Realism vs. Racism: Opera's Casting Call

The First in a Two-Part Series on Blackness in Opera

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 - 10:18 AM

Some of my African-American friends like to remark, only partially in jest, that February was designated as Black History Month because it is the shortest month of the year. With 2012 being a leap year, there will be an extra day to acknowledge the immense contributions African-Americans have made to the United States.

I suppose the notion of a special month set aside to recall the struggles and triumphs of black people is important, but only if it can be a springboard to recognize these facts every day of the year. I had a similar reaction in 2007 when the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Ella Fitzgerald as part of a series called Black Heritage. It struck me that this choice served to diminish the singer. Ella Fitzgerald was an American institution, one of the greatest musicians our nation ever produced. To honor Fitzgerald by limiting her to her skin color, and some of the cultural implications that brings, is to separate her from the mainstream and the full recognition she deserves.

Three recent events have impelled me to think about opera and persons who are descendants of the African diaspora. The first was the arrival in New York of a Broadway show called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which is much more of a pastiche than the richly complex The Enchanted Island at the Met. Anyone who knows and loves the whole opera by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Hayward will recoil at how much has been cut and changed in this adulterated version. It is musical and dramatic Swiss cheese. Howard Kissel’s pitch-perfect review entirely reflects my opinion of this new version.

The second occurrence was the death a few days ago of Camilla Williams, an African-American soprano whose groundbreaking 1946 debut as Madama Butterfly at the New York City Opera preceded by nine years the historic debut of Marian Anderson (as Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera) at the Metropolitan Opera. Who remembers Williams’s contribution? It was noted in an obituary in The New York Times that, “Though she was far too well mannered to trumpet her rightful place in history, her relegation to its margins caused her great private anguish.”

With these two events in my thoughts, I came across an early copy of "Blackness in Opera," (University of Illinois Press) a collection of a dozen scholarly essays that will be published in March. Edited by Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan and Eric Saylor, each of whom contributed an essay, this book is an important contribution to a topic that has had little fresh thought and coverage.

Some of the essays address issues such as “From Otello to Porgy: Blackness, Masculinity, and Morality in Opera” and the many depictions of people “of color” in operas by composers of all races. One of the many thorny issues that is touched upon by several writers is “blacking up,” the stage practice in which performers (usually but not always Caucasian) apply heavy makeup to play leading roles such as Otello and Aïda. These two Verdi characters are grand and noble and, in the composer’s time, there were almost no dark-skinned singers around who could be cast in them. In their introduction, the editors wrote:

"The opera stage is perhaps the only space in American culture today where such overt racial imitation is routinely performed without comment or query. Such a practice is all the more unusual when one recalls that the other major historical forum for blackface portrayals in America --a nation where race occupies a uniquely problematic cultural position-- was the minstrel show, a locus for the establishment and reinforcement of the many negative stereotypes aimed at African-Americans (for example, as lazy, ignorant, violent, hypersexualized, conniving buffoons).”

An inevitable question -- delicate but crucial -- comes to mind: Should casting of opera roles be based on the color of one’s skin or the ability to play the role? If the roles are full and complex, rather than ones that use stereotypes to make the characters subjects of ridicule and revulsion, does stage makeup lend credibility or detract from believability? The short answer is that it depends on how else the performer in question approaches the creation of the character.

Reading this book brought to mind a couple of memories about stage makeup I have seen in my operagoing life. In the spring of 1976 I visited Budapest, then very much behind the Iron Curtain. One night I attended Così fan tutte in a performance that made mush of the Italian language and suppressed much of the jaded and subtle wit in Mozart and da Ponte’s opera, turning it into a G-rated sex farce. 

The next night, I attended one of the most bizarre performances of my life. It was Porgy and Bess, sung in Hungarian with local singers in blackface. The music kept its power and the singers attempted to portray the characters sympathetically, but they clearly had no cultural context in which to do this. The estate of the Gershwin family always controlled tightly the rights to performances (and presumably authorized the bowdlerized version now on Broadway) with one of the chief provisos being that the roles of black characters be played by black people. That has been an accepted standard, but apparently no one told Communist Hungary.

The other memory was more recent. In 1990, the Met did a new production of Un Ballo in Maschera, directed and designed by Piero Faggioni. He caused quite an outcry when he suggested that black cast members apply “whiteface” to become more plausible as the Swedish characters. He insisted that he was not being racist or prejudiced, stating that just as fair-skinned performers would use makeup to play Aïda or Otello, dark-skinned singers would do the same to be more plausible as whiter characters. While this is technically accurate on purely visual terms, it was wildly insensitive in a cultural context. Ultimately, the black performers in Ballo did not wear the white makeup, but some wore white wigs as their 18th-century characters might have. This too can be seen as being part of a cultural context. If a dark-skinned man becomes a solicitor in London or certain nations that were part of the British Empire, he might wear a white wig because it is customary to do so.

Makeup, when used sensitively and as part of a larger effort to find human truth in characters rather than using it “at face value,” does have its place. Perhaps the finest performances of the countless Verdi Otellos I have seen were those at the Met and in London that starred Plácido Domingo in the title role and Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona. Domingo is a handsome fair-skinned Spaniard and Te Kanawa is a gorgeous New Zealander whose background includes fair-skinned Anglo and dark-skinned Maori. Both are also spectacular singers and truthful actors. The tenor applied dark makeup and a wig while the soprano wore a blonde wig and used a discreet amount of makeup that (under stage illumination) brought light to her face rather than making it lighter. Watch Te Kanawa in the “Willow Song": 

Now watch, and listen, to two great African-American sopranos sing the same music, plus the “Ave Maria.” Shirley Verrett sings in concert but creates a full portrayal.

(Also see here.) Leontyne Price made a gorgeous studio recording of this music and also performed it live. The color of their skin has nothing to do with the plausibility of their interpretations, don’t you think? This is because they are great artists.

I have seen Otellos of every hue. In the early years (and, as directed often by Franco Zeffirelli), Domingo had darker skin and tightly curled hair. Compare him in 1976 and 1992. Mario del Monaco was quite dark in a 1954 film.  This video includes still photographs of Jon Vickers as a very black Otello in the 1960s. Vickers was quite light in 1978 when he and Renata Scotto gave phenomenal musical and dramatic performances.

Of course, blackness (or any other pigmentation) is more than skin-deep. People of all hues, especially in multi-racial societies, develop a self-image and a sense of others based on a whole series of political, religious and personal values. Even the most tolerant, open-minded person incorporates the idea, if not the practice, of racism. Things are getting better, but we still have far to go.

In the second article of this series, more about Blackness in Opera as experienced by composers, singers, individual opera characters, and audiences.


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Comments [7]

Celestea Knopick from Chicago IL

Historically speaking, the racial context of ancient North Africa was Black skinned, .... Herodotus as a reference at least states this specifically. It is a racist construct to deny the founders of what is now called Egypt-- this civilization-- their due,and disrespects the victims of the diaspora since. I am so tired of this ,especially among other wise educated persons.

May. 31 2012 09:39 PM

What does "realism" have to do with opera? Isn't opera inherently at the opposite pole from realism?

Mar. 16 2012 01:02 AM
RIchard from Manhattan


"not overlooked by Verdi" NOT "moot overlooked"

Mar. 15 2012 12:19 PM
RICHARD from Manhattan

I beg to differ with David from Flushing. The plot of "Aida" is much less about an interracial love affair that about a love affair between two individuals of differential social status. Aida is a slave; Radames is an army officer. Granted, Aida is Ethiopean. But, keep in mind Egypt is an African nation, and many Egyptians are dark-skinned. So, Radames may very well been as darker-skinned as Aida. The irony, of course, one moot overlooked by Verdi and his librettist -- that Aida is a princess in her own right, thus of a much higher social status than an army officer. Country of birth is the problem: Egypt is at war with Ethiopea. Skin-color should rightfully not be an issue here. Have our own racial biases made it so?

Mar. 15 2012 11:52 AM
David from Flushing

The opera Aida seems to have largely escaped the obvious---the plot is about an interracial love affair (gasp!). I can imagine that in certain parts of the US, the heroine would likely have been made up to appear as white as possible in the past.

Recall that Shirley Temple could not appear with Bojangles in southern movie houses. The idea that Egyptian white womanhood was given up for a colored maid would have been shocking beyond belief.

Feb. 09 2012 01:09 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Part of the magic of the great opera scores is that those characters in them that go beyond the particular, into something timeless if not universally human, is that a persuasive performer of any race can rivet an audience with their assumption of the role -- and the audience is struck not by the color of the performer's skin but by the content they bring to the character. Callas and Verrett, for example, both gave impactful performances of Cherubini's Medea.

Feb. 07 2012 11:01 PM
Matt E

Fred, another apropos article, to this month and as we are currently working on Otello. The simple answer, to me, would be that it should be based on the singer's ability in opera, not race, or appearance in general. If only those who looked the part would sing, it would severely limit the amount this amazing music is heard. Think of how many fewer Butterflies, Otellos, Aidas and other such operas would be performed. If the acting and make-up are done well, the audience will get over the fact that the performer is not of a specific appearance. Last season, my brother on stage was a black man. The audience and reviewers made no mention of this matter at all. What would be more distracting to an opera goer, someone who may not exactly match the physical description of the character, or someone who cannot sing the role?

Feb. 07 2012 02:52 PM

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