Opera, finger on the pulse

I Quite Like Opera. As a matter of fact, I’m currently in the warm and tender embraces of Victorian Opera for Seven Deadly Sins (and, seriously, tickets selling fast– possibly due to Meow Meow, but probably because of me). It was the chance hearing of Nixon in China late one night on ABC Classic FM that startled me into realising that opera was still a living artform and not completely ossified.

And then you read a headline like this, (courtesy of La Cieca) where you shrug and think ‘only in opera…’.

In case you’re out of NYT freebies, the Metropolitan Opera has announced that Aleksandrs Antonenko will not be donning the customary blackface make-up for his upcoming run as the title role in Otello.

The Metropolitan Opera are announcing this on 5 August, in the Year of our Lord 2015. Staggeringly, they’re not some kind of weird Confederate cling-on in the north outlying on this topic that most artforms moved on from, oh, several decades ago (see above re: ‘customary’). According to the article, the ENO only abolished Otello blackface make-up in 2014. I didn’t see it and it’s hard to tell from the production photos, but Opera Australia did seem to apply heavy bronzer at least to their leading man in 2014.

I am not an Otello expert (or Othello). But surely, in 2015, we don’t still need to be talking about whether Otello should be blacked-up. As is my understanding, Othello’s blackness in Shakespeare’s play was more about otherness and social isolation for which ‘Moor’ was a commonly used reference (and, as a wily comment on the NYT piece points out, didn’t actually automatically mean ‘black’). A reference that was still kicking on for it to be deployed as a handy exotic shorthand for Schikaneder and Mozart to deploy for the problematic Monostatos. I’d also suggest that if the only way, the only tool in the toolbox, you have to depict Othello’s otherness is by slapping on the blackface, maybe you’re not quite up to directing such a complex piece of drama or opera.

Some of the counter-arguments in the reader comments on that NYT article are disingenuous at best- trying to draw parallels between performers donning age make-up and blackface. That line of argument only works if you also leave all the social and historic context of blackface outside the opera house. Sadly, leaving social and historic context at the lobby doors seems to be standard operating procedure for many of opera’s most vociferous online fans.

We’ve also somehow managed to have Korean seamstresses in 19th century Paris, Russian princesses of Egypt and if opera stages are to be believed, southern Spain during the time of Almaviva’s court was a veritable multicultural melting pot. The idea that audiences will only accept Otello, or understand his struggle, when he’s blacked up is, on the evidence, ludicrous. I mean, for heaven’s sake, the audience is quite happily going along with the idea that a bunch of 15th century Cypriots are singing to one another in 19th century Italian.

While I’m thinking of it, maybe one day we’ll actually get around to having a Serious Talk about race in Madam Butterfly and not getting carried away with pretty pretty stage pictures and cherry blossoms and kimonos twirling and parasols spinning out the wazoo.

It’s not all bad, however, as the inevitable firestorm of twittery that will break out when this hits Against Modern Opera Productions’ Facebook page promises to be hilarious.


*- important caveat that I can imagine there are occasions where there may be artistic merit for blackface to make a statement about race (30 Rock, of all shows, managed it not once but twice)- but I’d argue ‘tradition in performing a 19th century Italian opera based on an English play from 1604’ is clearly not one of them.