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Q&A with Kash and Khary

The duo behind MNiature's final 10-minute opera talks racism, empathy, and the artistic process.

Kashimana Ahua and Khary Jackson, courtesy Minnesota Opera.

Kashimana Ahua and Khary Jackson are known as masters of music and spoken word, but in their newest project, a 10-minute opera called "Don't Tread on Me," even the most devoted fans may be surprised by the result. The piece is part of Minnesota Opera's free MNiatures series, which commissioned four groups to expand the traditional idea of "opera" and swing the spotlight away from its elitist, Eurocentric reputation and onto creators who have been historically underrepresented.

So far, the series, which began Feb. 6, has debuted an open letter to America, a shadow puppet story of cultural homecoming and family, and the multimedia saga of an ever-giving tree. Ahua and Khary's work is the last premiere, and it, too, didn't hesitate to fully come into itself.

The piece distills a century of systemic racism down to three interactions, simultaneously everyday and traumatizing. "We were interested in delving more deeply into why we have so many 'Karen' incidents," Jackson says, "not only now but throughout American history—in different forms and by different names.

To help bring it all together, Ahua and Jackson are working with opera singers Victoria Korovljev (soprano) and Allen Michael Jones (bass) as well as drummer Glory Yard. Before you catch it on YouTube (each work is taken down two weeks after its premiere), get an inside scoop on the title, artistic process, and more.

What kind of research did you have to do for this piece, and what influences and inspirations did you draw from?

Jackson: We discussed and researched the different ways racism manifested in different eras in American history. It was a way for us to imagine what choices might have been available to Black people in terms of how they could respond to acts of racism and make it home alive and possibly unharmed. We based our imaginings on significant events in each era, such as World War I, the civil rights movement, and the movements of the present day.

Ahua: We chose the years 1920, 1970, and 2020, and the time that we knew the least about was 1920. During our research of the year 1920, we read about the contributions of the Harlem Hellfighters, a black regiment that fought in World War I. Their motto was “Don’t tread on me, god damn, let’s go.” This inspired the title and influenced the general arc of the stories.

You both work with rhythm, intonation, narrative, and words in your own art forms; what was it like using those skills for opera?

Jackson: To me it was about compressing and simplifying the presentation of complex ideas. Due to the brief length of the piece, we looked at how we can express each character’s emotions and mindsets as clearly as possible while doing justice to the depth of their experiences.

Ahua: It was easier than I thought in general because we were really driven by the stories we wanted to tell and had freedom to write in our styles. It was difficult sometimes not to go straight into a pop song arrangement, but I think we struck a good balance.

Was it challenging to cover three different moments in history in only 10 minutes?

Jackson: It helped to have fairly simple situations for each character to work through. A Black veteran prepares to go about his day, not knowing what will happen. A Black woman has a difficult first day at work. A Black woman goes shopping and is followed around by employees in the store. Within those situations a lot of meaning and feeling can be explored without needing long explanations.

Ahua: Time limits are challenging, but we felt it was important to cover those moments and their effect over time. Each one of these characters could have their own operas and then some because racism over a hundred years is such a huge topic, but we chose to focus on a brief glimpse of their lives. Opera allows the characters to talk in music, and so there is more room to explore depth and nuance, something that is much more difficult to do in pop songs.

I have no doubt this piece will leave an emotional impact on the audience. What kind of lingering emotions and thoughts has it left on you, its creators?

Jackson: I mostly was motivated by empathy, and the opportunity to express that empathy through era-specific music for each character. Our goal wasn’t to create solutions for each character, but to give them space to be seen, heard, and cared for.

Ahua: Yes indeed, empathy was a huge theme for us as we created this piece. The lingering emotion for me is hope. I am happy with the work that we made and the boundaries that we pushed as creators and collaborators. It is also empowering to create something we feel this good about during the pandemic.

This interview was edited for style, length, and clarity.


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