Earlier this year, the latest opera by acclaimed Hungarian composer-conductor Peter Eötvös was due to make its London premiere. A tale of the immigrant experience centring around a bustling Chinese restaurant, The Golden Dragon had already impressed audiences and critics during a successful run performed by Music Theatre Wales.

Then, only a few weeks before the first London performance, the Hackney Empire announced that it was cancelling the event, citing the theatre’s ‘commitment and position as a champion of diversity’ – as despite taking place in a Chinese restaurant run by Chinese characters, The Golden Dragon featured no South Asian performers [1].

The decision has reignited the long-running debate over diversity within the field of classical music. Here, we explore the issue.

Classical Music & Diversity: What’s the Problem?

According to research by The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), just 6% of commissioned composers are from a BAME background. When it came to the gender cap, the figures were only marginally more encouraging, with women accounting for 21% of commissioned composers [2].

More often than not, this lack of diversity is not the result of obvious malice or ill-intentions. It’s extremely unlikely that Music Theatre Wales set out with the intention of offending or upsetting with The Golden Dragon – the lack of diversity in their production can instead be seen as a reflection of the wider limitations of their field.

The world of professional music can be a demanding and highly competitive one, and like any such field, these conditions often give an unintentional advantage to some people more than to others – with those fortunate enough to have a certain level of privilege afforded a particularly prominent head-start. Many professional musicians begin learning their craft from a young age, and early access to a musical education and the necessary resources can be a financial commitment not every family is always able to make.

We may like to think that art transcends the barriers and prejudices of the world around us, but all too often it falls short of this principle.

Solving the Diversity Problem

Ensuring that classical music is open to all is a complex task, but it could prove to be of enormous benefit to classical music itself – back in January, BBC Radio 3 controller Alan Davey suggested that greater diversity is crucial if classical music is to tap into the vast talent pool of today’s young musicians and remain innovative and ground-breaking in the years to come [3].

And while redressing social inequalities and commonly held unconscious biases may be a slightly more ambitious task than classical music alone can achieve, there are steps that can be taken. Perhaps most effective of all would be simply to stress the importance of music education in schools. The situation has certainly been improving in this regard, with more schools than ever now home to high-quality recording equipment and the best scoring software – but there is still significant room for improvement.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that the issue is being debated at all. As the topic of diversity has risen in prominence, there have been several positive efforts to celebrate the efforts of female and BAME musicians.

Last year, cello player Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s success in the BBC Young Musician competition made him the first black winner since the prize’s establishment in 1978 [4]. Meanwhile BASCA, in response to the findings of their own research, readjusted the gender and ethnic makeup of the British Composer Awards judging panel accordingly.

When it comes to the issue of diversity in classical music, there is clearly still some way to go – but the new generation of talent now emerging more than speaks for itself, and music has always strived for an admirably egalitarian principle. Let’s hope it can finally achieve it.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/12/chinese-takeaway-opera-golden-dragon-hackney-empire-all-white-cast-music-theatre-wales

[2] https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/classical-music-sectors-lack-of-diversity-laid-bare-by-new-report/

[3] http://www.classical-music.com/news/disruption-and-diversity-are-key-future-classical-music-says-bbc-radio-3-controller

[4] http://www.classical-music.com/article/meet-winner-bbc-young-musician-2016