Disability in Opera: Katharine Goeldner in Conversation with Young Artist Hailey McAvoy
Disability in Opera is discussed in the latest issue of AGMAzine. AGMA Governor Katharine Goeldner speaks with Young Artist and fellow mezzo-soprano Hailey McAvoy about how the Performing Arts industry can better serve artists with disabilities. As an artist with mild cerebral palsy, McAvoy’s authenticity includes embracing physical disability in her life onstage and off.
Today, we share this important conversation as part of the Union’s AGMAzine Spotlight Series.
Katharine Goeldner (KG): Hi, Hailey! Thanks for discussing how our industry can better serve our artists with disabilities. So, first question: What do you suggest as the most respectful way to address these fellow artists?
Hailey McAvoy (HM): Thank you for inviting me to share my experience with disability and opera! I’d like to kick off our conversation with a bit of a disclaimer. People with disabilities are not a monolith. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can share my own experiences and some that I’ve gathered from others!
I personally prefer “singer with a disability.” For me, “disabled singer” puts the emphasis on my disability, while “singer with a disability” keeps the focus on my singing while additionally providing information about my identity. “Differently-abled” or “handi-capable” can come across as condescending and infantilizing, in my opinion, as these shy away from directly referencing disability. Disability is not a taboo whose name mustn’t be spoken—it is an information-giver. Let’s remove the stigma of this word and use it to communicate in order to connect with and support one another.
KG: Hailey, you have cerebral palsy (CP), as you’ve written so openly about it on your website. (https://www.haileymcavoy.com/about) How does it affect your singing?
HM: I would say that my baseline singing technique (i.e. my experience of support and resonance) is not affected much by CP. Most of the challenges I experience appear when triggered by specific environmental factors in my nervous system or in the space around me. One example: If I suddenly go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode while performing, sometimes the muscles in my legs will “grab” or engage in a way that gives me a momentary start. It has required mental and physical energy over years of troubleshooting to manage this so that it is not aurally discernible. In other instances, sometimes the nerves I feel in performance cause my legs to shake more violently than able-bodied performers. If I can have reassuring contact with something outside of myself, I am able to manage this muscle tension. In recital, I occasionally rest my hand on the piano; in an opera, I might take the hand of a colleague, with their consent, of course, rest my hand on a set piece, or work with the director to incorporate moments in which I can sit from time to time. There are also performance situations in which this “reassuring contact” can only be found by allowing myself to sit. For example, if I am singing as a soloist with orchestra. Opting to sit for a concert has never produced a negative result in terms of my ability to sing, resonate, or be heard. I will continue to choose this option when it serves me because doing so can also open doors for other Artists with chronic illnesses, who are going through medical treatments, or who have sprained their ankle a day before their concert… all of these people might be able to more fully share their voices and dramatic expressions from a chair if we really had permission, without stigma, to do so.
KG: I just did a production of Salome with you as The Page; you were great, by the way. I know how well you move on stage, but I can imagine directors who don’t know you would wonder if you’d be able to do their staging. What sort of discussions have you had about this with directors?
HM: Most of the challenges I face with movement are intensified by unfamiliarity. The chance to practice all of the staging lessens the mobility challenges I might face. I always arrive early to the first rehearsal so I can introduce myself to the conductor and the director, explaining that I have CP and that occasionally I might sit in rehearsal, but nothing is wrong; I’m just doing what I need to do in order to do my best.
When staging rehearsals begin, I say to the director, “Please stage me just as you would anyone else. If anything poses a challenge, I will be sure to let you know after rehearsal.” That way, the director doesn’t have to worry about me and can trust that I will ask for what I need.
In many productions, especially if they are black-box or in smaller theaters without staircases, I don’t need any modifications at all. In bigger theaters, the modifications I need are usually relatively quick fixes. In one production that had a lot of stairs without railings, I was playing the town gossip…and so the director assigned a different “townsperson” to walk me onto the scene at each entrance! This worked in favor of my character—I was able to be gleaning bits of gossip all over the place. Modifications like these seem small, but they make a big difference in terms of my own ability to do my job.
In order for any of us, regardless of ability, to bring a character vividly to life, we need to feel safe and welcome on stage. When we are secure in this way, the story doesn’t suffer; it thrives.
KG: How could opera companies better accommodate artists with disabilities throughout the already-stressful audition process?
HM: I am so glad you asked because most of the barriers I’ve faced as an artist with a disability appear in the audition room, rather than in rehearsal or performance. If I’m unfamiliar with an audition room, I may face physical obstacles which can throw me off mentally as well as physically. In spaces that are not accessible for me (e.g. when there are stairs without a railing), I usually have to ask a member of the audition panel for a hand! In an audition, there is such a limited window of time to make an impression, and with something as nuanced as disability, it is difficult to convey the reality of the situation within those confines. Because of the lack of explicit support for artists with disabilities from opera companies, I worry during auditions that my visible disability will take me out of the running for jobs that are more easily imagined by audition panels to be filled by able-bodied singers, despite my resume demonstrating that I can and have fulfilled my job as a performer many times.
Companies and Young Artist Programs (YAPs) must include somewhere in their application a space to specify access needs (e.g., I need a hand to go up and down the stairs) or a space as open-ended as, “Is there anything else you’d like us to know.” I have personally used this space to share information about my CP, and I think a lot of us with disabilities would find it freeing to be able to speak up about our possible access needs.
I also believe that casting directors, conductors, and stage directors should ultimately trust us to know what we need in terms of our disabilities. Please evaluate us, as everyone, on the basis of our tone, characterization, language, and dramatic capability. Please do not rule us out based on assumptions. If you have a question for us about how we might navigate a performance space, please ask.
KG: Related to my last question. You were on the panel of Opera Mariposa’s discussion “Generation NOW: Accessibility in Opera.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tn72P8uiBFs. One of the points that were brought up was a lack of accessibility info in marketing materials and audition notices. Can you speak more to this?
HM: First of all, it would be helpful if audition and performance venues made mention of the obstacles people with accessibility issues might face in the space. Venues can provide brief descriptions of the space for the benefit of the artists. for example, is it handicap accessible, and if not, how many steps are there? Furthermore, there are many singers who are blind or have a visual impairment. Adding image descriptions (IDs) to photos of performance or audition spaces would be helpful so that they can better visualize the space in which they will be working. Lastly, companies should include artists with disabilities in their statements about welcoming artists of all races, gender identities, sexualities, abilities, etc., in their audition postings.
KG: Such a good point! Our industry is focusing more on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) provisions. Do you feel included in these discussions?
HM: Although I am thrilled about the DEI work that has begun, artists with disabilities have not yet been included in the same way that artists from other historically marginalized communities have been. The 2021 Field-Wide Opera Demographic Report has just been released, and while I am glad to see work like this being done, the report does not yet include any information about artists/administrators with disabilities.
I don’t think we have been neglected in the conversation because of ill-will. I think we have been largely invisible because those artists who have not already felt excluded because of disability may opt to “pass” for being able-bodied, feeling they must do so in order to survive. Companies should consider the reality that artists with disabilities may well already work/audition with/for them, potentially hiding part of their identity for fear of discrimination. We are here, and we don’t want to just be accepted “in spite of” our disabilities; we should be valued for who we are and what we, uniquely, offer.
KG: Anything else you’d like our industry colleagues to know about how to better include Artists with disabilities?
HM: A couple of things come to mind. I have spoken with a singer who is blind. They were told by a casting director, “We wanted to hire you, but we didn’t know how to work with your blindness.” And on the other hand, I know of a production of Werther in which Andrea Bocelli, a visually impaired pop/opera superstar, played the title role. When a company wanted his star power, they were able to accommodate him. Accommodation is possible. I have seen a production of The Magic Flute in which the director decided that the Queen of the Night is dramatically effective when sung by an able-bodied singer in a wheelchair. Why not hire an artist with that lived experience instead?
Historically, disability has only been “allowed” to be onstage as a caricature or accessory tied to a moral assumption about the character (i.e. only villains can be disabled). Let’s give performers with disabilities the chance to appear on stage as they do in life, with disability free from moral implications. Can it be essential to the performer, and not just an accessory like a fancy wig, that is put onto a character?
Lastly, I long to connect with more people with disabilities who work in opera! I will continue speaking openly about and advocating for artists with disabilities. If you’re reading this and it applies to you, I would love to connect with you so that we could support each other. Please feel free to contact me via the contact page at www.haileymcavoy.com.