August 2015: The Metropolitan Opera abandons blackface
August 5, 2015 6:42 AM   Subscribe

First reported in this article by Alison Kinney, writing about the legacy of African-Americans in Opera, and later picked up by the NYT. SLYT: Otello's monologue sung by James McCracken in 1983, and by Placido Domingo in 1991. Perhaps someday soon we can hear the rising star Issachah Savage sing this role at the Met.
posted by operalass (11 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
That lead is a fantastic article, thank you for posting it here.

The opera, compared to the play, focuses more on Iago's vindictiveness and less on Othello as an other. The latter is part of the story, but this opera is not really about the moorish or black experience, beyond that. It is important that Othello is set apart, but there are many ways to do that (especially with this new not-as-traditional production that is updating the scene several hundred years) without using blackface (or similar), which has a shameful history in the United States.

The Met's Live in HD season opening broadcast of Otello was previously a definite no for me; with this (long overdue) announcement it's something I will have to consider.
posted by mountmccabe at 7:49 AM on August 5, 2015

It has long been accepted in the operatic tradition that singers don't necessarily have to be made up to mimic the "real life" racial/ethnic characteristics of the characters they perform. Thus, for example, a cast of Don Giovanni can include a white Donna Anna with an Asian singer portraying her father and an African American singer portraying her fiancee. But, of course, Don Giovanni is not an opera in which anything is made of the ethnicities of its characters.

It becomes trickier for dramatic works in which the local setting or ethnic origin of a character plays an important part. In Lakmé, for example, it is central to the plot that certain characters are Indian and other characters are British. Looking at the specific example, although Othello's "blackness" figures fairly prominently in the lines of Shakespeare play, not so much is made of it in Boito's libretto for Verdi's operatic adaptation. Still, just as a distinction needs to be made between the ethnic groups in Lakmé, something has to make clear that Otello is "different" from the Venetians. It seems to me, however, that this can be done quite effectively with costume, hairstyle, facial hair, etc. without having to darken the singer's skin.

Speaking of Otello and "Dio mi potevi scagliar" . . .

Here is the recently-departed Jon Vickers

No conversation is complete without mentioning Mario Del Monaco

And, for my money, the greatest Otello is Giuseppe Giacomini
posted by slkinsey at 7:53 AM on August 5, 2015

Cheers, thanks for this. (Beware ignoramuses in the the NYT version's comments. Gah.)

Referenced in the main article: Q&A with Blackness in Opera editors

When the Opera Acts Like It's Never Seen a Black Person Before

(And can I just say, super bummed that Lawrence Brownlee will be in only one Met opera for 2015-2016. /saturdaymatineebroadcasts4evar)
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 9:50 AM on August 5, 2015

posted by kyrademon at 10:02 AM on August 5, 2015

It will be interesting to see when ballet elects to follow suit, as both blackface and yellowface (e.g., the Chinese dance/Tea in the Nutcracker) are still in use.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:27 AM on August 5, 2015

My question when I first read this: are there no black or middle eastern tenors anywhere in the world who could actually play this role? Why have a white actor at all? We're thrilled they've given up blackface, but that's no excuse for the continued lack of diversity in performers.
posted by fremen at 10:29 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fremen: there are barely any white guys who can sing it -- it's enormously difficult. And as there are too few singers of colour in the opera world in general, there are even fewer currently performing who would be right for it vocally.
posted by operalass at 11:19 AM on August 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

are there no black or middle eastern tenors anywhere in the world who could actually play this role?

Effectively: no, there isn't. Not at the highest level. In fact, there aren't any tenors singing today that I would get particularly excited to hear sing this role, regardless of heritage. Any tenor of African or Middle Eastern ancestry who sounded like the second coming of Mario Del Monaco would be able to write his own ticket, but I've never heard one. Issachah Savage clearly has a lot of promise and will most certainly get his opportunities down the road if he decides it's a role he wants to tackle (I have to believe someone has already made an offer). He seems to be focusing his attentions on the German repertoire right now, however, and I wonder whether this will be where he finds most of his success.
posted by slkinsey at 12:36 PM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love Issachah Savage. I saw him live at the Seattle Opera Wagner Competition (he won pretty much every category, including audience favorite), as well as a couple other performances in Seattle. He deserves to be world-famous.
posted by matildaben at 1:18 PM on August 5, 2015

English National Opera's September 2014 run of the opera had Stuart Skelton as Otello (also sans-makeup), in a production by David Alden (Trailer).

When this was announced in the spring there was a lot of talk. A blog entry from Fairyprincessdiaries has an interesting discussion of different voice types, includes videos from a number of Otelli and a number of black singers with other types of voices (I'll add another favorite video for Laurence Brownlee). She came up with one black man that has sung Otello: Michael Austin.

Austin singing "Niun mi tema"

He has sung the role reportedly around 50 times in various venues, including at the 2012 Knoxville Opera Rossini Festival (just to clarify: yes, they did Verdi's Otello at their Rossini Festival). It should be noted, though, that not every voice that singing the role at the 1600 seat Tennessee Theatre is not the same as at the 3800 seat Metropolitan Opera House. (Though I am in no position to speculate on what he can do).
posted by mountmccabe at 1:22 PM on August 5, 2015

Ronald Samm sang Otello in the UK in 2010 - again, small venue, but by all accounts he was really good (I've seen him in other things at the Linbury and remember thinking he had a great voice at the time).
posted by tinkletown at 4:58 PM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older “I write and that way rid myself of me and then at...   |   “He’s got a dragon in his book,” she said. “A very... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments