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This season, star soprano Anna Netrebko is singing the title role in Verdi’s Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera tells the story of an Ethiopian princess (Aida) captured by the Egyptians who falls in love with their celebrated, conquering warrior. Netrebko is not Ethiopian, but Russian, and the fact that she is supposed to be portraying an Ethiopian princess is a point of contention in a few parts of the opera world.
This is a major part of the concerns raised in an open letter to Met General Manager Peter Gelb by Joshua Banbury, a senior at the New School, a design and performance college. In his letter, he expresses concern that Netrebko’s skin has been darkened with tanning for the role. While he notes that this is not an example of “classic blackface,” he is concerned that it resides in the same tradition and “suggests that black opera singers are not available to represent themselves on stage and only white opera singers can tell their stories.”
I think reasonable people could have a good-faith debate about whether it is appropriate to darken a singer’s skin for a role like this and whether it really adds anything to the production. It isn’t as if anyone is unaware of Anna Netrebko’s ethnicity. You could argue there is nothing wrong with tanning in and of itself, but Banbury’s point is to criticize it in this particular context. He describes it as disheartening for singers of color, given that the show could have cast an African American singer. For him, the tanning underlines that they did not.
Of course, there are many other factors that could go into a casting decision. From an institutional perspective, having a big name like Anna Netrebko at the helm of your opera must be a big box office draw. Given the stature of the opera and the challenging material it presents to its star, Aida would be a role many singers would want to take on, no matter their race. A successful white singer like Anna Netrebko may not technically suffer if not offered the role of a black character, as Banbury notes, but any singer’s career may be less rich for not taking on this challenge if she would like.
My larger contention, however, is with his second point – that casting Netrebko suggests there were no black opera singers available, and that “only white singers can tell their stories.” What strikes me is this sense of ownership over art and the stories it tells. Verdi certainly intended the role to be an Ethiopian princess, as Banbury also notes, but after all, Verdi was a 19th-century Italian man. So was his librettist. Do these facts make Aida more or less valid as a story about an Ethiopian princess in ancient Egypt? While Banbury himself says he is not “arguing that the company should only cast singers according to the character’s race,” he still believes “it is imperative that The Met at least allow black classical singers the opportunity to sing their limited amount of repertoire.”
But this line of reasoning still circumscribes singers to certain roles based on the color of their skin, and it is easy to see this logic contorted to ridiculous extremes. How narrowly can we define the groups that can legitimately claim ownership over a role? Should Netrebko not have been able to portray Tosca, an Italian character from Puccini’s opera of the same name, in a previous Met season? We saw a similar debate play out this summer over the movie Crazy Rich Asians. The actors were all of Asian descent, but were they appropriately representative of all the minority groups of the country where it was set?
Now, I am not saying that I don’t want greater variety in opera casting, or that I don’t understand why a celebrated role like Aida at an opera house of the Met’s stature would be a good place for this trend to start. What I am worried about is this sense that one group can claim particular ownership over a work of art. Great art transcends what separates its audiences by depicting universal themes. It invites us to step out of ourselves to understand others. Aida is a woman torn between her duty and love for her country and her love for an Egyptian, her country’s enemy. The opera depicts that conflict between love, duty, and honor in an ancient Egyptian setting, but these virtues have been and always will be a part of the human story. In this sense, her story is everyone’s story. It does not belong to just one group.
I take Banbury’s point that there are many singers of all races that would be more than qualified to take on starring roles in big productions, and that greater variety in casting would be welcome. But we should not do so on the basis that one group has a more legitimate claim over a role than others. Great art has the power to overcome what divides its audiences. Forgetting this will have the consequence of separating us further.