What About Yellowface?

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.

And, for now, it seems to only apply to white singers playing black roles. So while this is now considered in poor taste at best:

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This is still, at best, ignored.

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(These are Mao Zedong’s three secretaries in one of my favorite operas, Nixon in China by John Adams. Hint: while the characters are Chinese; the singers playing them are white.)

Is this okay?

There is a growing number of world-class Asian opera singers on the 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 engaging 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 cast the ballet with Asian dancers).

Is this okay?

Could a purist quibble that Kathleen Kim is Korean, and Madame Mao was Chinese, so even the Asian-to-Asian casting is not okay?

What about this: African-American soprano Martina Arroyo playing the title role — a Japanese woman —  in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly?

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In 2015, the Boston Museum of Fine Art exhibited a painting by the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet of his wife in Japanese costume.

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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.

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This resulted in protests by Asian-American activists:

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kimonowednesday_04There were also counter-protests.

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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.

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Here, the great African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens plays General Leslie Groves in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic:

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This is what General Groves looked like in real life:

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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?

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Do you agree?

Do the Words Matter?

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Baritone Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer, onstage with “The Gadget” in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.

In a previous blog post, I discussed Oppenheimer’s Act I aria in John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic. The entirety of the aria’s text is John Donne’s Holy Sonnet no. 14, “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”

As you know, an opera aria is a moment in the narrative that takes place out of time: the drama advances in the recitatives, but the aria is the place for a character to step out of the action, to reflect upon it, to collect his thoughts, and to offer commentary on it. In the aria “Batter my heart,” Oppenheimer wrestles with one of the greatest moral dilemmas of our age: what it means to harness science — knowledge — in the service of war. He knows that the atomic bomb is a necessary tool for winning the war, but he knows, too, that it will ultimately result in the destruction of untold thousands of lives.

John Adams has said of his opera:

The central figure in bringing the bomb to existence, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, had some of the characteristics of the Faust character, particularly Goethe’s version of him. Oppenheimer was gifted with one of the quickest intellects known to science . . .  He was a man of exceptional culture, a deep reader of poetry, particularly of the English metaphysical poets, of Charles Baudelaire, and of the Bhagavad Gita, which he read in Sanskrit. . . . Indeed, there were enough looming parallels between Faust and Oppenheimer to suggest the latter as a subject for an American Faust.

Certainly, there was the paradox of how this hugely endowed and well-born man, wealthy, charismatic, cultured, an intellectual nonpareil, would be the person who would shepherd the creation of the world’s first nuclear bomb. But the more I read about Oppenheimer and the situa-tion facing the United States at the worst point during the war, the less I thought it reasonable to draw a parallel between Oppenheimer himself and Faust, at least on a personal level. . . . The presumed threat of a German atomic bomb was what prompted the Manhattan Project, and it is one of the supreme ironies of Nazi racism that a significant number of the great minds that were instrumental in winning the race were émigré Jews. The hundred or more brilliant young physicists, chemists, engineers, and mathematicians who assembled on a high mesa in Los Alamos, New Mexico, considered themselves not at all making a pact with the devil, but rather completely devoted to winning a war against tyranny, or as Robert Wilson, one of the youngest of them and a protégé of Oppenheimer, said, “going out to save civilization.”

Peter Sellars, who you know as a visionary opera director, is credited as the librettist for Doctor Atomic, but in fact he compiled the libretto from diaries, letters, memoirs, and declassified government documents. He filled in the remainder with poetry. Not only is Oppenheimer’s aria a musical setting of John Donne; earlier in Act I, Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, sing a love duet, in which her words are taken from a poem by the Oppenheimer’s contemporary Muriel Rukeyser, and his are by the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire:

Kitty:

Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
opening the body’s mouth stopping the words.

Oppie:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!
My soul floats upon perfumes
as the souls of other men
float upon music.

How do you think this method of writing an opera works? Is it effective? Is it piecemeal?

It can be argued that the momentous circumstances of the opera’s plot — the test of the first atomic bomb — warrant words that go beyond the ordinary utterances of everyday life, and that thus Peter Sellars’s pulling materials from many different published texts from disparate times and cultures elevates the libretto to its rightful drama.

On the other hand, one critic complained:

I’m sorry to have to say it, but [the libretto] made Doctor Atomic begin to seem like the Spinal Tap of opera. (And, yes, I get it: “Splitting the skull” is like splitting the atom! Stop cringing; it’s literary! No, sorry: It’s ludicrous.) . . .  Do words not matter in opera? . . . Because words are sung, do they transcend any bombastic triviality, any wounding awfulness? 

You can read the whole libretto here.

Batter My Heart

Oppenheimer

(J. Robert Oppenheimer)

How does contemporary art music respond to the moral problems of the age?

John Adams wrote the opera Doctor Atomic, about the Manhattan Project — the top-secret World War II initiative to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis could — in 2005. The libretto is by Peter Sellars, whom you will remember as the stage director of the production of Don Giovanni that we studied earlier in the semester. Sellars put together his libretto from historical texts, including letters and diaries.

The principal character in the opera is the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer is reported to have said, at the first test of the prototype bomb — quoting the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It is difficult to imagine how it must have felt to the brilliant team of scientists to witness the test explosion, knowing as they did that their invention would rupture the innocence of mankind for all time to come.

In the finale of Act I, Oppenheimer is alone with the prototype bomb (nicknamed “The Gadget”). He sings an aria whose text Sellars took from one of the Holy Sonnets of the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poet John Donne:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; For you
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe
Shine, and seek to mend;
Batter my heart, three person’d God;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Why do you think Sellars and Adams gave the character of Oppenheimer these words to sing?