We’ve talked a little about the longstanding practice in opera of white singers “blacking up” to play characters of color. This practice has only begun to be thought of as controversial in our own century.
For now, the least offensive choices for opera producers are to 1) cast singers whose race/ethnicity matches the race/ethnicity of the character they are playing, or 2) if that’s not possible, cast the best singer available of any race/ethnicity, and update the plot/setting to make the mismatch less important.
The Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo was long considered the greatest Otello of the past half-century.
(This is how he looks without makeup.)
While opera companies have addressed the issue of blackface (the Metropolitan Opera has pledged not to use it in Otello), not as much attention has been paid to the practice of “yellowface.”
(These are Mao Zedong’s three secretaries in one of my favorite operas, Nixon in China by John Adams. The characters are Chinese; the singers playing them are white.)
There is a growing number of world-class Asian singers on the opera scene, many of them from South Korea. Sometimes a company staging a production of an opera set in Asia will have the good fortune of being able to hire one of them. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, in its 2011 production of Nixon in China, hired the Korean soprano Kathleen Kim to sing the role of Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao), and Kim was a force of nature in the role:
In this disturbing scene, Madame Mao disrupts the performance of a ballet put on for the Nixons, The Red Detachment of Women, to glorify her own power and her part in China’s Cultural Revolution. A riot ensues over Madame Mao’s new interpretation of the revolution: who is revolutionary, and who is counter-revolutionary? The scene ends with a confrontation between Madame Mao and her longtime political rival, Chou En-lai. You will notice that Chou is played by a white dude (Canadian baritone Russell Braun, to be precise). As are most of the members of the chorus (though the Met was fortunate enough to be able to cast the ballet with Asian dancers).
The role of Madame Mao was first sung by a white soprano, Trudy Ellen Craney; at the opera’s premiere in 1987, all the Chinese characters were performed by white artists in yellowface. In fact, all the Chinese characters in the Met’s 2011 production, with the exception of Madame Mao, were also sung by white artists.
Could a purist quibble that because the soprano Kathleen Kim is Korean, and Madame Mao was Chinese, even the Asian-to-Asian casting is not okay?
In the 1960s and 1970s, African-American sopranos like Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo (below) often sang the title role — a Japanese woman — in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Here is Arroyo singing Butterfly’s famous Act II aria, “Un bel dì.”
Arroyo also sang the title role in Puccini’s opera Turandot, in which she played a Chinese princess:
Leontyne Price (one of the greatest opera singers who has ever lived), also was a famous Butterfly. Her she sings Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria in a concert performance.
Should only Japanese sopranos sing the role?
Here the Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura sings the role, but her servant, Suzuki (also Japanese in the opera), is played by a white singer, Victoria Lambourn, who is not made up or wigged to appear Japanese.
As early as 1915, Japanese sopranos have been singing Cio-Cio-San. Here is the first, Tamaki Miura (1884-1946):
Another Japanese soprano, Hizi Koyke (1902-1991), who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s, was also a noted Cio-Cio-San. I was unable to find audio of her singing the role, but did find her singing Yum-Yum in the comic operetta The Mikado (1885) by the English team of Gilbert and Sullivan. You can hear Koyke singing an excerpt on this recording starting at 2:04.
The Mikado has also been reexamined recently for its use of yellowface and other racist stereotypes. In 2015, after an outcry from the Asian-American theater community, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players canceled their planned production.
Also in 2015, the Boston Museum of Fine Art exhibited a painting by the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet of his wife in Japanese costume.
In order to attract more visitors, the museum started “Kimono Wednesdays,” making a replica of Madame Monet’s kimono available to try on, and encouraging people to post selfies on social media.
This resulted in protests by Asian-American activists:
There were also counter-protests.
In fact, Jiro Usui, the Deputy Consul General of Japan stationed in Boston, remarked:
We actually do not quite understand what their point of protest is . . . We tried to listen to those people who are protesting, but we think together with the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts] we should encourage that Japanese culture be appreciated in a positive way.
Is this similar to the hoop earrings controversy? As one Latinx writer puts it:
Hoops exist across many minority groups as symbols of resistance, strength and identity . . . the way I dress and accessorise is a way for me to connect with that mixed heritage identity. As for many women of colour before me, hoops play a large role in my self preservation and expression.
Here, the great African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens plays General Leslie Groves in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic:
This is what General Groves looked like in real life:
As you can see, it’s complicated.
Ask yourself the following questions:
What is permissible in art? What is permissible in everyday life? Should art be a place where our cultural ideas of race — ideas which some people believe are totally constructed — are lain aside? Should art be a place where people get to try on new identities? Should opera casting be “racially accurate” or color-blind? Is art a meritocracy? Is art a place where anything is possible?
Do you agree?