Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) is doing things a little differently this season. This time last year, BLO called on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Casa Myrna for resources to take a deeper look at two of the operas they’ll perform this spring: The Rape of Lucretia and The Handmaid’s Tale.
The partnership includes a joint training for BLO staff on the basics of sexual and domestic violence, “talk backs” after every performance to answer audience questions and discuss themes, and the presence of BARCC and Casa Myrna resources in the lobby before and after performances. Lacey Upton, BLO director of community engagement, said the goal is to speak openly about the trauma depicted onstage, the concepts of consent and autonomy, and the historic and present-day contexts.
“BLO partners with a wide range of organizations, from cultural institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, to civic ones such as the Boston Public Library, and schools and youth-serving organizations throughout the greater Boston area. But these partnerships with BARCC and Casa Myrna are definitely unique, and to my knowledge they are the first in our company’s history,” said Lacey.
BARCC and Casa Myrna—Boston’s largest provider of shelter and supportive services for survivors of domestic violence—held a joint training with BLO staff to give them tools for supporting audience members after performances. The two operas each follow acts of sexual and domestic violence, and the BLO took the intense themes as an opportunity to address the operas on multiple levels.
“It has truly been exciting to see my colleagues be so willing and eager to dig into this subject matter and to consider how we can both make great, thought-provoking art and also how we can talk with our audience members and patrons about subjects that are difficult, emotional, and sometimes very close to home,” said Lacey. “Our partnerships with BARCC and Casa Myrna have given us tools and resources to help us feel prepared and knowledgeable about the subject matter so that we can hopefully help audience members experience these operas as moving, emotional, relevant works of art.”
“Our partnerships with BARCC and Casa Myrna have given us tools and resources to help us feel prepared and knowledgeable about the subject matter so that we can hopefully help audience members experience these operas as moving, emotional, relevant works of art.”
BARCC staff will be on hand at each performance of The Rape of Lucretia, and Casa Myrna resources will be available at each performance of The Handmaid’s Tale to provide support to audience members.
In the joint training, Eliza Campbell, BARCC’s community engagement specialist, and Katherine Schulte, Casa Myrna’s managing attorney, opened by going over the basics of sexual and domestic violence. Eliza and Katherine asked questions to encourage the 25 or so people attending to access their existing knowledge: What does it feel like to be in crisis? What’s helpful when you’re in crisis, and what’s not?
The trainees participated with enthusiasm and empathy, eager to expand their knowledge and skills to support audiences and each other. Katherine and Eliza had participants think through challenges together and reorient conversations toward the healing and resilience that survivors experience. The trainings also reinforced the importance of self-care for BLO staff: watching two intense operas for their full run can take a toll on a person, as can hearing about other people’s trauma.
For Casa Myrna, this partnership feels like a return to their roots.
“Our namesake, Myrna Vazquez, wasn’t just one of our founders but also an extraordinary Puerto Rican stage actor and social activist,” said Kit Cali, Casa Myrna’s development and communications assistant. “She was a working class Afro-Latina woman who got her start in community theater as a teenager, during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In her most famous roles, such as Antigone, she portrayed women who stand up for what’s right no matter the consequences, and that’s who she was offstage, too.”
Kit added: “When she tragically died in 1975 before getting to see our original shelter open two years later, her fellow organizers named it in her memory. Myrna believed deeply in the power of performing arts to spur change by giving voice to experiences that have been silenced and speaking truth to power. We strive to honor her legacy of courage and creativity every day. What better way to do that than by partnering with the BLO for The Handmaid’s Tale?”
Eliza said the partnership feels like part of a trend. BARCC worked with several arts organizations over the past year to incorporate survivors’ perspectives and trauma-informed support.
“This has been really thoughtful,” Eliza said of the partnership with BLO and Casa Myrna. “They understand what it means to put on a production with these themes.”
The thoughtfulness and attention that the BLO has brought to these performances is gratifying for Casa Myrna and BARCC. Artists have an important role to play in the mission to end sexual and domestic violence, and amplifying survivors’ voices is one of the most powerful things they can do.
In order to end sexual and domestic violence, Kit reminds us, “We must both speak out and listen. Knowing the statistics . . . is important, but artists have the power to create not just awareness but also to foster a deeper empathy and understanding in those it touches. Art can teach us how to hear the people around us and to see when they’re struggling.”
Learn more about the trainings BARCC offers and explore Casa Myrna’s resources. Check out performance schedules and opera synopses here.