This past February, on a clear but chilly Sunday, guests with tickets to Protestra's latest concert received an urgent email just hours before showtime with a schedule and venue change. Frozen pipes had flooded the original location, leaving Michelle Rofrano, the orchestra’s founder and music director, barely enough time to secure a new spot to present the program of Barber, Tchaikovsky, and a recent work by the Métis composer Karen Sunabacka to raise awareness around mental health. For Rofrano, this DIY, show-must-go-on mentality is vital for the scrappy and impassioned activism-focused nonprofit, which first launched in 2017 in response to former President Trump's Muslim ban and has since presented concerts supporting a range of causes including Black Lives Matter, climate justice, and gun safety. "It's really important for us to take a stance in a way that has a positive effect and that we use our art. We hope to set an example for other classical organizations and push the envelope," the conductor explains. "It's just our way, in this corner of our world, to hopefully make a positive difference."
Protestra—the name is a portmanteau of protest and orchestra—strives to make this difference in multiple ways, both by encouraging conversations around important topics and raising money for charities through concert ticket sales. Like much of the classical music world, one of the most pressing issues of late has been equity and inclusion, as many organizations are still predominantly white and male, along with the traditional canon of composers. Rofrano, who also serves as the artistic director of the female-led City Lyric Opera, has been outspoken about gender bias in the field and says the push to include underrepresented voices is crucial for its future. "It's not just about what the New York Philharmonic is playing, it's also about what you teach your students starting their piano lessons at age six," she says. "Who are your students? Do the composers you teach them reflect them as a person, their identity? That's so important for self-worth and for keeping them connected with this art form and feeling like it's something they're a part of."
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Rofrano says she has seen promising shifts from some of the country's largest institutions, but is quick to point out there is still a long way to go. With its focus on active participation in these difficult but necessary conversations, Protestra both reflects and propagates a rising trend throughout culture of artists who refuse to remain silent on controversial topics. "There are so few opportunities for classical musicians, specifically, to speak out about what we care about. A lot of it can be very ivory tower," says Rofrano. "You love the music, but you don't know why you're doing it, what cause is it for? It's almost separate from the real world and that's ridiculous because all of us are not separate from the real world. We care about real problems and we care about our friends and the people who are affected by these problems. It's a way for us to use our art to speak to those issues and hopefully make a positive difference where we can."
For Rofrano, being a performer offers—quite literally—a spotlight to shine on crucial issues, one that she sees as not only a privilege but also a responsibility. "Having that kind of platform is a huge opportunity to make a statement about what's going on in the world, take a stand in some way, and educate your audience about important causes," she adds. "I honestly think it's a waste for performers to have that platform and not use it for good."
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