Disability Creativity in Opera

Fast forward to 2022: after seven-years’ hard work, a pinch of luck, and a host of amazing people, we produced Handel’s Orlando with Opera Essentia in a community garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, launching Opera Praktikos, Inc. (OPrak), New York City’s first disability-affirmative opera company. OPrak’s mission is to make opera accessible for audiences and performers. We bring artists with disabilities and artists without disabilities together to make interabled opera. OPrak’s vision is to create space for people to express themselves through words and music. This means removing physical barriers of entry as well as economic barriers. We’ve seen firsthand that when opera is made accessible to the disabled community, opera is made accessible to everyone, even those who never thought about opera before.

We were on the path with OPrak but did not have any word for what we were doing. Then, Morgan Skolnik ignited our spark for this essay with their 20 October 2022 HowlRound essay “Moving from Disability Visibility to Disability Artistry.” Our thinking here builds upon Morgan’s powerful description of what they call disability artistry, which is “work that is informed, from the beginning and down to its core, by some aspect of the disability experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be ‘about’ disability, but rather it can embrace a disability aesthetic or feature complicated characters whose lives include disability.” We thank them for their trailblazing work.

We’ve seen firsthand that when opera is made accessible to the disabled community, opera is made accessible to everyone, even those who never thought about opera before.

We approach disability artistry from an organizational perspective by asking the questions, “Who are we as an opera company to champion disability creativity? What might be missed if we just do business as usual? Where are the artists with disabilities in opera? How do we reach them and how do they reach us? When does static thinking need disruption?” (The answer to the last one is easy—all the time! Because let’s face it, human nature has us always trying to get back to old ways of being.) Here we find our quest to establish new ways of being in the opera field.

Defining Disability Creativity

In any field, in order to shift predominant ways of thinking, is it first necessary to broaden preconceived ideas about certain words. To unpack this concept further, we propose working definitions that we hope others will take and build upon for themselves.

  • Disability: The Oxford Dictionary defines disability “as a condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” Most think something’s wrong with the word “disabled.” We embrace it. There is also a turn toward the social model of disability which contradicts the reliance on disabilities’ limitations as a definition. We use our definition purposefully, because we believe limitations are not impediments. Artists work within their limitations and limits often cause creativity to flourish. A disability can be redefined as a powerful structure for creativity.
  • Creativity: the use of original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.
    We take creativity one step further into defining it as space-making, wherein every artist has the capacity to use their original ideas as part of a whole artistic work. This circles back to the definition of disability and limitations as a useful creative structure.
  • Artistry: creative skill or ability of an individual.
    This is the very personal world of an individual having agency to source their creative art from their unique lived experience.
  • Interabled: An equal relationship existing between a disabled person and one who is not disabled.

We use the term disability creativity as an expression of our interabled work where disability artistry flourishes. The myth of perfection has done a great deal of harm to opera, both in its public perception as well as its methods of performance. At OPrak we chip away at this myth by creating spaces where everyone, both spectators and performers alike, can use their unique strengths to create a space for dialogue through music and storytelling. To put it bluntly, our motto is “don’t be an asshole, let people be who they are, and trust the process.”