to be a part of this.’”
University of Michigan Chair of Chamber Music Matt Albert had students who participated in this production. Albert later signed on to an open letter to Aspen administrators about it. “We can’t talk to Richard Rodgers or Oscar Hammerstein II, [so] we should talk to the people who are staging it now,” Albert said. “This is something that students absolutely have a right to question and oppose.”
The students conceded that Aspen administrators became receptive to their complaints around the time of the first performance. But to this day, they believe that Aspen had no plans of changing how they presented this show. One example is an email all students received from White around the time of the first performance. In a copy of this email, obtained by VAN, White acknowledged the students’ concerns: “We respect your opinions and encourage you to share those with us,” she wrote. But she quickly went on to defend the show, quoting from an article in the Aspen Times that she believed “communicates the sentiment behind the presentation of ‘South Pacific.’”
“‘South Pacific’ is much more than a cheery musical comedy set on an idyllic island,” the Aspen Times had written. “It is an ambitious work about racism, politics, and fear of the ‘other’ disguised as a cheery musical comedy. ‘South Pacific’ was revolutionary.”
One student, whom in this article will be referred to as Eva, described her shock at receiving this email. Prior to this production, she had believed Aspen administrators would be receptive to student feedback. Instead, she felt students were being blamed for a flawed understanding of the show and its message. “They’re still not apologizing,” she wrote in a message to VAN. “It’s kind of like, ‘I’m sorry that you felt this way.’”
A conversation between Eva and an audience member solidified Eva’s concerns with the production: “The audience member said, ‘Oh, it’s so great that you guys get to play this. How great is it for you to play this piece?’ And I was like, “Oh, yeah. It’s great work with these professionals.’ But I knew she had no idea what we were going through.” Eva noted that she was performing in front of a heavily white audience in an 86 percent white community. (She was also performing a few hours drive from two former Japanese internment sites, Moab and Granada.) She felt that this made the production inappropriate, especially given the lack of historical context provided to audiences about the work’s problematic past. Had it been programmed to make money for Aspen, she wondered, or had it been programmed because they felt it was “revolutionary”?
AMFS partnered with Theatre Aspen for this performance, flying in a series of guest artists including Broadway director Lonny Price and opera baritone Nathan Gunn. (It’s also worth noting that playwright David Ives had a hand in the concert adaptation.) The combination of professional guest artists and pre-professional students added to the tensions. In one rehearsal, Eva and Julio both witnessed a guest musician warn a student about speaking out. Both would later, and separately, describe this conversation as “threatening.”
As Eva recalled, “I heard [the guest musician] say, ‘You can’t do this kind of thing if you want to be a professional. You have to show respect, you know?’ It was really scary.” She knew that this guest musician had built a successful career and she was shocked that they were comfortable making this comment within earshot of so many other students. “What’s going to happen to us? We’re never going to get jobs on Broadway,” she thought. (In an email to VAN, White denied that Aspen administration was aware of this comment.)
Julio is a recent graduate of The Juilliard School—this comment carried extra professional weight for them as they live and work in the same city as this guest artist. They feared that their professional career might collide with that of the guest artist at some point in the future. “She doesn’t know who I am,” Julio said, “and she will run around with this false interpretation of who I am as a person because of what she’s seen… Is this a door that is closed to me now because of the way that these events happened?”
Though Eva felt intimidated by this guest musician’s comments, she nevertheless decided to reach out directly to White and Fletcher after the performances had concluded. In an email that she later shared with VAN, Eva described the anti-Asian tropes she had noticed in the show:
‘South Pacific’ forces students to witness…negative stereotypes about them normalized. One of my colleagues recalled to me yesterday that her mother was discriminated against because of her accent. Her mother was seen as less of a human. Seeing an Asian character being laughed at because of her accent brought up these memories for my colleague. I hope it’s clear how this kind of imagery from productions like ‘South Pacific’ can be upsetting and damaging to Asians and Asian Americans.”
Eva offered White and Fletcher concrete steps they could take to address her concerns. “You are the people who have the most power at this festival and therefore have the most potential to change programming decisions,” she wrote. “Because racism looks quite different than it used to in the mid-20th century, it would be helpful to program something more modern… For example, you could program works by composers of color.”
Before the end of the summer, Eva, Julio and a few other students were invited to another meeting with Fletcher to discuss “South Pacific.” They entered this meeting assuming Fletcher would be willing to hear their concerns—they left feeling as though he had merely sought to justify his decisions. (Records made by a student at this meeting and shared with VAN corroborate this characterization of the meeting.) Julio offered a concise summary of how he perceived the meeting: After the students spoke, Fletcher explained “why the show wasn’t racist” and why he believed the students were wrong. Julio remembered being particularly angered by Fletcher’s characterization of the show. It was “anti-racist,” Julio remembered Fletcher saying.
After this meeting, many of the students stopped pursuing their complaints. The combination of the threat of professional repercussions through guests and faculty, and defensiveness by the upper administration, led them to believe that Aspen was unwilling to tackle questions of anti-Asian racism. But all this changed in June, 2020, as Aspen released public statements about the murder of George Floyd. In their since-deleted statement released on June 1, Aspen wrote about religious, gender-based and anti-Asian discrimination. “One day, the current convulsion of anger and fear about race will have subsided, as it has done in the past,” Aspen wrote. “But on those days, our unrelenting commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion will still be a work in progress.”
Following this statement, Eva again emailed White and Fletcher. She noted that Aspen’s statement failed to specifically mention Black people, Black Lives Matter or Black Americans. (Aspen amended their online statement to include the phrase “Black Lives Matter” soon after receiving Eva’s email, though they made no note of this revision. A copy of this revised statement has been preserved in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)
“[Aspen] claims to believe that music has the capacity to make change,” Eva wrote in her email. “If you believe in this so heavily, you must make a public commitment to program composers of color in all of the orchestra programs.”
Eva alleged that a pattern had emerged in Aspen’s discussions of racism and diversity. “Once again, you have failed to acknowledge the concerns of people that you discriminate against,” she wrote. “Last year we asked for a sincere public apology and a commitment to program composers of color for years to come. Now I am asking for the same with regards to your statement.”
Eva never received a response to her emails. But she was not the only student that emailed Fletcher and White about this post-George Floyd public statement. Some of these students received a response from Fletcher (as obtained by VAN): “Thank you all for your expression of concern about this issue, which is indeed of paramount importance to us all.”
On July 8, White reached out to some students who had been critical of “South Pacific.” (The overlap between these students and those contacted by Fletcher remains unclear.) In her July 8 email, a copy of which was also obtained by VAN, White wrote that senior Aspen staff would soon provide details of its “deep exploration of our mindsets, philosophies, and policies toward meaningful actions moving forward.”
A week later, an email was sent from a general Aspen email address to all former and current members of the Aspen community.
We share in the grief and outrage felt by so many following the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless other Black Americans. The legacy of anti-Black racism in our country is ugly and brutal, and it represents a clear and present threat to the very fabric of our society... As an organization, we are committed to understanding fully the impact of structural racism and the anguish, humiliation, and fear that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have had to endure, and continue to experience to this day.
Later in the email, Aspen detailed the steps they would take to promote diversity. They wrote that they would “deepen our efforts to recruit the most talented students from around the world, to create a genuine culture of inclusion and belonging for our [Aspen] family, and to provide additional scholarship and fellowship funding for those who come from communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in classical music.” They also wrote that “we will do more to lift the creative voices of Black artists that have been marginalized.”
This effort involved commissioning new works by Black composers. It also involved the creation of “Black Voices, from the AMSF Archives,” a social media series featuring “works by African-American composers that have been performed at [Aspen].” A search of Aspen’s Twitter account revealed only one work from this archive, a 2019 performance of George Theophilus Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” that the account tweeted on Juneteenth.
In an email to VAN, White noted that the Aspen Music Festival and School works with the Sphinx Organization, which advocates from Black and Latinx artists in classical music, and that the organization sets aside over $400,000 in scholarships for musicians of color. “Approximately 11% of students at Aspen each summer are Black or Latinx,” she wrote, “compared to the 1-3% more commonly seen at summer classical music festivals and in professional orchestras.”
But Julio criticized Aspen’s recent social media posts around the resharing of old performances of music by Black composers. “It’s just disingenuous,” Julio said. “There’s no new production value and money being placed into this. It’s all well and good that they have pieces [like that] from last year but we can’t look to past performances as indicative of any change because they are, almost by definition, in the past.”
In response to Aspen’s many recent statements, Julio, Eva and a group of former Aspen students posted a document on social media they called “Open Letter to AMFS, 2020.” The letter offered a group consensus about the racial stereotypes in “South Pacific,” especially in light of the festival’s effort to look back on previous performances of music by Black composers:
[Aspen] as an institution itself made an effort to silence multiple students about their own oppression in past years. Within the last year alone, Asian students and students of every race publicly commenting on or actively attempting to reform [Aspen’s] … semi-staged production of “South Pacific” … made [students] uncomfortable to the degree that they were driven to leave the production, and even had the incident and resulting backlash follow them professionally.
Within days, the letter had garnered over 100 signatures from an eclectic mix of former Aspen participants and professional musicians.
University of Michigan Professor Matt Albert signed the letter shortly after viewing it on social media. “I think that people in institutions like Aspen or Michigan are going to make mistakes. And we should be held accountable for them. We should accept that correction with gratitude,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to grow from those things. And I see that we often receive that correction from students from people not traditionally in power. It can be harder to receive that feedback from those people, which makes it more important that ... they’re accepted with gratitude. Say thank you, listen and change.”
The letter demanded that Aspen offer “sensitivity and diversity training for the executives, administrators, board members, and teachers.” It also demanded that Aspen create “a truly accessible and effective way to bring student concerns, anonymously or non-anonymously” along with “a division akin to a Title XI [sic.] Office” where “in the case of unsafe working and learning conditions, we must be able to seek guidance and recourse.”
At the end of our interview, Julio noted that Aspen has never specifically acknowledged the harm caused by “South Pacific.” “Their wording has been respectful but the actions that were promised in the past couple of months have not produced any viable fruit,” they said. “There’s no tangible product. There are statements and statements and the closest that they’ve gotten to anything centering marginalized group has been a concert series where they recast performances of music by Black composers that have already happened.”
Eva continues to question Aspen’s priorities. “I know how important Aspen’s image is to Aspen,” she said. “I don’t know if this silence is positive or negative or if they’re just trying to cover their asses.”
While working on this article, I repeatedly spoke with the student who was told to apologize for the “sake of [his] career.” (Every other Aspen student I spoke to suggested that I speak to this student—they had all heard of this message.) This student believed that he was the first student to approach White and Fletcher about concerns with this production of “South Pacific.”
For over a year, this student had felt that an Aspen production was deeply anti-Asian. I wanted to ask what he made of Aspen’s recent statements about diversity. Did he feel that they had begun to address his complaints? Did he feel that they should focus on their previous actions or their future programming decisions?
After a few off-the-record conversations, I finally broached the subject of this student being interviewed on the record. I explained that I believed the recorded message from his private teacher was vital to understanding the power dynamics that had been at play. After a brief silence, I remember this student asking me what incentive he might have to be quoted in this article. I had no answer.
At the end of my conversation with Matt Albert, I mentioned the recorded message this student had received from his private teacher. Albert was shocked. “The idea that music instructors, and particularly private lesson instructors, are the gatekeepers for success in a career or the field or a program is so problematic,” Albert said. “We should be empowering students. We should be helping them their best selves. If students are getting into ‘good trouble,’ to quote John Lewis, we should be helping them.” ¶