Derrell Acon: Opera for All

Derrell Acon. (Photo by Carell Augustus Photography.)

Victor Hugo once said that “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

Fortunately, this week’s Portrait is someone who has a way with both words and music. Dr. Derrell Acon is an award-winning activist, arts administrator, and bass-baritone hired by Opera Philadelphia to helm a brand new position, Vice President of People Operations & Inclusion. The Fulbright scholar understands the power of the performing arts to foster human compassion and catalyze conversations on challenging subjects. Acon is known for his unique and provocative presentations, which often combine performance and scholarship. Oh, and he’s single…

So the opera company is back in full swing with live audiences, what are some of the exciting programs on the docket?

There’s a lot going on, starting on April 2 with the “Only an Octave Apart” benefit. It’s going to be an evening event that includes dinner, drinks and performances by gender-bending Justin Vivian Bond and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. They did the show in NY and it was called one of the best theater experiences of 2021. On April 29th, the company goes back to the Academy of Music with Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” It’s going to be a modern retelling of the classic that we’re really excited about. In the fall we’ll have “The Raven” and “Otello” so stay tuned for more information about that. 

Let’s talk about you, tell me about the street you grew up on.

You know I actually cannot remember it well. I’m originally from St. Louis, and we moved around a ton when I was younger, I’m not sure why. I remember fragments of things and places through elementary school until about 5th grade when we moved to a place called Page Complex. That I remember, along with living in the projects which on one hand was exciting as a child, because there was always a lot of stuff going on. It wasn’t until later that you realized that it was quite dangerous. I had a very active childhood. 

What was St. Louis like? 

It’s an interesting city. There was a ton of history, especially as it relates to jazz. It’s also a very segregated city; a lot of folks are striving to get to the county schools because the education is much better than the schools in the inner city poorer areas. They had a waiting list, and as soon as I was born, my mother put me on the list. It took me until 5th grade to get in, which is how ridiculous the situation is. But overall what I liked was how people treat each other in the neighborhoods, that Midwest vibe. Everyone knows the struggles other folks were going through and so people were supportive of each other. You need some milk? Someone will help you.

What did/does mom do?

A lot of things! Most prominently she was a community advocate and organizer type. She was the one people went to to learn about community resources. Not that she was in a privileged position, it was that we ourselves needed help and she’d share the information she found with others. Instead of someone reaching back, she was someone trying to grab onto everybody so everyone could go forward together. I hope that I’ve gotten some of that spirit myself. 

In some of your lectures, you talk about the composer Verdi and how he made women the focus of a lot of his work. Name 3 positive female role models in your life.

Well, definitely my mom, actually she’d probably take up all 3 slots! But if I have to choose two others I’d say Maya Angelou. Even more than the poetry, just because of the way she carries herself and the energy she commands when she speaks, it’s very inspirational. And my third would be Serena Williams, whom I love so much, I’ve watched countless matches of hers over and over again. There’s something about watching her play that makes me feel how spectacular and superlative she is. I think sadly it’s in part because of the recognition of how extraordinary it was for someone like her to reach that level because of the systemic barriers that are so mountainous. It’s a reminder that though it’s tough, it can be done. 

What kinds of things were you into as a kid and when did you discover opera?

My sister and I used to do little skits when we were younger; I was always very theatrical. Even though my mother was working several jobs, she’d always take time to watch our shows. She knew how important the arts are. Growing up there was music all around me, my mom sings gospel, my sister is a hip-hop and R&B singer, and a lot of extended family members are also into music. I’d try to sing and my mother told me I sounded like a frog! But as I got older, I realized that I really loved to sing so I kept trying and kept getting better at it. I joined the choir and started to get solos and then started doing competition festivals and was doing well with those. It was so much fun! 

I thought I was going to be a lawyer but a friend suggested that I join a program called Artists in Training at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I applied and got in and learned about opera! I started learning to sing in all sorts of languages. And I learned about singers like Shirley Verrett and Leontyne Price. I remember seeing a video with Pavarotti and Leontyne Price performing a duet. At the end, Pavarotti was taking a bow and the crowd was clapping loudly and then Leontyne Price bowed and the crowd went WILD! And I was like, who is this black woman that people are going crazy over? I became fascinated by singers like her and Grace Bumbrey and the rest. After that, everything started to fall into place. 

So you didn’t go to law school, what did you study?

No law degree, but I did study government along with voice. I did a double degree with a minor in Ethnic Studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. I got a Masters at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and then in Italy for a year on a Fulbright and then back to Ohio for my Doctorate. 

Favorite teacher?

That’s easy, Karen Hoffman. She taught “Survey of African American literature” and “Literature of the Harlem Renaissance” and I learned so much from her. She was a white woman teaching these subjects and the way she framed the subject matter with such care allowed me to sort what my experiences were as a young Black person with an analytical and scholarly eye. It allowed me to be introduced to people like W.E.B. Du Bois who in my opinion is THE sociologist of our history. She was also one of the advisors on my thesis which allowed me to graduate with the highest honors. 

What did you do when you finished school?

The first thing I did was to go on tour to 5 cities in Germany, performing in “Porgy & Bess.” That was super fun, and then for 3 years I was on the road touring and lecturing and consulting non-stop. It was great, but it took a toll on my voice and my energy, so I moved to Los Angeles and eventually ended up doing administrative work for an opera company there. I was still living in LA before this move to Philadelphia. And now I’m the Vice President of People, Operations & Inclusion for Opera Philadelphia. 

It must be a bonus that you’ve worked on the administrative side in the past, but you’ve also been the performer, so you can relate to both sides. 

Yup, and I think it’s going to take people like me who bring a certain set of values and the willingness to operationalize them on a systematic level. As a singer, I didn’t feel like I had the agency to make systemic changes, so I had to change spaces to get to a place where I feel more empowered to make a difference. 

Understandable. When you were performing, what role did you most enjoy or immerse yourself in? 

Hmmm, they’re two different answers, the role I most enjoyed was Leporello in “Don Giovanni.” He’s the sidekick of the title character, he keeps lists of all the women that he dates and is a really fun character to sing, and he’s also one of the more nuanced characters in the show. The one that I immersed myself in would be when I played Antron McCray in the opera, “The Central Park Five.” It’s based on the true story of the five black and Latino boys wrongly convicted for the 1989 assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park. I say boys because they were 14 or 15 at the time it happened. I got to meet Antron, well, all 5 of them, and there was something about their story that paralleled the life that I live and the life that I could have been living as a result of the places from which I come. It allowed me to immerse myself in the role because I was able to pull things from my own background. There was a rawness that I was able to bring to the character. 

I have to say, I love the titles of your lectures/presentations. Some of the ones I saw were “An Absurdist Conversation on Rainbows and COLOR” which boldly explored the queer experience within Black culture; “Poems are bullsh*t: Demanding Black Space in Opera”; and my favorite, “Ay Blackity Black; Classical S$#t that ain’t Wack!”

[Laughing] Oh, yeah! Well, I love to add a little shock and radicalism towards utility. I think things are so far behind where they should be in terms of equity that we need to disrupt things in order to effect change. That was done at my alma mater and I thought it was a way to make my scholarly work more consumable for a young undergraduate audience. I try to incorporate music and poetry and spirituals along with some of the things I’ve learned since my time at Lawrence about how to be an artist and an activist. 

I saw something where you listed yourself as a Blacktivist. I may have to steal that! 

Yes, do. I love it!

Who was the first Black male opera singer who made an impression on you?

I’d say Paul Robeson. He was the first that I could see myself in. Not only his music, but his activism and all the things he went through, the hearings on communism, the many hats he wore. He wasn’t just a singer, he was an actor on stage and screen, he traveled all over, he was a speaker. I imagine he felt he needed to dip in all those things in order to express his full artistic self, and that’s how I felt in the beginning. I was always told, “You’re doing too much, you need to choose” but I’ve always known that it may be true for you but I feel like such a burning ball of energy wanting to have an impact on the world that it doesn’t all belong in one space. 

And how does the impact you want to make apply to the job you have now?

It’s a beautiful combination of the two worlds that are often distant from each other, the HR space and the EDI (Equity, Diversion & Inclusion) side. Someone like me who has experience in both of those worlds will have a better shot at reconciling that dissonance and will be able to implement changes that are systematic and center EDI. 

Fingers crossed. Okay, some random questions. What type of journalist would you be? Opinion, investigative, food critic?

I think I’d be an investigative reporter. The most radical kind, the kind that goes undercover to get to the core of what’s going on. 

What TV shows do you always watch reruns of?

Very easy: “Scandal” and “How to get away with Murder.” I think I’ve watched both series all the way through about 4 times. 

Best quote?

It’s from Amiri Baraka. He says, “Clean out the world for virtue and love. Let there be no love poems written until love can exist freely and cleanly.” I feel like it’s such a beautiful, radical thought. He’s saying, we want virtue and love, but our world doesn’t allow for it yet, so destroy everything until we have a world that can support those beautiful things. 

What was a favorite toy?

I had a set of marbles that I loved. Each one was so unique. You could put five in your hand and each one was beautiful and different, but they made up a set. Which mimicked how I felt about the world. Unfortunately, they got lost. My God, I loved those darn marbles. 

So the moral of the story is that at a young age you lost your marbles. 

[Laughing] That’s exactly right! Exactly!