Welcome to Beyond Travesti, a podcast where I talk to transgender and gender-expansive opera and music theater professionals about the old constructs, our present concerns, and future visions of our individual and collective work.
I'm Bryce McClendon. I'm a writer, countertenor, and creative consultant based in Manhattan.
On this episode, I'm speaking to creative leader and strategic marketer Dorian Block. We'll talk about how Dorian's early experiences in opera shaped his ethos as an executive leader.
The reason that I stay in this industry is that should I be able to rise to the top or should I at least voice my concerns that someone at the top would understand how I felt in that moment, how powerless I felt, how afraid I was to even speak up because I didn't want it to affect my career.
And Dorian will share some of his insights into the industry's current approach to work centered around equity, diversity, inclusion, access, and belonging in opera.
The obstacle and the answer are kind of the same. It comes down to investment. Where are we investing our time? Where are we investing our resources? Where are we investing our staff? Making sure that you're making the right investment.
But first, a quick update.
Over the past couple of months, I've collaborated with my friend and first guest, Katherine Goforth, with Danielle Wright, the founder and executive director of Opera MODO in Detroit, and with Dorian Block, who's my guest on this episode, to help lay the groundwork for an online directory of trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse classical music professionals.
The four of us felt we would personally benefit from a searchable, publicly available directory like that, and we think a resource like this could facilitate connections between members of this community in opera and in music theater.
Opera MODO is the first sponsor of this directory, and our hope is that in the future there will be a network of arts organizations that support and use this resource. So if this sounds interesting to you, if you're a trans, non-binary, or gender diverse person working in classical music and opera, and you'd like to be included in a public directory like this, or you would like to be able to use a public directory like this, please stay tuned.
Check in on the Beyond Travesti Instagram for an intake form link once we make that form live.
Just to note, all the information you provide will be made publicly accessible on Opera Moto's website via an online professional directory, so please only include information in your response that you'd be willing to have shared in that way. Stay tuned, there will be more to come on that, but just wanted to let y'all know now so that you can be looking out for it.
And now for my conversation with Dorian Block.
Dorian Block is a transmasculine individual of Hispanic and Native American heritage from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He grew up attending, performing in, and eventually marketing for the Santa Fe Opera, contributing to multiple publications including the 2017 Season Program book and the CD booklet for the Grammy Award-winning The Revolution of Steve Jobs.
Dorian defined the role of Digital Marketing and Social Media Manager at the Dallas Opera where he served for two seasons and strategically planned content through 2023. Currently, Dorian is a member of the 5th SphinxLead Cohort for Black and Latinx Arts Administrators. He was also a mentee of the 2022-2023 Opera America Mentorship Program for Opera Leaders of Color and was recently named to the board of Opera Canada where he serves as board secretary and as a member of the digital strategy committee.
As a leader, Dorian is passionate about strategic visions incorporating socially conscious audience development, revenue diversification, and digital advancement in the performing arts to increase representation of intersectional diversity on both sides of the operatic stage.
Dorian Block, I'm so grateful that you're talking with me today. Thanks for coming to chat.
Thank you, Bryce. I really appreciate the invitation.
First, as always, I want to know a little bit about what brought you to opera in the first place and what keeps you involved.
Great question. The latter I've been kind of toying with myself lately. I was brought into opera at seven years old. My mom was an educator and they had a flyer in the teacher's lounge that was offering free tickets to educators and that was my first operatic experience.
It was in the mezzanine of the Santa Fe Opera. The luge in the mezzanine. The best opera seat I've ever had was for a dress rehearsal of ... I don't know the opera. I was ruined forever by the best opera in the world. So that was my first experience and it's really just grown ever since.
My mom took us as much as she could and then my little brother and I became old enough to submit art for their youth night at the opera program. That's how we then got our tickets. So I have covers for years as a youth artist in the Santa Fe Opera and from then on I just tried to be as involved as possible.
So that was my introduction to opera. My why for staying is that this art has affected me so deeply. My hope is to return home someday and to grow this art form in that same space to widen the diversity of who it can affect. I'm quite proud of my home opera company. They recently came out with a documentary about the Pueblo Opera Program and how they have involved the indigenous and native communities of northern New Mexico in opera from the very beginning, from when John Crosby first founded the opera. Within a couple years they were doing Youth Night at the Opera and the first cover artist was actually from one of the native Pueblos in the surrounding area. So I think that's something that I'd love to champion as a native New Mexican arts administrator in Santa Fe.
Cool, cool. Yeah, I know you describe Santa Fe Opera as having such a big impact on you getting started, loving this art form in general, but I'm curious to know more specifically about how you feel like it's impacted your leadership philosophy, you know, as a young executive. Can you speak a little bit about anything you've observed or learned there that shaped your sense of professional direction or your goals as a leader?
I think professional direction-wise, I'm not sure it's had the greatest impact. I really started, you know, trying to be as involved as possible. So I worked my way from front of house as an usher to on stage as a super, to the administrative office as a marketing assistant. And in those capacities I didn't really feel like I had a clear direction forward.
Originally I of course thought that I was going to be a singer and that that was going to be my end to opera but I remember a distinct conversation when I was an usher with the janitor about improvements that could be made to decrease the rain on one of the patios, the Tobin Terrace. And him being like, I wonder, you know, who will listen? Since I didn't become a singer, I was then, well, like, well, I should become a general director. This is my home opera company. I should become a general director.
And he's like, if you do, like, you need to talk to like us about, you know, what, what needs doing on the opera compound and the opera grounds. And I was like, yes, we need a leader from New Mexico. Native to the populations of New Mexico that's willing to have those conversations with the janitor, that's willing to listen to every single person at every facet of the organization.
And I think that you know coming from all these different front of house I've had I've been in the artistic side. I've been in the admin side and I also hung out with all of the costumers because I was really into costuming while I was working in the admin office and so I really hung out with them. So I got a different perspective from everyone that I interacted with and I don't think that many general directors have the time or devote the resources to investing in the value of just conversation.
Probably the most exciting anecdote for you and your audience: my operatic debut was face planting center stage as the walls to Hades were opening on Alceste opening night in 2009. They were very interesting black and orange togas and I just, I biffed it, right center stage, that's the first thing the audience saw. But a beautiful orchestral piece was playing.
And then they said, I think we want you in admin.
Exactly. I should have known at that point. Maybe admin would suit me better than the stage.
What was your experience like as a singer? So if somebody gets attracted to singing or if they get attracted to opera that that's like immediately what you want to do, right? It's like, I'm going to sing then, because it's sort of the most visible thing. Can you talk a little bit about like what it was shifting you away from that into a more leadership role? Did singing feel particularly good to you or were there things about it that were that were difficult?
It was always very much a struggle. I experienced so much rejection at a very early age and in a very short amount of time from like 12 years old to my first year of college. I experienced just a lot of rejection. I tried out for the Young Voices program at the Santa Fe Opera every year, never got in. So I involved myself in other ways to be involved in that opera company.
My partner and I are re-watching Glee right now. As embarrassing as it is, I was a Rachel Berry. And so that's just the truth of it. I was part of every choir in town that I could be. I just dedicated myself. I'd often say, you know, during my lunch period I wasn't really a popular kid, but I was obsessed with choir.
So for the choir teacher to have a break, I would conduct freshman choir during my lunch period. So that's who I was in high school and then I ended up at a music program in Texas, a private school so it was related to the church and I thought you know music is fine when I came out to my dad senior year of high school. He was like, you do know you're going to the Bible Belt of Texas, right? And I was like, it's fine. I'm going to a music program. It'll be great.
Unfortunately, it was not. I was basically withdrawn from the music program for my sexuality and there was little recourse for that. So my singing career ended unless I switched schools and my parents just didn't have the money. I was on scholarship for my voice there. And so I was welcomed with open arms into the English department.
Your work lately and just probably also moving forward has involved and will involve a good amount of travel. For instance, this year alone, you've been to Detroit, Nashville, New York City and Texas. And I know in many areas of opera and musical theater traveling is just a part of the career path but I also know and think a lot about how it can be very complicated or even dangerous to travel the country as an out transgender person especially if you're traveling to places with active anti-trans legislation. You live in Canada and Canada just recently released a travel advisory for LGBTQ plus citizens traveling to the United States. So I'm wondering, what has it been like for you as a young trans masc professional who has to move around to move up, so to speak?
And do you have any words of advice or encouragement to offer to others who may have to travel a lot to advance or even participate in performance careers or performance related careers?
Yeah, i think that that is a very large barrier facing the trans, non-binary, gender diverse community. The world is smaller for us than it was before. I don't think that it grew any, I think that people are just a bit more vocal about it and there are now laws that support those ideas. So I think that as a professional traveling for work in any profession will come up. But I think in the musical community and in the performing arts, it is a bit more travel.
I Reside in Canada. My partner is from Canada. I'm here on a visitor visa, but being in Canada while certain things are happening in the U.S. is a saving grace, but I was called through my profession to be in Tennessee within the week that three legislators were kicked out of the House for voicing their opinions on gun violence as well as their pros for the trans community being protected and especially since the bills that are facing the trans community affect the performing arts I really have championed the legislation work in that area so being called during that time when gun violence was at its high was terrifying and traveling as a transgender professional I asked for certain amenities some of which were met some of which were not. but we were put in a very dangerous situation. There was an event happening that the GOP was putting on for donors right across the street from the symphony where we were and we were thrust into many situations that were highly dangerous which did end up in an airport evacuation in the end. A lot of us walked away with some trauma from that event.
So I've faced firsthand what singers are facing every time they travel, what administrators are facing when they go to like Florida for the Tessitura conference. So I have looked that population in the face too many times to not know what is facing administrators. The reason that I stay in this industry is that should I be able to rise to the top or should I at least voice my concerns that someone at the top would understand how I felt in that moment how powerless I felt how afraid I was to even speak up because I didn't want it to affect my career. I've said that I lost my music major for being a lesbian. I don't want to lose my administrative career for being transgender. So that's the duality of my passion and my personal mission as well as my career that I face every day.
So I think any advice is: find your community. While I was there on the ground, there were so many musical professionals that I'd had one-on-ones or informational interviews with recently that were reaching out to me and saying, hey, I hope you're okay. Like, I know that this is really scary for you right now. And just having that community, even within the profession that I am, has been instrumental to me. Finding your people.
I was just on LinkedIn commenting on things, you know trying to stay out there and sure. Yeah, you never know Who's looking at your bio or who's a transgender advocate at the end of your bio? Yeah, so I've had you know, big executives reach out to me and individuals that I met at Opera America conference that have a transgender child or know somebody and so they're just a bit more willing to participate in that conversation. It's really hard to assign any anger towards somebody that you know, that you know is a decent person or whose hand you shook in a professional setting. And so really just starting to get us there at the top.
Yeah, for sure, for sure. I think a lot about how, in America, the anti-trans legislation in various states is, an effort to build these modular laws that legislators can grab from lobbying groups to institute in their area, even if the person who wrote it doesn't have anything to do with the city where the law is going into effect. We know that that's what's happening, but also, and in particular, at the time that you were going to Tennessee, the tactic is disorientation. The tactic is like, nobody knows what the law is. Nobody knows what it means. There are so many different things in so many different areas.
And I know at the time you were going to Tennessee, the drag ban was so vague and so broad that you couldn't get a sense of how it would actually be applied. The law was against public impersonation of the opposite sex, right? In front of minors.
So I'm curious how you were feeling before this trip and also how you prepared for it. Did you, like, try to figure out, okay, what does this mean? What was your approach?
I did a lot of research on the front end. I read into these bills. I was not unfamiliar with states where you immediately have to read the language. And like you were saying, there's boilerplate language that all these different states steal. So like in New Mexico, when we were facing these laws, they weren't even constitutionally correct with New Mexico laws when submitted. They were just like copy paste.
So reading the language and learning that yes, you could basically be fined along with some jail time. And it was up to public interpretation of whether you were trying to impersonate another gender. And as far as enforcement, it was kind of like self-deputizing for the people. That's because of the vague language. It could be self-deputizing.
So I brought all of these concerns forward. I tried to be very articulate about the why because then the word eradication had just been entered into the transgender legislative conversation. And so that was very scary for me. That's really what sent off alarm bells and I tried to alert the organization sending me with as much information as I could provide because I knew that, you know, tesearch is kind of on us nowadays.
Like as a transgender person in America... my family comes from politics, my brother's actually a politician in New Mexico on the other side of the issues. And so I never wanted to enter politics, but by default as a transgender individual in America, my identity has been politicized. So in order to travel or in order, whenever you hear any of these bills, you do have to educate yourself so that you know exactly what you're facing, or exactly what your industry is facing if you're in the performing arts.
My colleague and I at the Dallas Opera actually put on a drag show for the Arts District Pride and we really had to look into that and around the time that we were about to kind of have it, it was at the DMA, we asked for extra security just in case because this is when the drag bands had first been introduced, two years ago I think. And so you know you just need to be really cognizant not only for yourself but also if you're inviting your community to participate in you know a drag queen singing Queen of the Night and there's going to be children and families there you need to make sure that they're going to be safe as well. So there's the administrative side and there's the personal side.
Yeah, one last little thing about this ... Aree there sources that you look to for news and information? There's so much bad news and information about transgender people. Are there some places that you look to in particular? I mean, I have my short list too, but I'm curious about yours
I think there's so [much] misinformation that I always check my sources, but my regular top three I think are GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and then Trevor Project because they're usually the first to post about anything.
I also follow the ACLU and Lambda Legal because they post a lot of the this is what you need to know legally. And I follow those bills but then I'll go and actually read them in the states like the Tennessee one I went on to their state website and I read like the actual legislative language that's like copy machined into there and just to know exactly and be able to interpret for myself what they're saying.
So, shifting gears: I know as a leader you have said to me that you've expressed a particular passion toward EDIAB work. Can you break down that acronym and maybe give me like a quick definition of how you would describe this work in particular? And then I'll finish out my question.
Definitely, and I'm glad that you used as many.... It's very much alphabet soup, like LGBTQI+ or Two Spirit. It's very much getting into that vein, and I think that that's great, and that it'll be more encompassing. I think right now it's very racially focused, but I think equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging, and access are, like, just the iceberg on top. Like there's so much below but if we're implementing any of those or all of those then hopefully it'll incorporate the Two Spirit LGBTQI+ or other communities. I know that access is meant to help more of the differently abled individuals but there's just so many barriers to participating not only in a performance but as administrators as artists. So really just making it as equitable and accessible as possible for everybody.
Yeah, I think over the past few years there's been sort of a shift in how people are talking about this work. For a time I felt like the conversation sort of started and ended with representation. Who are we seeing on stage? Which is obviously a great and important conversation, but now it does seem people are more willing at least to push toward more transparent conversations about who holds authority, how we're providing accessible theater. So in your experience, what are some of the major EDIAB gains you'd like to see in the opera industry landscape and what do you think are some of the obstacles for getting us there?
The obstacle and the answer are kind of the same. It comes down to investment. Where are we investing our time? Where are we investing our resources? Where are we investing our staff? Making sure that you're making the right investments.
I know that HR is not a large component of organizational structures at most non-profit companies. They're usually contracted out. But that's really your people person. And then, also making sure there's an HR person in the rehearsal room, whether that's an intimacy coordinator or an Equity and Diversity officer. I just got off a call with someone who said that they had both in the room, and I was like that's unheard of, I love that, that should be standard practice. But it really isn't.
So that investment does take someone at the top being bought into the work. As I've said, that's where change really happens. The top needs to be bought in. And there are so many directors right now who are coming from artistic backgrounds, so it does surprise me that there isn't more invetment in the rehearsal process and making it more safe.
I've heard from some of the greatest singers in the world at some of the top house that they were asked to do things that weren't in their contract that they had no idea they were going to do until they were in costume or in the first dress rehearsal. I think inserting HR into the performing arts space would look more like an intimacy coordinator that they know they can go to, that's the first on the job when there's the meet-the-artits when they come in. Becaues in most cases it's people coming together to make art in a finite amount of time.
I spoke to a general director who came from an arts administration background and told me that HR is the thing that takes up most of the time and that that's what she was not expecting about the performance space. And that it's so hard because there's such a finite amount of time to address any HR issues before everyone's gone. And then it's kind of like playing detective.
There's a unique time frame attached to each production. And prioritizing making sure that there's a very big HR lens on that, because if not there's just malpractice after malpractice... That's something that the industry is really good at is that everything's a fire, show must go on, but also making sure that we take the time to stop and reflect amid that. Really prioritizing that so that the next show can be better because the artists are feeling more comfortable and they're brought into an environment where they feel more safe. Maybe the show doesn't go on one day and we take the time to really strategically revisit the process. Or if something happens really unpack the what and the why.
I'm really big about asking questions in my leadership style. I'm more of a democratic participative leader, but a lot of the time they need an immediate answer or we're always everything's on fire constantly and so there's a lot of immediate decisions being made. Harvard Business Review Genesis Project said that leaders who make a decision even if it's the wrong decision in a timely fashion are viewed as higher in value by their staff even if it was the wrong decision. And I think that that's something that I've seen a lot of hold up. Leaders are hesitant to make certain decisions even though we're operating in this other non-sustainable style where everything is a fire. So it's like we do need to pause. I think that there's a lot of risk in pausing, but I think that it's the right amount of risk. Especially if there's HR issues in the rehearsal room or in the office.
Yeah, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about some other gaps you see in how we are approaching producing opera now, either at an institutional level (and you can speak maybe to specific experiences or things you've seen) or just industry-wide in general. What do you think is kind of the state of the union now in terms of opera production? And in addition to this sort of HR presence, what are some of the things, ways that we should be trying to bridge the gaps moving forward?
Something that I wrote in notes earlier today was that we are a public institution. We are meant to bring meaning to the public sphere. That is why 501c3 nonprofits exist. And many arts organizations may not always be thinking that in their daily work. And so I think that bringing those audiences in starts at the grassroots.
I've been reading The First Twenty Years of the Santa Fe Opera about John Crosby and he's a leader that I aspire to be very much like. But within the first year he wasn't the one selling tickets. The women of New Mexico, the women's guild that it then became, were going door-to-door offering tickets to locals very much like a politician would getting votes or seeing if they were going to get votes. And I think that that's maybe where we're at as an industry. If we really want to invite the local population in, we need to be doing that, literally. We need to be going to the performing arts already vibrant in the community.
I would say, you know, the Santa Fe Opera is usually sold out. I think this season there were a lot less coming, but what was sold out and what was talked about in every local eatery or every local interaction I had was, oh, the Mariachi concert after the season. Everybody always goes to that. It's at the Santa Fe Opera. It fills the house every time.
There's post-season rock concerts, so they are coming to the Santa Fe Opera. They may not be coming for opera. So even inviting them into this space to see what is relevant to them and their community and then taking the conversation from there. Just like I mentioned the Pueblo Opera Project and giving that opportunity to youth and others within the Native communities. Because the Pueblo Opera Project started with a lot of little youth productions where they would create their own operas in their own native tongue or about their own native stories. Things that are relevant to the community and really bringing them into opera through that lens.
Because that's how I got brought in. I was a teacher's kid who would never have ended up in the luge at the Santa Fe Opera if it wasn't for that community engagement and really going into the communities and inviting them in.
I do have a Texas appointment for my professional development, but I added a little Ren Fair trip onto that just to keep me sane.
What's the look?
I sport a doublet. I've made them myself, but one of my favorites I also bought...
You've made them?
Yeah, so I made my whole costume for the first time I think last year. I have an embroidery sewing machine, a Star Wars embroidery sewing machine sitting behind me over there that I haven't touched in a while, but I do need to make boot covers so that we can have tennis shoes instead of uncomfortable shoes while walking around the Red Fair.
That's all for my conversation with Dorian Block. To learn more about Dorian, you can visit his website, dorianblock.com, or follow him on Instagram @dapperdorian.
You can follow the podcast on Instagram @beyondtravesti, and you can follow me @thebryceswrong or on Substack at brycemclendon.substack.com. I'll be publishing an extended conversation on Substack later this month and I'd love to hear from you with any feedback or thoughts from this month's conversation. Maybe just maybe I'll read those questions or comments out loud on the next episode.
Get in touch, email me email@example.com or DM the Instagram account. I'd love to hear from you. The best way to support what I'm doing is by becoming a paid subscriber at Substack. All of the proceeds of that account go directly into this effort.
That's all for this episode. Until next month, much love and much care.
Recorded October 6, 2023