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Blackface, Diversity, and Getting Opera Right in 2015

As the Met finally gets past an offensive Otello, a look at a production that subverted two centuries of stereotypes and reimagined a Mozart classic.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino and Jacqueline Echols as Pamina in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Tonight, for the very first time since the 1891 Metropolitan Opera premiere of Verdi’s Otello, a white tenor without a lick of blackface makeup will sing the title role. The opera, based on Shakespeare’s play about a Moorish general’s embattled relationship with white Venetian society, has always featured a white tenor wearing dark theatrical makeup. While the opera community’s busy praising or critiquing the Met’s decision to abandon blackface, hurling accusations of racism or P.C. pandering, bystanders are left wondering, “Why’d they wait till 2015?”

“Why didn’t they hire a Black Otello?”

“What does opera look like without the stereotypes? And who’s doing opera right?”

That blackface was even an issue in 2015 has a lot to do with a conservative, majority-white operatic community that leans on “tradition,” to obscure how out of touch it is with artists and audiences of color in the U.S. and in Europe. “It’s about diversity,” says Francesca Zambello, director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of the Washington National Opera. “It has to do with the power structure. People who fund this art form often aren’t willing to accept change. Everybody says, ‘How can we get young people into opera, how do we get new audiences?’ But how can we expect an audience to reflect diversity, if they don’t see ourselves on the stage? Some people in my position don’t open their eyes to artists of color.”

Or their ears. The controversy has revealed the doublethink of white opera traditionalists who accept the whiteness of the talent pool as meritocracy—who don’t agitate to bring more artists of color to the stage—but who still insist that Otello be painted to look Moorish. (These strange fans seem to think that opening the doors to all great singers of color detracts from the accomplishments of a white Otello like Aleksandr Antonenko. They also, oddly, seem to listen with their eyes only, unable to comprehend Verdi’s musical exploration of racial hatred and love unless they see blackface.)

Racialized operatic makeup has been fraught ever since Mozart’s time, but it got more complicated in the 19th- century United States, when opera companies often shared the stage with racist minstrel shows. With Egypt and Nubia represented (or reinvented) in Aida, and Japan and China in Madama Butterfly and Turandot, so-called “respectful” and “inoffensive” uses of blackface and yellowface became intimately associated with theatrical traditions, not to mention some glorious music. But there’s no reason to isolate opera from a long and complicated history of racist representation, or to value the supposedly good intentions of its practitioners over people of color’s painful experiences with racism, onstage and off. To many of us, these archaic dramatic “traditions” cause pain that feels only too alive.

More significantly, having white fans argue with each other about white singers wearing brown makeup doesn’t solve the question of hiring a Black Otello—or a Black Butterfly, Don José, or Brünnhilde. Many opera artists of color, while glad to see the blackface go, regard the controversy as a distraction from both the achievements of African-American musicians and the even more pressing issues of inequality: Dr. Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, says, “I don’t consider [dark makeup] hurtful—as long as you’re willing to give an African American an opportunity to play something other than an African American.” Worldwide, only a handful of tenors can sing the demanding role of Otello and nearly all are white; two exceptions are Trinidad-born tenor Ronald Samm and native Texan Ray M. Wade, Jr. But the scarcity of tenors didn’t happen in a vacuum. Opera artists of color face significant structural barriers to obtaining musical education, funding, opportunities and roles.

University of Michigan musicologist Dr. Naomi André says, “People talk about how casting should be true to the race of the role. That is just not the full story ... You’d never have any Black singers singing Mozart, except Monostatos in The Magic Flute, which is a really negative role. You’d have Leontyne Price not able to sing Verdi, which would be a sin ... The other side is colorblind casting: no matter what the race, you should sing any role.”

Fortunately, opera doesn’t belong exclusively to racists: even in the age of minstrelsy, great singers of color—and diverse audiences—made opera their own. Many artists in leadership positions today believe that diversity is essential to making “what’s on the stage…a mirror to the world,” as Zambello says. “For me, it’s always about the best person you can cast, and having open eyes about diversity is key.” For the Glimmerglass Festival’s summer 2015 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, there was no question of reviving the two-hundred-year-old tradition of blacking up the villain Monostatos, the demonized “blackamoor.” Director Madeline Sayet says, “If you have the opportunity to envision a better future, or reconstruct an ugly past, why not choose to make a world where every child can be the hero—since, nowadays they actually can be?”

Diversity in opera is about casting, commissioning work, filling leadership positions, but also about deciding whose stories get told, whose identities and perspectives give vibrancy to the work. Sayet, a member of the Mohegan Tribe and Resident Director of Amerinda, Inc., a Native community-based multidisciplinary arts organization, faced the challenges of a traditionally blacked-up character, countering stereotypes of theatrical “redface production[s] full of feathers and fringe,” and bringing Mohegan thought and aesthetics to a stage featuring a diverse but non-Native cast. “There was no way I would pretend non-Native performers were Native,” she says. Instead, she created “a world everyone could be a part of…a world at once indigenous, contemporary, and inclusive.” She worked with designers Troy Hourie and Kaye Voyce to incorporate Mohegan design and philosophy and the performers’ own characteristics into this “journey for the modern audience…. Soon we were discovering a complex, possible woodlands future that we could all understand.”

And, she noted, as a member of a northeastern sovereign Indian nation that “most people think doesn’t exist anymore…I was continuously questioned by non-Natives as to how this was a Native production. They didn’t see the stereotypical markers they were used to. But my community was thrilled and proud. They knew what the trail of life meant on the flute and finally felt like there was a story they could identify with.”

Sayet’s Magic Flute was a glimmering, twilit outdoor adventure: an urban hero faints and finds himself in the forest; singing beetles herald lab-coated ecologists; grand opera is staged in the real woodlands of upstate Cooperstown, New York, in Glimmerglass’s airy, low-environmental-impact theater. Under the baton of conductor Carolyn Kuan, the diverse cast (including Sean Panikkar, Ben Edquist, So Young Park, Jacqueline Echols, Soloman Howard, and Jasmine Habersham) sang, danced, and resolved familial, romantic, and political conflicts. And they learned: as Kelley Rourke’s new English libretto had it, “If you would have your knowledge grow, abandon what you think you know.”

We could stand to abandon what we think we know about opera, race, and culture. White audience experiences and identifications don’t represent everybody; old racist aesthetic traditions continue to do damage in the present. Sayet became a director “to protect Native people from redface. It had hurt me repeatedly.” Through Monostatos in Magic Flute, she learned that blackface was an ongoing operatic practice. “I felt sick to my stomach. Whether it’s blackface, yellowface, or redface, we are not costumes for you to put on. The issue is the reduction of humanity. Not the makeup, but the objectification and dehumanization of people.”

Nicholas Nestorak as Monostatos in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

In her production, where nature and science sought balance, where a contemporary indigenous world reckoned with the enlightenment, Monostatos was sung by white tenor Nicholas Nestorak, not in blackface, but costumed as an outsider to all these different worlds: “someone who kills things just to kill things. A trapper, who hunts not for necessity but profit.” It was an inversion of the opera’s original racial narrative, yet it preserved the show’s questions of outsiderdom and morality. But again, dealing with operatic racism was about more than banishing blackface: it was about why and how the stories develop. “In my guts I wished I could scrap Magic Flute and make a show just about Monostatos. The first show I directed was The Tempest, because I was so upset about the treatment of Caliban,” the islander character, villain, and, in many productions, the only actor of color. “I wanted the audience to understand the character fully…from an indigenous perspective,” says Sayet. “These characters should always be as complex and full as any other character onstage, or more so, to counter their stage history.”

Sayet points to the energy of the opera’s gorgeous music and story. “The world of The Magic Flute is diverse, a world with multiple belief systems. There are spiritual, physical, and cultural divides between the characters that shape them as people, as they struggle to find their path and place in the world. This is what makes it a great opera for all. I loved that in our production I saw a world that reflected the one we live in, and the one I will continue to grow in: not the past, but the future.”

Resolving the opera’s historical ugliness is hard work, much harder than keeping or tossing old makeup: it means commitments from funders, artists, the media, and ticket buyers. But it’s necessary work, for the greater revelation of beauty. The Glimmerglass Magic Flute sought not to whitewash Mozart or apply a quick fix, but to engage new artists with his work in its entirety: to quarrel with it, vivify it, and bring out all its loopy effervescence, its grandeur and genius, and its problems. This was keeping opera alive for old and new audiences. This was doing opera right.

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