Cher Public

Less is Moor

It’s official: in the Met’s new production of Otello, Aleksandrs Antonenko “will not use blackface makeup… breaking with a performance tradition of more than a century.” [New York Times]

  • antikitschychick

    very happy to hear that the Met will discontinue it’s use of blackface makeup for Otello. (I would think that they wouldn’t revert back to implementing it for other productions but I guess that depends on the circumstances). I hadn’t said anything but I too was disquieted at the sight of Antonenko donning that ott Jersey Shore looking bronze tan on the season Brochure. That was definitely a marketing misstep imho, especially if it wasn’t meant to be representative of the production or how he would look in it.

    I agree with armerj that a pronouncement that ‘the use of blackface is not racist or problematic in Otello because the composer’s ‘intent’ was not ‘inherently/originally’ racist’ unfairly minimizes if not totally disregards the offense many African Americans feel toward this practice. It’s also condescending because it presupposes that this ‘original intent’, whatever that may be perceived to be, is what’s most important and it therefore trumps any emotional, visceral or cerebral response that somehow ‘deviates’ from the supposed purpose or ‘intent’. With all due respect, I don’t agree with this literal-minded conception of how we should experience opera. Moreover, the practice of blackface doesn’t just elicit negative responses because of minstrelsy but also because of systematic oppression and cultural appropriation (something Lindoro, phillyoperalover and others have rightly pointed out). Cultural appropriation has become something of an epidemic in the US, especially in fashion and the music industry: you see it all the time with the likes of Iggy Azalea, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and “Lana Del Rey”(to an extent). I had a very long conversation about this with a friend recently who posited that what I would deem cultural appropriation is just a natural evolution of cultural and racial blending, and sure, there’s a lot of that too, especially within the younger generations, what with hip-hop becoming more mainstream and influential, but a lot of it is just cheap imitation and/or unremarkable talent being re-packed and re-sold as ‘edgy’ and ‘sexy’. Of course I do understand the theatrical/make-believe aspect, but I don’t think blackface is quintessential to making the drama believable (to the extent that it can be believable to a modern audience). That’s my take on this issue.

    I also enjoyed the piece by Ms. Kinney on the legacy of African Americans in Opera and I thank her for posting that.

  • Camille

    And then there is THIS, which Pauline Kael lauded to the high heavens back in the day, for its subversiveness:

    httpv://youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=F96DlM3N5KQ

    I did see this in the movie ftheatre as a young person and remember being terrified of his portrayl, it fairly lept out of the screen at one, so much so that I wanted to grab Maggie Smith by the hand and say “Run for your life lady!”, for it seemed so real. I should try to find one of Kael’s critiques on Olivier as what she has to say may be of interest…..

    Over the years I have always remembered this never-to-be-forgotten Olivier Othello and Smith’s Desdemona, my first exposure to this play and long before knowing the opera. It was another ten years or so before I bexame aware of the great Paul Robeson, so expunged from the popular record had he become during that period of anti-Communist hysteria in the United States.

  • La Valkyrietta

    “The costumes, the scenery, the make-up, the plot, the audience that lifts you when your are down…” I wonder if Gelb has novel ideas on what to do with the titles, as someone did in the Vegas Rigoletto. How will they do the English translation in Desdemona’s “Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure splender del genio l’eterea beltà”, I wonder. Maybe they won’t bother with that.

    • kennedet

      I don’t know if our past Attorney General, Eric Holder is an opera fan but we have followed his hope that Americans talk more about race. These posts sometimes became heated and there were major disagreements, name calling ,etc. but we all love this art form and it shows how parterre box is open-minded enough to have strong opinions about other issues that relate to human concerns…….in many ways I thought the discussion was helpful. Thanks Cieca.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    This blog, finally, woke up after a period of un-operatic, lethargic summer! The makeups have it. What about the trouser roles? To be intellectually honest and publically correct, should they portray female cross-dressers entangled in a lesbian relationship?

    • Were you dropped on the head as a child or did you acquire your general retardedness as an adult?

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Both! Sense of humor, anyone?

  • BostonNYCGuy

    I love it when white people appropriate the right to be offended on behalf of other people, trying desperately to top one another with fruity and over the top expressions of outrage in their little echo chamber. I’d worry much more about the very white, elderly, and affluent Met audience than I would about a tradition of make up for a character whose race and color are mentioned in the text and are integral to the story. There is a line between that and demeaning “minstrelsy” and anyone who can’t (or won’t) acknowledge that is simply being obtuse.

    I wonder if Shirley Verrett felt victimized when she sang Desdemona in pale make up here in Boston for Sarah Caldwell. I doubt it because it was being done to underscore the difference between D and O, not to make some point about racial hierarchy.

    This line of thinking is going to lead to the point where Otello, Butterfly Turandot, Lakme, and so many others are simply not going to be performable (faster than we think) and that is a shame because opera has been a leader in a race blind casting. What other stage had a black leading lady playing opposite a white leading man in 1961? Only The Met. Or a black leading man (George Shirley) opposite white leading ladies? Again, The Met, in the 1960’s.

    I’ve had my say and like La Cieca says, I get a vote because I’m human. And no, just being “offended” does not confer a right to veto and dictate the actions of others.

  • Kenhere

    Good thoughtful, non- kneejerk discussion of this subject by Lawrence Brownlee, Vinson Cole and Naomi André may be found here:

    http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/disbelief-suspended-met-opera-says-farewell-blackface-makeup-otello/