For me, it was a simple and understandable request. Stop it. End the blackface. Why hasn’t anyone in this city addressed this before?
Turns out it can be a dangerous public conversation where a public petition is not the way to go. And it is a surprisingly long, complex inter-personal debate.
For the director point of view, which I respect and promise to hear out,
- It is not blackface, it is dark makeup used to the correct shade of the character. It adds authenticity. Is any shade darker than one’s own blackface? Where is the line?
- Blackening singers and dancers is being done by major companies around the world. Even the Metropolitan Opera used it during their live streamed productions last year. According to a UK Fact Sheet, “It has long been a tradition in amateur operatic societies for white performers to ‘black up’ to portray characters from ethnic minorities. This practice is not solely confined to the amateur sector; while it has disappeared in the professional theatre, it continues in professional opera.”
- The depiction of Africans is done according to the script and the directors’ visions. Without any racist intent.
- The choreography of the African characters [which I see as offensively cartoonish in at least two examples], is actually authentic. When I countered saying that the movements in no way resembled what I well knew to be dances or East Africa, I was told that I was wrong because I only know modern Africa, not Africa thousands of years ago in the Pharonic period.
- This is my opinion and some of my claims (that having photos of you in blackface on your social media profiles could damage an artist’s reputation or prevent someone from hiring him or her) are baseless. Performing in blackface is acceptable in the field and a talented artist will always be hired, despite whatever makeup they wore in past productions.
- There is a need to hold to the original in regards to preservation. Judith Mackrell in The Guardian says, “It’s a slippery slope. Whole chunks of 19th-century choreography have been lost because someone either didn’t rate them or thought they could do better. And those of us who feel queasy may just be too easily shocked. Perhaps we should just accept them as the less lovely face of ballet history?” In Cairo, the renowned director has passed away and it is important to keep his artist vision preserved exactly.
- There is no problem. I am seeing a problem, where there is absolutely none.
After giving space to those points, I just want to present the Opera with writings and examples covering 5 problem areas and 5 solutions. In addition, there is also a book I have not read yet, but still suggest. “Blackness in Opera” (University of Illinois Press).
Problem 1: Many of the scripts are problematic and demand a critical eye and clever adaption.
Oftentimes, the problem is not with the artists or directors. The problem lies in the scripts themselves and the Euro-centric, 19th century context in which the stories and characters were devised. In Dance Magazine, Joseph Carman writes, “You’ve seen them in story ballets and perhaps they’ve made you cringe. The ethnic stereotypes embedded in the plotlines with dated, usually 19th-century attitudes. They’re those non-Caucasian, non-Christian characters far removed from the cultural norms of most of the audience members who are watching. They’re often the troublemakers or the butts of jokes presented in the most sophomoric ways. At best they’re annoyingly quaint, at worst they’re offensively xenophobic.”
Judith Mackrell in The Guardian says, “In the 19th-century, ballet took a blatantly imperialist line on everything; foreign dance styles, foreign cultures and foreigners themselves were all tourist novelties, to be imported on to the Mariinsky or Bolshoi stages for a few laughs. Logically, we should be no more offended by these blacked-up dancers than by the crazy-eyed fakirs, the pantomime High Brahmin and the sexed-up temple dancers who are also crammed into the ballet. If we find them difficult to stomach, however, what do we want to happen? Great swathes of the cultural canon fail every test of political correctness – like Shakespeare’s Shylock or theAfrica of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We would resist any attempt to sanitise such works, even if we clash with their world view.”
Problem 2: Racial stereotyping is outdated and unattractive.
Gwynn Guilford in The Atlantic states, “This is peculiar behavior for an industry said to be “dying.” When directors preserve cultural cliches simply because they were exotic a century ago, there’s an opportunity cost to those choices: the chance to move audiences anew. The tighter they cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, they more they rob the world’s most powerful art form of its relevance.”
After highlighting a few examples of stereotyped characterizations of Muslim/Arab men, Indians, and other examples including black dancers from Dance Theatre of Harlem using “white face,” Mr. Carman clarifies and questions, “’I’m not trying to take political correctness over the top, but one has to wonder if these outdated characterizations, particularly for ticket holders’ first introduction to ballet, are enough to drive them out of the theater permanently. / Our global outlook has changed. With all due respect to classical story ballets—and there are some wonderful works that deserve to stay around for centuries—perhaps ballet and its insidious stereotypes need to change a little, too.”
“There is such a legacy… of discrimination and hate based on images and stereotypes of “the Other” that it is difficult for the modern sensibility to get past this theatrical choice. But this is opera, and opera has always been a little … creaky… “In addition to problematic casting issues, blackface is a large thorn in the side of what some people feel is an art form that can’t seem to get with the times. While most other theatrical forms have abandoned blackface, condemning its use as racist, major opera houses all over the world still use it, with some notable exceptions.” This is a quote from a great interview with Soloman Howard, a rising star. His 2014-2015 operatic season is marked by several high profile debuts, most notably, with the Metropolitan Opera as The King in Verdi’s Aida conducted by Marco Armiliato. Additionally, Mr. Howard debuts with the Los Angeles Opera under the baton of Music Director James Conlon as Doctor Grenvil in La traviata and at the Glimmerglass Festival where he performs Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth and Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute during the same period.
Topher Campbell of the London-based Talawa black theatre group, said: “It is fundamentally racist to have white actors ‘blacking up’ for black parts. That belongs to the 19th century. We welcome any policy that forces groups to reassess how they portray groups on stage. It is incumbent on all organisations to be aware of the way they portray and give access to and share power with people from ethnic minorities,” he added.
According to The Shakespeare Revue, “The tradition of blackface stretches back more than 100 years, but fell out of favor with the awakening of a national consciousness against racism. Blackface predominantly drew on, played on and perpetuated racist stereotypes and fell out of favour only within the last 20 years.”
Audiences in London reacted to the 2013 tour of the Bloshoi by saying, “I found the rather overt racism implied by the ‘blacking up’ of the young girls dancing with the peacock fans rather distasteful. Also their choreography was completely at odds with the style of the rest of it. Just because it may be a historical reproduction doesn’t make it acceptable to parade it on a world class stage in this day and age. It’s a shame as it’s the only blot on an otherwise very enjoyable evening.”
Problem 3: Audiences are pretty savvy, and cultural sophistication and education should be promoted.
“Behind the times or not, I wondered, if they chose a white singer, why put him in blackface? I doubt that there would have been a single audience member who does not know the story of Othello and would have been confused by a white Othello.” – The Shakespeare Review
“When Othello the play is being performed today, it is understood that the actor should be black, not a white man in black face paint,” says Soloman Howard.
Fred Plotkin is a scholar about the use of blackface in Opera. “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.”
Audiences know the stories, and we can use educational and engagement strategies such as program notes, blogs, and pre-show talks (working with dramatists and scholars) to spread awareness of the narratives.
Problem 4: Casting is difficult; training and support is needed for more opera and ballet artists of different races.
Fred Plotkin explains that “George Shirley, now a distinguished professor of voice at the University of Michigan, was the first African-American tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. His first appearance on the Met stage was on April 6, 1961, when he sang “Nessun Dorma” in the Met National Council Finals concert. In October of that year he stepped in for a colleague as Ferrando in Così fan tutee. In the mid 1960s, Shirley was offered the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, at another theater. He was reluctant to accept the offer, thinking that it would typecast him as that character, “a role I knew I could perform with flair. I did not want to do anything that might make opera houses look at me as other than Pinkerton, Don Ottavio or Tamino. I did not want to give them ideas or reasons to rethink my utility to them.”
“Race is a problem that plagues the opera industry, with singers being pushed to do roles that are beyond their vocal ability merely because of the color of their skin. In an ideal world, people should be hired based on talent and vocal ability. I’m hired to play Italian characters and people other cultures. I’m not Italian. I don’t look like what the librettist would have wanted for the Italian character. But because I have the voice, I can do the job.” Howard also says that many singers are afraid of typecasting, worried that once they sing in an opera like Porgy and Bess, those roles will be the only ones offered them. But singers like Lawrence Brownlee are making headway in America, Howard says.
Plotkin continues, “There is another role that black tenors avoid, and with good reason, composed by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Of Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte, it is said that his heart is as black as his face. In Mozart’s time a white performer would put on blackface and play this grotesque, lustful character who covets Pamina. How literally to present this character is a source of great debate. Watch a scene from a Dutch production that took seriously the original intention that Monostatos be black. Now listen to Monostatos’s aria as presented at Covent Garden, including English translation of the text. Come to your own conclusions.”
“I think that, finally, we might have reached the point where more theaters are hiring black tenors not because of the color of their skin but the content of their singing skills.” – Fred Plotkin
Now here of 5 examples of different solutions:
1. The Royal Opera House abruptly ended their use of blackface in 2005.
As described here, the lead soprano was blacked up throughout rehearsals but in defiance of the production’s director, they made they change on opening night to a naturally white face. ‘To see a revival of “blacking up” in the opera house in 2005 is just beyond belief,’ wrote Philip Hensher. “The ban on blacking up marks a symbolic shift in an artform that has been the last bastion of a practice otherwise seen as at best quaint, at worst offensive, evoking uncomfortable memories.” writes David Smith.
“We had tried various means to see if there was a way in which we could resolve the issue of whether a white actor should be ‘blacked up’ and decided we should cut it,” Royal Opera House spokesman Christopher Millard said. “It doesn’t work. It’s racially insensitive.”
2. Lyric Opera Chicago also declared a strict no-blackface policy.
The Lyric included Otello as part of its 2013-2014 season, and the leadership intentionally decided not to use blackface at all in the production. During one of the panels which took place at The Kennedy Center last fall, Anthony Freud, the general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, said, “Racial prejudice is utterly indefensible, in whatever form it takes, and we as opera companies either believe that or we don’t.”
3. The Met uses sensitive levels of race-based makeup on lead characters and presents those characters with complexity and dignity.
Fred Plotkin writes in his excellent series on the topic that, “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.” Mr. Plotkin’s article contains video examples that I highly suggest viewing.
4. Rotherdam banned blackface on all performances throughout the entire city.
This ban includes school and community groups as well as major venues and companies.
5. Balanchine removed the story.
Carman states, “Maybe Balanchine was right: He extracted music from Glazunov’s danceable score and choreographed clever, classically based divertissement-style works (Raymonda Variations, Pas de Dix, Cortège Hongrois) that stayed true to the style while avoiding the poorly drawn characters and the plot’s social land mines.”
This process of creating positive change in a positive way has been incredibly challenging. Nightmares. Tears. Anxiety. Fears. But I think that by providing Cairo Opera with these thoughts and materials, I have dropped a good pebble in a bucket and will walk away. Maybe I will ask the directors of the Royal Opera and Lyric Opera to write letters about their choices. But that’s it.
I have been pushed to that great point where you doubt yourself and look critically at your own beliefs, only to come back around to your convictions with greater understanding.
Turns out that as you are looking critically into your convictions, you also question other things. If I am so busy, how can I take care of this special needs kitty that we love? She is not taking to any lesson on being house-trained. We have tried everything and people are fed up. It breaks my heart just thinking of alternatives to her not being here. It is just an ounce of the adoption story. I pray that she can stay with us for a long time.