Can Opera Be Woke?

Verdi’s 1887 opera Otello is based on Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, or the Moor of Venice. Othello, a heroic general who is manipulated by his aide-de-camp, Iago, into his tragic events leading to his own destruction, is a role considered by many to be the pinnacle of a classically-trained actor’s career. As such, well into the twentieth century, virtually all performances of the play cast a white actor in dark — even blackface — makeup as Othello.

The great actor and singer Paul Robeson broke the role’s unspoken color barrier in 1930 when he played Othello in London.

In recent years, thoughtful and innovative productions of the play, like the so-called “photo-negative Othello” conceived by Sir Patrick Stewart, have enabled audiences to approach the story and its characters in increasingly nuanced ways. Stewart’s Othello reversed the racial roles: he played the title role as a white man, while everyone else in the cast was black. Read reviews here and here.

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Up until the early years of our own century, however, the sung version of Othello — the title character in Verdi’s opera Otello — continued to be sung by a white tenor in dark (some would say blackface) stage makeup.

The reasons for this are complicated. Otello is a notoriously demanding role, and the number of operatic tenors worldwide who can sing it at the highest level is limited indeed. What’s more, the number of black operatic tenors is been small, and not for lack of talent. Opera been traditionally considered a white, European cultural practice, with little to attract young black singers. But also, more nefariously, opera’s primary consumers have traditionally been moneyed older white patrons, whom opera producers have not wanted to “offend” by showing the traditional romantic pairing of tenor and soprano the male partner a black man and the female a white woman.

Most black singers believe while most audiences have no objection to white men making love to black women on stage, the idea of a black man making up to a white woman arouses too many racial prejudices . . . . Many whites agree. Ellen Faull, for many years a leading soprano with the New York City Opera and now a voice teacher, thinks that the boards of opera companies want to keep black men in a subservient role. [African-American tenor] George Shirley, who between 1961 and 1972 sang well over 20 leading tenor roles at the Metropolitan Opera, agrees. . . .”Women present no problems to male dominance. Black men do, especially — as some whites think — sexually.”

It wasn’t until 2015 that the Metropolitan Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world, announced it was doing away with blackface in Otello. From now on, every production of the opera at the Met will be sung by a tenor in his own skin. In most stagings of the opera, this implies that a white tenor will take the role and sing the character as a white man, no longer as the “Moor of Venice.”

The abandoning of blackface makeup in Otello has itself been controversial, with some critics asking: Does this work as drama? Is it true to Verdi’s (and Shakespeare’s) original intentions? Some African-American opera singers have noted that Othello’s skin color is an integral part of the plot of the play and the opera (read an interesting round table discussion the Washington Post conducted with four black opera singers: “The Rarity of Black Faces, Not Otello in Blackface, Should be Issue in Opera”).

Do you think Peter Sellars’s updated, multiracial Don Giovanni works? Do you think Sellars’s casting choices are colorblind — i.e., based solely on vocal ability — or intentional? If intentional, what do you think Sellars is trying to say about race in society? Do you think he is right or wrong?

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For an overview of some of the contributions of African Americans to opera, read “African American Opera Singers are the Best Opera Singers in the World.”

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