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. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Here is Anna performing Un Bel Di. Just perfection.

    • #31
  2. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    MarciN (View Comment):

    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? :-)

    It’s reprehensible the way they dismantled generations of progress in race relations, all while calling themselves the Progressives. But they hate it when everything is fine, so they stir up all the trouble again for their own purposes.

    • #32
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Here is Anna performing Un Bel Di. Just perfection.

    Wow did she pick out the exact right note before the orchestra even began? Hmm I think the conductor has the hots for her.

    • #33
  4. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Here is Anna performing Un Bel Di. Just perfection.

    Wow did she pick out the exact right note before the orchestra even began? Hmm I think the conductor has the hots for her.

    I noticed that too. Unbelievable. Even her whisper was amazing.

    It’s a rare gift. And it’s not just the voice. It’s the music too. 

    And I also wish the stupid press and mass media would stop painting the Russians as our arch enemy. Did you see that audience? Those are civilized people, for heaven’s sake. 

     

     

    • #34
  5. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    MarciN (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Here is Anna performing Un Bel Di. Just perfection.

    Wow did she pick out the exact right note before the orchestra even began? Hmm I think the conductor has the hots for her.

    I noticed that too. Unbelievable. Even her whisper was amazing.

    It’s a rare gift. And it’s not just the voice. It’s the music too.

    And I also wish the stupid press and mass media would stop painting the Russians as our arch enemy. Did you see that audience? Those are civilized people, for heaven’s sake.

     

     

    Yes, the Russians are only suddenly our arch-enemy because it suits their needs of the moment. As I look back on it, right up until Trump the Dems were pretty big fanboys. Sanders even honeymooned in Moscow.

    • #35
  6. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Here is Anna performing Un Bel Di. Just perfection.

    Wow did she pick out the exact right note before the orchestra even began? Hmm I think the conductor has the hots for her.

    I noticed that too. Unbelievable. Even her whisper was amazing.

    It’s a rare gift. And it’s not just the voice. It’s the music too.

    And I also wish the stupid press and mass media would stop painting the Russians as our arch enemy. Did you see that audience? Those are civilized people, for heaven’s sake.

     

     

    Yes, the Russians are only suddenly our arch-enemy because it suits their needs of the moment. As I look back on it, right up until Trump the Dems were pretty big fanboys. Sanders even honeymooned in Moscow.

    Sanders never left Russia after his honeymoon. Russians are somewhat civilized, the Poles, and the Baltic States have had a different view of large groups of Russians in one location.  

     

    • #36
  7. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    MarciN: It was probably even worse on the stage with Julie Andrews, who has a truly beautiful voice, playing the part of Maria.

    The Broadway Maria was Carol Lawrence (real name Carolina Maria Laraia to Italian immigrants.)

    Kent State University just canceled their production of WSS because the Latina women that tried out weren’t cast in the leads. My source says they were incapable of handling the parts from either a vocal or dance perspective so they played the SJW card and got the whole thing canned.

    Maria may be a Puerto Rican character, put please… no Puerto Ricans had anything to do with the creation of the show. Take one dead Englishman and add four East Coast Jews (Bernstein, Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins (née Rabinowitz)) and it was their music and their words and their choreography that made the show.

    • #37
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    EJHill (View Comment):

    MarciN: It was probably even worse on the stage with Julie Andrews, who has a truly beautiful voice, playing the part of Maria.

    The Broadway Maria was Carol Lawrence (real name Carolina Maria Laraia to Italian immigrants.)

    Kent State University just canceled their production of WSS because the Latina women that tried out weren’t cast in the leads. My source says they were incapable of handling the parts from either a vocal or dance perspective so they played the SJW card and got the whole thing canned.

    Maria may be a Puerto Rican character, put please… no Puerto Ricans had anything to do with the creation of the show. Take one dead Englishman and and add four East Coast Jews (Bernstein, Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins (née Rabinowitz)) and it was their music and their words and their choreography that made the show.

     

    Oh dear. Thank you. I’ll go correct it. :-) 

    • #38
  9. Marythefifth Inactive
    Marythefifth
    @Marythefifth

    Oh my! The music of WSS is lovely and moving and i am the richer for each hearing, but you couldn’t pay me to hear it sung with voices trained for opera. Well, I admit to a strong dislike of operatic vocals altogether, with that wide vi… oh never mind. Forget the skin of the performer, I’d have more problems reconciling a teenager character, one from the whatever side of town, talking with that thick NY accent, rough, sarcastic, double negatives, and when the song comes, out pops an opera voice. Ya gotta be kiddin’ me.

    • #39
  10. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Marythefifth (View Comment):

    Oh my! The music of WSS is lovely and moving and i am the richer for each hearing, but you couldn’t pay me to hear it sung with voices trained for opera. Well, I admit to a strong dislike of operatic vocals altogether, with that wide vi… oh never mind. Forget the skin of the performer, I’d have more problems reconciling a teenager character, one from the whatever side of town, talking with that thick NY accent, rough, sarcastic, double negatives, and when the song comes, out pops an opera voice. Ya gotta be kiddin’ me.

    Hahaha! True.

    • #40
  11. She Member
    She
    @She

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    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.

    Already covered this here some time ago: http://ricochet.com/archives/fairest-of-the-fair-they-are/.  Although I should think the Kingdom has got other fish to fry at the moment.

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    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.

    That’s a bit odd.  Since it’s in quotes, it must be from “Nature Boy,” a song recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole in the late 40s:

    There was a boy
    A very strange, enchanted boy
    They say he wandered very far, very far
    Over land and sea . . .

    The author of “Nature Boy” was Eden Ahbez, a very “strange” guy in his own right.  I remember his story from Mark Steyn’s column about him several months ago.

    • #41
  12. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    She (View Comment):
    The author of “Nature Boy” was Eden Ahbez, a very “strange” guy in his own right. I remember his story from Mark Steyn’s column about him several months ago.

    Not “Ededn Ahbez.” “eden ahbez.” ;)

    • #42
  13. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Percival (View Comment):

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

    So that Lewis dude really was the last one? 

    • #43
  14. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    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.

    I have it on good authority that Lucy Liu will be taking over his role in the next Avengers movie. 

    • #44
  15. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Or hey! Let’s do The Tempest, and audition only half human-half monsters for Caliban.

    So pretty much anyone who’s ever been up for an Oscar then? 

    • #45
  16. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    She (View Comment):

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    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.

    Already covered this here some time ago: http://ricochet.com/archives/fairest-of-the-fair-they-are/. Although I should think the Kingdom has got other fish to fry at the moment.

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    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.

    That’s a bit odd. Since it’s in quotes, it must be from “Nature Boy,” a song recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole in the late 40s:

    There was a boy
    A very strange, enchanted boy
    They say he wandered very far, very far
    Over land and sea . . .

    The author of “Nature Boy” was Eden Ahbez, a very “strange” guy in his own right. I remember his story from Mark Steyn’s column about him several months ago.

    Look, racism is a bad thing but we are all human and we all have alot to learn from each other. American Blacks made jazz and Americans music would be much better if we learned from that and focused on excellence.

    • #46
  17. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    TBA (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

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

    So that Lewis dude really was the last one?

    Nah. He was the adopted son of the last one.

    • #47
  18. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    “Blackface” was only disgraceful because it was used to create a black character when one was necessary to the plot, when black people were not allowed on the stage.

    This NEVER (yes, I’m shouting) happens today. Those times are gone, thank god.  We have progressed, moved beyond our once-limited thinking. Essentially no one alive today was alive when that attitude prevailed.

    What hope do we have for general progress if we continue to reach back to bygone practices to keep generating aggrievement?

    So-called blackface should be used today as freely as clown makeup, or Monty Python’s crossdressing, or humans using makeup to pretend to be animals, or any of the other techniques used by the dramatic arts. To “protect” black people from such an “affront” seems to be singling them out for special treatment, like the poor things can’t handle it.  Screw that!  Talk about racist.

    These days anybody should be cast for anything, made up any way, that the artist and the art require. Dear Left, please god please will you join us over here in Post-racial America? Please give up your last, grasping, insistant hold on racism?

    And leave my Metropolitan opera alone! 

    • #48
  19. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    We hear the same whining whenever a white dude portrays Othello.

    OTOH, there was quite a hullabaloo when it was suggested Idris Elba become the next James Bond.  He’s a very good actor, and [insert troll comment here] was great in Prometheus.

    Hehe . . .

    • #49
  20. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    “Blackface” was only disgraceful because it was used to create a black character when one was necessary to the plot, when black people were not allowed on the stage.

    This NEVER (yes, I’m shouting) happens today. Those times are gone, thank god. We have progressed, moved beyond our once-limited thinking. Essentially no one alive today was alive when that attitude prevailed.

    What hope do we have for general progress if we continue to reach back to bygone practices to keep generating aggrievement?

    So-called blackface should be used today as freely as clown makeup, or Monty Python’s crossdressing, or humans using makeup to pretend to be animals, or any of the other techniques used by the dramatic arts. To “protect” black people from such an “affront” seems to be singling them out for special treatment, like the poor things can’t handle it. Screw that! Talk about racist.

    These days anybody should be cast for anything, made up any way, that the artist and the art require. Dear Left, please god please will you join us over here in Post-racial America? Please give up your last, grasping, insistant hold on racism?

    And leave my Metropolitan opera alone!

    • #50
  21. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Stad (View Comment):

    We hear the same whining whenever a white dude portrays Othello.

    OTOH, there was quite a hullabaloo when it was suggested Idris Elba become the next James Bond. He’s a very good actor, and [insert troll comment here] was great in Prometheus.

    Hehe . . .

    This goes only one way, don’t you realize that? Try to keep up. And another thing: In the movie The Pelican Brief they cast Denzell Washington in a role that was a white guy in the book. It changed the story in a couple of little ways. Same for Manchurian Candidate. When they do stuff like this, it doesn’t bother me usually, not unless it changes the plot etc, but there’s an underlying irritation because of the heavy-handed virtue-signaling of it. And nobody ever objects because who wants to be called a racist?

    It’s time we opened our eyes and came to the realization that the Left, who doesn’t care about black people at all (or women or the poor or children or immigrants either), has used this as a way of manipulating us and dividing us.

    It’s like @thescarecrow so eloquently said above. They hated how much progress we’d made in race relations. Yes, the Progressives hate progress. So when things are pretty much fine, they stir it all up again. Obama bears a huge burden of shame in this regard.

    • #51
  22. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    This goes only one way, don’t you realize that? Try to keep up. And another thing: In the movie The Pelican Brief they cast Denzell Washington in a role that was a white guy in the book. It changed the story in a couple of little ways. Same for Manchurian Candidate. When they do stuff like this, it doesn’t bother me usually, not unless it changes the plot etc, but there’s an underlying irritation because of the heavy-handed virtue-signaling of it. And nobody ever objects because who wants to be called a racist?

    When Hollywood cast Sanaa Lathan as Irene Kennedy in American Assassin (based on Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series), the biggest complaint from book lovers (I’m one) was her age, not her color.

    • #52
  23. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Ageists are evil, but Colorists – such as Ted Turner – are eviler. 

    • #53
  24. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Here is Anna performing Un Bel Di. Just perfection.

    Beautiful.  Thank you.  

    Listen carefully, shortly after she walks on stage.  You can just barely hear her taking pitch from something / someone.  

    I’ve always wondered why opera singers so often wear strapless gowns.  How does one maintain singer’s alignment with something constricting your chest?  

    • #54
  25. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Marythefifth (View Comment):

    Oh my! The music of WSS is lovely and moving and i am the richer for each hearing, but you couldn’t pay me to hear it sung with voices trained for opera. Well, I admit to a strong dislike of operatic vocals altogether, with that wide vi… oh never mind. Forget the skin of the performer, I’d have more problems reconciling a teenager character, one from the whatever side of town, talking with that thick NY accent, rough, sarcastic, double negatives, and when the song comes, out pops an opera voice. Ya gotta be kiddin’ me.

    Listen to Bernstein conducting it in Deutschland Gramomphone. Operatic voices, wind players from the Phil, the composer on the podium.  Near perfection. 

    • #55
  26. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Marythefifth (View Comment):

    Oh my! The music of WSS is lovely and moving and i am the richer for each hearing, but you couldn’t pay me to hear it sung with voices trained for opera. Well, I admit to a strong dislike of operatic vocals altogether, with that wide vi… oh never mind. Forget the skin of the performer, I’d have more problems reconciling a teenager character, one from the whatever side of town, talking with that thick NY accent, rough, sarcastic, double negatives, and when the song comes, out pops an opera voice. Ya gotta be kiddin’ me.

    Listen to Bernstein conducting it in Deutschland Gramomphone. Operatic voices, wind players from the Phil, the composer on the podium. Near perfection.

    A friend of mine is a conductor and composer. When he was a student in Boston, he did a stint as the conductor of MIT’s Gilbert and Sullivan group. :-) He told me once that the general public believes that Broadway musicals came from the spoken theater. “Let’s take this play and add a few songs.” But, he said, they actually drifted down from opera to light opera to musicals. :-) The reverse happened. “Let’s take this opera and add a few spoken lines.” :-) 

     

    • #56
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