Sounding “White”

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Throughout 2018, the New York Times has been running a series of stories called “Overlooked,” which are the obituaries of notable women from the past who the paper declined to acknowledge at the time of their deaths. In August, the Times published an overdue obituary for Sissieretta Jones, the first black opera singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Jones was marketed as “The Black Patti” — i.e., the black counterpart to the reigning opera diva of the day, Adelina Patti, below.

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Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.

“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”

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Jones was preceded in forging a new path for black classically-trained singers by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Mississippi sometime around 1820, and later taken to Philadelphia and freed when her owners divorced. She toured the United States in 1851, singing programs of opera arias and art songs, and was managed  by a white man who was evidently a racist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, and who prohibited black audiences from attending her concerts.

As the music critic for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser enthused after Greenfield’s debut concert in that city:

A Black Swan!

Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.

Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.

The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.

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There is also evidence that a Buffalo police phalanx had to be called in to protect the singer, the audience, and the concert hall after threats of “dire disasters to the building if the dark lady were permitted to sing.”

Indeed, The Buffalo Daily Express was constrained to plead, in its review of her concert:

May we not hope that her music may tend to soften the hearts of the free and lighten the shackles of her race enslaved.

When Greenfield appeared in Cleveland, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the astonishment of the audience as they heard “white” sounds emanating from a black body:

It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’

Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.

We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.

Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.

Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:

In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of

Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!” 

Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”

And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that

white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”

This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.

Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.

What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?

Can A White Girl Sing Selena?

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April 16 is a state holiday in Texas: Selena Day.

Who was Selena?

Selena was, is, and, were I to guess, will remain for eternity the most beloved female of all time in the Latino community. (Second place is the Virgin Mary, if you’re looking for context.) . . . She looked like (a more attractive version of) us.

This year, a (mostly) white singer caused controversy by booking a Selena tribute gig at a Dallas club.

Singer Suzanna Choffel explains:

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Some cried foul. One Facebook commenter noted:

“Call it what you want, but the fact that you preface your video with, ‘Yes, I know I’m a white girl,’ means that the little 1/8 of you that you now (after being called out for appropriation) claim is Mexican means very little to you, and you ain’t Latina.”

Choffel was defended, on the other hand, by Rachel V. González-Martin, a professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who

[defines] cultural appropriation as what happens when [a] community with significant resources takes as its own the expressions of a community with fewer resources.

But, [González-Martin] said, cultural appropriation can be hard to identify.

“Once people are exposed to culture, it’s out there . . . That’s why cultural appropriation is so difficult. To say, ‘You’re not Latino, so you’re not allowed to like Selena’ is ridiculous, and it’s bigoted, and it’s small-minded.”

What do you think?

To put it in a certain context: this is one of the best-known songs by Flaco Jiménez, a Texas-born singer and accordionist, like Selena a master of the Tejano style.

Every year on his birthday, these two white Dutch guys make a video of themselves covering it as a tribute to Jiménez. Is it cultural appropriation? Is it cultural appreciation?

What about the Japanese group Orquesta de la Luz, considered one of the best salsa bands of the 1980s and 1990s?

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.

Professor González-Martin’s idea that once culture is out there, it’s out there, is not true just for the cultural expressions of historically-oppressed or underresourced groups. In recent years, for instance, Richard Wagner’s operas have been adopted as required listening by American white supremacists who probably never took Music 101. (If they had taken it with me, I like to think, they might have emerged with a little more love for their fellow man.)

For instance, the famous Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre was used as the opening theme music for a white supremacist radio show in Florida.

And at a speech at a rally in Sweden, white supremacist Lana Lokteff asserted that:

“lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” would inspire men to fight political battles for the future of white civilization.

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Someone else used Wagner’s music as a sonic pun in an endless loop of alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer getting punched at Trump’s inauguration:

As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916:

I made my song a coat 
Covered with embroideries 
Out of old mythologies 
From heel to throat; 
But the fools caught it, 
Wore it in the world’s eyes 
As though they’d wrought it. 
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise 
In walking naked.

Blackvoice

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You know what blackface is.

Is there such a thing as blackVOICE? What is it?

Historically, we might call “blackvoice” one of the performative tools of blackface minstrelsy. In the days when minstrelsy was considered an acceptable form of entertainment, blackface and blackvoice existed simultaneously in the same performance/performer.

What about now?

Iggy Azalea is only one of the most obvious white adopters of a “blaccent” in her work. The practice is of long standing, however.

This is Alison Moyet, a white English “blued-eyed soul” singer from the 1980s.

Covering this classic hit:

Is it blackvoice?

Is this?

Is this?

This raises the question: Is there such a thing as whitevoice?

In this 1980 performance of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Harem), African-American soprano Reri Grist sings the role of Blonde (which means “Blondie” in German), an English maid who, with her mistress, has been taken captive in a Turkish harem. The gruff harem guard, Osmin, takes a shine to her; she tweaks him, telling him that women like to be treated with kindness.

What do you think?

 

 

Whose Music Is It?

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The great American contralto Marian Anderson in 1928.

Music scholar and historian Kira Thurman discusses the exodus of African-American classical musicians to the German-speaking lands in the late nineteenth century, and their reception once they arrived.

For more on Dr. Thurman’s work, go here.

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?

Classical Music Can Save Your Life

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It saved this violist’s life during the Great Depression.

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Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen told the great African-American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad in the 1970s that her singing might make the difference between life and death for someone in the audience.

Miss Conrad was one of the students who broke the color barrier at the University of Texas. 

I can believe her singing might make that difference.

 

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.”

Don Giovanni Goes to Prison

Two years ago, Pier Paolo Polzonetti, an Italian-born music professor at Notre Dame University, wrote an essay about teaching Don Giovanni to a music history class that he taught inside a maximum-security prison. His essay, “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars,” was published on the blog Musicology Now, run by the American Musicology Society (AMS), the most prestigious academic association for music scholars.

Polzonetti’s blog post ignited controversy among music scholars and students across the internet. He was accused by some of condescension, colonialism, and racism for opining that his inmate-students were more familiar with the “blatant lyrics and pounding beats” of rap than they were with opera, and for suggesting studying opera could help prisoners gain emotional self-control. He was defended by others, who in turn accused Polzonetti’s accusers of political correctness.

Here is a Reddit dialogue with comments by the opposing factions.

Here is a post by one of Polzonetti’s detractors.

Here is a post by one of Polzonetti’s defenders.

What do you think?