Identity Politics Goes to the Opera

 

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.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    This angnst only works one way. See cast of Hamiliton. 

    • #1
  2. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    I laugh at almost every historical show I see on the BBC now.  Every show has to have at least one Black character ( always heroic, wise and smart), and at least one Gay or Lesbian. Villans are pretty much universally White, Hetero and generally an upper class male.   A recent version of Homers Iliad on Netflix had a Black Achilles who was also Bisexual.  

    • #2
  3. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    And what are we to say about a stage play set in Harry Potter’s world, where in the original cast, Hermione Granger was played by a black woman (Hermione was white)?  And what about the stage play of A Christmas Carol, where Mrs. Cratchit was played by a black woman (she was white, too, in the original story)?  Cultural Appropriation, if you ask me.  Identity Politics only works in one direction.  WE are allowed to play YOU (and you may not either notice or object), but YOU are not allowed to play US, under penalty of social-media attack.

    We will know when identity politics and race-baiting are truly dead and buried, when a theater can mount a production of Raisin in the Sun with an all-white cast.

    • #3
  4. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    This racist/cultural appropriation charge only works only in one direction apparently. The recent BBC productions of Shakespeare’s history plays, The Hollow Crown, featured several black actors in supporting and sometimes very prominent roles. It’s interesting that there wasn’t a smidge of criticism in the media about these choices – my guess is for fear of a backlash and accusations of racism. It’s well-known that Shakespeare took some liberties with history in the retelling of it…but he would have probably never cast a black actor of his day had there been one, in the role of a prominent English royal personage or courtier. I think watching a black actor as a black character play a Medieval English royal character distracts and  takes one out of the drama (especially viewers familiar with English history) and I would have preferred that the black actor was made up to look like a white character of the time.

    I’m of the belief that anyone should be able to play anyone provided they can do it in a convincing way which may call for the use of makeup. In some rare cases, this also applies to gender. Linda Hunt’s performance as a male Indonesian reporter in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously is remarkable.

    I also have no issue at all with an all-African or Indian or Polynesian or Japanese or whatever version of any dramatic piece. Kurosawa’s versions of Shakespeare’s King Lear (Ran) or Macbeth (Throne of Blood) are stunning works. I don’t think anyone is entitled to any particular role because of their race or ethnicity. If an actor can perform the role convincingly, have at it – but make-up may be necessary to make the performance convincing and not starkly distracting.

    Should we be deprived of watching Placido Domingo perform Othello? Had this been an issue at the time, should the role have been given to an artist of lesser talent to appease the racism/cultural appropriation scolds? Are we destined to be presented with mediocre or poor entertainment choices to appease the racism/cultural appropriation police? And if we accept this new requirement, don’t we invite more racists attitudes rather than less? Based on the objection for the title role in Aida, none of the black actors should have been given roles in The Hollow Crown. As much as I found those parts distracting, I think it would have been wrong to prohibit any of those actors from taking those roles…even as I personally found them distracting.

    • #4
  5. DrewInWisconsin Member
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Kozak (View Comment):

    I laugh at almost every historical show I see on the BBC now. Every show has to have at least one Black character ( always heroic, wise and smart), and at least one Gay or Lesbian. Villans are pretty much universally White, Hetero and generally an upper class male. A recent version of Homers Iliad on Netflix had a Black Achilles who was also Bisexual.

    Too true.

    • #5
  6. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Caitlin Peartree: 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.”

    Probably the greatest American Opera, Porgy and Bess, can only be performed by black singers per George Gershwin’s request. And that is still honored long after his death. 

    Caitlin Peartree: 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?

    Live opera in America has enough problems without all this nonsense. Leftism destroys everything it touches.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    No more productions of The Last of the Mohicans because we’re fresh out of Mohicans.

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I think in any production with music in it, the music is the most important element. Music cannot be performed universally well. And a true coloratura soprano is nearly impossible for a conductor to find.

    This has always been a problem. Some of the best sopranos have been older women who are sometimes a bit on the heavy side. They are often caricatured, and for good reason. :-)

    It is very difficult for conductors to find the two characteristics together: the person who looks perfectly right for the part and the person who has the music ability. In the arts, I’m sympathetic to both problems. I have seen some  old movies in which someone like Debbie Reynolds plays an Indian squaw, and the result is laughable. But the problem is even worse in music productions.

    The 1961 Hollywood production of West Side Story is a good example. Natalie Wood could not sing, and she did not even look the part of Hispanic Maria. The casting made a joke of an otherwise magnificent story and musical. Stephen Spielberg is presently working on a new production of West Side Story. I can’t wait to see what he does with this masterpiece composition.

    Leonard Bernstein, who passed away in 1990, made a recording in London of just the music for West Side Story. As the composer, naturally he was trying to achieve a certain sound, which he was able to do in a studio setting. The entire session is available on YouTube, but this is my favorite clip from it. This is what this duet sounded like in its composer’s mind.

    Actual teenagers could not have the depth of voice and the dramatic emotion that these older performers had. Bernstein was born in 1918, so when he wrote West Side Story around 1957, he was roughly 38 or 39. The voices he heard in his head as he composed the music were more mature than casting could ever match in real life. In the 1961 movie, Marni Nixon performed Maria’s (Natalie Wood’s) songs. Nixon was born in 1930, so she was 31 when she performed the music for the movie. Again, she was much older than the teenager Natalie Wood who played the teenager Maria. Even Natalie Wood was a little old for the part.

    I can see why casting is as big a deal as directing! But to me, the music is paramount. Without that, it doesn’t matter who plays the part. If the conductor has found someone to sing Aida’s arias, well, blessings be upon him! It doesn’t matter what she looks like. :-)

    Here’s Bernstein himself:

    • #8
  9. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    MarciN (View Comment):
    The voices he heard in his head as he composed the music were more mature than casting could ever match in real life.

    No kidding!

    Maria’s part in the video sounds like a Mezzo-Soprano that can hit the high notes with tenderness, a very rare combination at any age.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    The voices he heard in his head as he composed the music were more mature than casting could ever match in real life.

    No kidding!

    Maria’s part in the video sounds like a Mezzo-Soprano that can hit the high notes with tenderness, a very rare combination at any age.

    Indeed. :-)

    • #10
  11. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Percival (View Comment):

    No more productions of The Last of the Mohicans because we’re fresh out of Mohicans.

    We can always cast Elizabeth Warren she is 1/1024 Mohican, probably..

    • #11
  12. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    In all seriousness though. Opera at its heart is a fantasy, and in a fantasy things like race shouldn’t really factor that prominently. Anyone who can sing the part can be Aida be they Chinese, Polynesian, French, or even Ethiopian. Trying to go for realism in your Opera is a fools errand. The suspension of disbelief isn’t created by the race of the performers, but by the music, costumes, and sets. And really the Music is what does most of the work anyway. 

    This all reminds me back in the early days of the Marvel Movies when the first Thor movie came out and there was a mini nerd storm about a black Heimdal (just to show you it can go the other way too). Honestly the rage in the tea pot over it was so silly. Idris Elba the actor who played Heimdal in all the Thor movies up until the last Avengers movie, was a great fit for the role. Was it because he was black? No, its because despite it being a small role, he imbued it with a certain level of charm, humor, and charisma. You remebered the character. Enough so that over the course of a few movies (maybe totaling 20 minutes of on screen time all together) you actually feel sad when he is killed by Thanos at the beginning of the last Avengers movie. We miss you black Heimdal. I do at least. 

    A great performer can make the part their own even if some how on paper they don’t make sense in the roll. Casting purely based on the one dimension of look is narrow and limiting. 

    • #12
  13. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    I’m getting pretty sick of this stuff. Leontyne Price was in Madama Butterfly, complete with slanty-eye makeup. Would that make the liberals’ heads explode today, or what. She was also in Cosi Fan Tutti among many others. As long ago as the 80s, I saw A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theater in Chicago with black actors in Victorian garb in 19th century London. In the 1970s, I saw Ben Vereen as Pippin in New York.  Talk about the suspension of my disbelief.

    I can’t wait till they do a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Only deformed hunchbacks with acting experience and SAG membership need apply. Or hey! Let’s do The Tempest, and audition only half human-half monsters for Caliban.

    • #13
  14. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    You know what’s really offensive? When an American actor plays a British character and doesn’t even try to speak in a British accent (the son of the nepotistic director of Disney’s Sword In The Stone who played Arthur); Robert Wagner and Sterling Hayden in the movie Prince Valiant…or an actor who is so inept at trying to affect a British accent, Dick Van Dyke as a cockney chimney sweep in Mary Poppins or Donald Sutherland (actually a Canadian) in The Great Train Robbery…like fingernails on a chalkboard.

    There. I feel better now.

    Of course, one has to wonder why ancient Greeks and Romans are played with Oxbridge accents but sound acceptable doing so. Must be my white-privileged, Euro-centric bias or somethin’.

    • #14
  15. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    And as a Southerner, I am outraged and oppressed that Tom Hanks not only played Forrest Gump, but won an Oscar doing the absolute worst attempt at a southern accent in the history of acting. (“Lahf is lahk a bawx a chak-lits”? Really?)

    • #15
  16. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    This is so sad.  Art could have led the way to true racial equality.  In fact, I would posit that it did start out that way.  It must have been a couple decades ago (note that – a couple decades ago) when I read of a major orchestra holding auditions with the performer and the judges separated by a screen.  The only thing that mattered was the art.  Who in their right mind would not want Placido Domingo to be cast as Otello?  Should Madama Butterfly be shelved unless a company can come up with a Japanese soprano up to the part?  I know I’ve seen at least one production where a black was cast in a “white” role, and nobody blinked an eye.  Why would they?  Does anybody care one whit about the skin color of Wynton Marsalis, whether he’s doing Joplin or Arban or Mozart? Or Al Hirt? Or Louie Armstrong? Is there anything the left isn’t willing to destroy?  Funny I should ask that.

    Last night on the radio I listened to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet.  I was reminded of  his and Shostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State, and its official dictates on art.  And I recalled my brother’s experience in Europe when his touring band attended a concert by a Soviet military band.  It fit the Soviet formula, but it wasn’t very artistic.  

    So the answer is… no.

    • #16
  17. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    And there’s this:  Who will ever be able to play the part of Little Shop of Horrors’ “Audrey?”

    • #17
  18. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    … Last night on the radio I listened to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. I was reminded of his and Shostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State, and its official dictates on art. And I recalled my brother’s experience in Europe when his touring band attended a concert by a Soviet military band. It fit the Soviet formula, but it wasn’t very artistic.

    So the answer is… no.

    And we would do well to remember the state-sanctioned “art” (I use the term loosely) of the Third Reich.

    Artists banned by the Third Reich:
    Pablo Picasso, van Gogh, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, George Grosz, Marc Chagall, Arnold Schoenberg, Lovis Corinth, Otto Dix, Alexej von Jawlensky, Paul Klee, Ernst Barlach, Bertold Brecht

    • #18
  19. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    This is so sad. Art could have led the way to true racial equality. In fact, I would posit that it did start out that way. It must have been a couple decades ago (note that – a couple decades ago) when I read of a major orchestra holding auditions with the performer and the judges separated by a screen. The only thing that mattered was the art. Who in their right mind would not want Placido Domingo to be cast as Otello? Should Madama Butterfly be shelved unless a company can come up with a Japanese soprano up to the part? I know I’ve seen at least one production where a black was cast in a “white” role, and nobody blinked an eye. Why would they? Does anybody care one whit about the skin color of Wynton Marsalis, whether he’s doing Joplin or Arban or Mozart? Or Al Hirt? Or Louie Armstrong? Is there anything the left isn’t willing to destroy? Funny I should ask that.

    Last night on the radio I listened to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. I was reminded of his and Shostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State, and its official dictates on art. And I recalled my brother’s experience in Europe when his touring band attended a concert by a Soviet military band. It fit the Soviet formula, but it wasn’t very artistic.

    So the answer is… no.

    A Russian, writing music focused on an English story about a pair of love-struck Italian teenagers? Who is allowed to perform that? Who is allowed to listen to it?

    • #19
  20. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Percival (View Comment):

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    This is so sad. Art could have led the way to true racial equality. In fact, I would posit that it did start out that way. It must have been a couple decades ago (note that – a couple decades ago) when I read of a major orchestra holding auditions with the performer and the judges separated by a screen. The only thing that mattered was the art. Who in their right mind would not want Placido Domingo to be cast as Otello? Should Madama Butterfly be shelved unless a company can come up with a Japanese soprano up to the part? I know I’ve seen at least one production where a black was cast in a “white” role, and nobody blinked an eye. Why would they? Does anybody care one whit about the skin color of Wynton Marsalis, whether he’s doing Joplin or Arban or Mozart? Or Al Hirt? Or Louie Armstrong? Is there anything the left isn’t willing to destroy? Funny I should ask that.

    Last night on the radio I listened to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. I was reminded of his and Shostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State, and its official dictates on art. And I recalled my brother’s experience in Europe when his touring band attended a concert by a Soviet military band. It fit the Soviet formula, but it wasn’t very artistic.

    So the answer is… no.

    A Russian, writing music focused on an English story about a pair of love-struck Italian teenagers? Who is allowed to perform that? Who is allowed to listen to it?

    If somebody doesn’t stand up to these people unapologetically, I hate to think where we’re headed. The Left has created several generations who are now old enough to vote and have been taught a skewed version of history or none at all in some areas, plus a rosy view of Socialism. We have to put a stop to it yesterday.

    • #20
  21. Hank Rhody, Red Hunter Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter
    @HankRhody

    Caitlin Peartree: 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.

    Nuts to ’em.

    • #21
  22. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I can see why casting is as big a deal as directing! But to me, the music is paramount. Without that, it doesn’t matter who plays the part. If the conductor has found someone to sing Aida’s arias, well, blessings be upon him! It doesn’t matter what she looks like. :-)

    Unfortunately, the video clip doesn’t do justice to the late Tatiana Troyanos’ voice which was amazing. Here’s another video that showcases her gift:

    • #22
  23. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Karen and I love Aida.  We marched out of our wedding to the Triumphal March

    then went to NYC and caught the opera at The Met the next night.

    It was fabulous.  So fabulous that two years later we celebrated our anniversary by getting almost the same seats on the same date for the same show.

    Anna Netrebko sang the latter performance, Domingo conducted both nights and my friend Rob played cymbals in the very fine Metropolitan Opera Orchestra both nights.  Netrebko was fabulous. I don’t care if she’s a Ruskie and I don’t care if she darkened her skin or not.  I just wanna hear her sing those gorgeous bell-tone high Bs and Cs.

    This business of ethnicity in opera singers is silly.  It’s stupid. It deserves scorn. And it’s all one way.  You NEVER see white folks singing in Porgy and Bess.

    Best Commendatore I ever heard was Morris Robinson, a huge black man, who sang it with the sadly-run-out-of-town-for -diddling-other-boys-30 years-ago conductor James Levine at Tanglewood in 2006.  Certainly not what Mozart had in mind but boy, did he play the part well.

    The Bernstein late-in-life recording of WSS excerpts quoted above is also fabulous.  I could listen to it all day.  WSS has twice in my years in Mass been cancelled out of white guilt when too many white kids get cast in Puerto Rican roles.  What stupidity.

    Bernstein had his me-too moments, too.  To be a musical genius is still to be human.

    • #23
  24. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Caitlin Peartree: 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,

    The letter, in the link, includes letterhead describing Mr Banbury as “a strange enchanted boy”.

    A black dude calling himself a “boy”?  Does he not know how offensive this is?

    The mind reels.

    • #24
  25. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    Unfortunately, the video clip doesn’t do justice to the late Tatiana Troyanos’ voice which was amazing. Here’s another video that showcases her gift:

    Wow.

    This is what I’m trying to say. These sopranos don’t just grow on trees. God didn’t make that many of them. The Met is lucky to have her. 

    :-)

    • #25
  26. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    To be a musical genius is still to be human.

    Exactly. Who cares. Seriously.

     

    • #26
  27. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Okay, this other clip from this West Side Story series is amazing too:

    • #27
  28. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    I once saw Aida in Rome, and I don’t recall even noticing the race of any of the performers; in fact, I don’t recall ever noticing anyone’s race in my life  until this new incarnation of the DNC came along in around 1990. Thanks, Democrats.  (The performance was outdoors, and they had a live camel onstage. Now that I remember)

    • #28
  29. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I once saw Aida in Rome, and I don’t recall even noticing the race of any of the performers; in fact, I don’t recall ever noticing anyone’s race in my life until this new incarnation of the DNC came along in around 1990. Thanks, Democrats. (The performance was outdoors, and they had a live camel onstage. Now that I remember)

    Yes, but what gender was the camel? And was the camel especially beautiful? This might be important given the camel botox scandal. Asking for a friend from Saudi Arabia.

    • #29
  30. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I once saw Aida in Rome, and I don’t recall even noticing the race of any of the performers; in fact, I don’t recall ever noticing anyone’s race in my life until this new incarnation of the DNC came along in around 1990. Thanks, Democrats. (The performance was outdoors, and they had a live camel onstage. Now that I remember)

    Me too. The Democrats forget that this was drummed out of us when we were kids. Now we’re supposed to notice? :-)

    • #30
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