Cher Public

Politically deflect

“A few weeks after the opening night of Otello in New York, The Washington Post convened a group of African–American opera singers to discuss the issue. Not surprisingly, there was agreement on one thing: using makeup to color the face of a white singer playing Otello isn’t a problem.” [Opera News]

  • armerjacquino

    How unbelievably dumb to use the opinion of singers as some kind of clincher. It’s not the inside world of opera that’s at issue here, it’s its public face.

    • I suspect the public face would say the same thing. A white Otello is as ridiculous as a one legged Tarzan. It’s just a pity that the looney pc correct brigade are making an issue out of nothing and charging it with racism. There’s nothing wrong with being black or white -- and to say colouring up a white man or colouring down a man of colour to play the opposite is nothing but theatre.

      • armerjacquino

        he looney pc correct brigade are making an issue out of nothing and charging it with racism

        Have you read any history, of anything, ever?

        • Yes I have armer -- I’ve been around enough to know that pc sux and creates division where there is none.

          • armerjacquino

            The only division in this case is coming from people screaming that the sky is falling because someone hasn’t put makeup on.

            • Kenhere

              My argument is nothing like that. No blackface is not the sky falling. Mutual understanding and good faith would mark the ideal society anti-racist efforts are supposedly trying to create. And if African-American singers don’t object to blackface, why should the public? Not why would, but why should? And is there in fact any evidence of people staying away from blackface productions in sizeable numbers?

  • la vociaccia

    You know, I really appreciate that Thomas and Cambridge weighed in on the issue with the Washington Post and I do think a discussion about racial discrimination on an institutional level is a really important one to have.

    It’s just a damn shame that their contributions are now being used for the navel-gazing, smug drivel in this Opera News article.

  • aulus agerius

    You 2 must have missed the previous paragraph somehow:

    “a group of African–American opera singers … there was agreement on one thing: using makeup to color the face of a white singer playing Otello isn’t a problem.”

    • armerjacquino

      Explain to me how I’d missed that?

      • armerjacquino

        Or how la v had, come to that?

    • Because a round table with Anne Midgette in the Washington Post, for the consumption of the predominantly-white patrons and administrators of opera, is the very epitome of a Safe Space where opera singers of colors can talk Real Talk.

      • armerjacquino

        Look below. ‘Some black singers said it’ is already being offered as a clincher.

      • Porgy Amor

        The very next sentence of the Kennicott piece is “What mattered to the singers was the internal racial politics of the opera house, the lack of opportunities and typecasting that make it difficult for African–American singers to pursue careers in the same way their white peers do.”

        That doesn’t read to me as though they were constrained and reluctant to rock the boat. (And I read the original WaPo piece, and it’s an accurate summation.)

        • armerjacquino

          And that’s definitely the biggest issue in all the live performing arts in the UK and the US- that the diversity of our society isn’t mirrored as much on our stages as it should be.

          So when they say that some makeup at the Met is less important than that very pressing issue, they’re absolutely right. I think croche has a point though: Russell Thomas doesn’t want the Washington Post headline to be ‘Only black tenors should play Otello, says Thomas’ because that would suddenly turn his public persona into that of ‘campaigner for racial equality’ when he probably just wants it to be ‘singer’.

          • Kenhere

            I read the Washington Post every day, and it’s a liberal rag for a liberal readership, and a paper understandably trying very hard to appeal to younger readers. Yes, M. Croche, it is in fact a safe space to talk about racism.

            I don’t presume to know what exactly was going through Thomas’ mind, but crusading against racism is a career booster these days, so I sorta doubt he was worried about being labeled that way, and Midgette basically invited him to take offense at blackface and he didn’t, while at the same time he felt free to say that there is racism in the opera world. So he wasn’t pulling any punches.

            • Most of the liberals I know consider the W.P. to be a conservative paper. A growing number of conservatives are voicing the opinion that Fox News is part of the “liberal media establishment”. Anyway, the essential point is not whether the paper is putatively center-left or center-right, it’s that it has wide circulation to a predominantly white readership.

              You seem to think “crusading against racism is a career-booster these days”. For whom? I doubt that is the case for opera performers, who largely do not control the means of production and are not in much position to rock the boat. If frank talk about racism, imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism were really on the menu, we’d be seeing a LOT more very frank talk about Butterfly, Turandot, Aida, and a host of other works. We’d have heard the views of Palestinians, Arab-Americans, etc. on “The Death of Klinghoffer”. Instead, I see things like a recent SF Symphony advertisement “The Exotic East: The magic of Weber, Saint-Saëns & more!”

            • armerjacquino

              And, of course, whatever Thomas’ motivation, the point is just because he says it isn’t a problem for him personally, doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem for others.

            • Kenhere

              M. Croche, I think your two examples illustrate how conservatism has moved further right, so that moderate Republicans are called RINOs, and liberalism has been displaced by progressivism, so that mostly liberal Democrats like myself are called conservative. The Post’s readership is largely white, I expect, but conservative papers don’t endorse liberals, and African-Americans are not exactly silent about racism these days, so how likely is it they’d be afraid to name it given that Midgette asked them to name it? In fact, they did name it, they just didn’t name it “blackface” (or Thomas did, but he redefined the term).

              Maybe if singers of color truly felt free to speak, there would be more discussion. Or, just maybe in regards to benighted stereotypes everyone now recognizes as benighted stereotypes, they’ve moved on. But no opera singer who’s heard of Misty Copeland would likely be afraid of being negatively typecast for speaking out against racism.

              Armerjacquino, it’s true that what’s not a problem for the singers in the article might be a problem for others. Black people don’t all think alike, obviously, no more than any other group does. But Midgette convened a panel of African-American singers and basically invited them to express offense at blackface, and not one did. Shouldn’t they be taken as the authorities? If not, isn’t that effectively saying that non-blacks know what blacks should think? Or that they need whites to speak up for them and give them permission to speak? I’m sure you don’t mean to be patronizing, but that’s the word that comes to mind. Isn’t Solomon Howard addressing your position when he says that “It’s almost media propaganda to use the term ‘blackface’ to force us into thinking that it’s racially driven”?

              FWIW, if I was a director or an executive director, I’d be very hesitant to use blackface. If I did, I’d want to have a community conversation about it first, to acknowledge the plausible racist understanding of that choice, and to make clear that wasn’t where the company’s choice was coming from. But I hope someday that won’t be necessary, as it’s not necessary for the singers in Midgette’s article. Good faith understanding from all sides is, I think, the goal.

            • Porgy Amor

              Midgette basically invited him to take offense at blackface and he didn’t, while at the same time he felt free to say that there is racism in the opera world. So he wasn’t pulling any punches.

              Agreed — nor did the other singers on this panel. Nor did, in other pieces on the controversy, Lawrence Brownlee (“Well, to be quite honest, I actually don’t have a problem with it. I think you have to look at all the things we’re doing in this art form and the context of the time in which it was written”), Vinson Cole (“He says the use of makeup can be done subtly and without the connotations of racist minstrelsy. ‘When somebody’s singing Otello or Aida, you don’t have to use a great deal of makeup to make it so very heavily black,’ he noted. ‘You want to give the illusion’ of a black or ethnic character”), or Carolyn Sebron (“If you are doing a stereotype or a caricature of a people, whether it’s Africans, African Americans, or Asians for example, then there’s a problem because it’s offensive from the very beginning. But it’s something different when you’re trying to re-create a particular vision of history”).

              They all seemed to hold the position that there was a distinction of intent to be made between, for example, Jon Vickers as Otello and the performers of minstrel shows. I appreciated their comments and believe those comments were sincere.

              I will defend the use of makeup in the operas in question, both in the past and in productions as we move forward. That said, I don’t require it, and I don’t think the so-so Sher production at the Met would have been any better with it.

              The most important thing to me is that the operas continue to be performed regularly and that the roles at issue be available to anyone who can do justice to them, as music and as drama.

            • You know, this whole idea that people of color (among many others) might take offense at the sight of a white actor blacking-up is not just something made up by white liberals to assuage white guilt.

              Opera’s blackface tradition spans two centuries, linking it with Bobby Deen, Al Jolson, minstrelsy — and the KKK, who, in their Reconstruction-era, pre-hood days, used to “black up” with burnt cork, then accuse Black people of having committed their own crimes. Incidentally, André also watched the Met’s 2012 Otello, via live cinema broadcast, alongside a scholar of South African opera, Dr. Brenda Mhlambi. “We’re watching Johan Botha as Otello: a white Afrikaner, blacked up, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ Brenda’s a Zulu woman who grew up in the townships during apartheid, and her main question is, ‘How old he is? I bet he was in the Afrikaner military!’ I’m trying to show her that Otello is Verdi’s masterpiece, one of the best operas ever, but there was no way she could pay attention, seeing an Afrikaner blacken up.”

              Source, which also notes that the Met received thousands of hostile e-mails after the promotional photograph of the blacked-up Antonenko was published.

              So far as I know, opera is the only cultural form in the U.S. where blacking-up causes only muted outrage. I know opera fans (and, naturally, opera performers) consider the form to be special -- but at some point, even the most devout traditionalists have to acknowledge that issues like blackface sit crossways to some pretty powerful cultural norms, and not (pace Philip Kennicott) in the service of some greater, noble ideology.

            • Porgy Amor

              Well, if we take Sher at his word, he didn’t make the decision he made in response to angry e-mails the Met received over a brochure photo. Many things the Met has decided to do over the years have made a portion of the audience angry, everything from staging The Death of Klinghoffer to replacing The Beautiful Old Production of whatever.

            • I’m no expert on Sher or his oeuvre, but I assume that with his background in non-opera theater, he was already pretty aware of the cultural issues involved with Xface, for some values of X.

              Was sort of gobsmacked by the rest of the response, so will just step away for a while.

        • Absent a guarantee of anonymity, I would not presume to guess what a young opera singer of color felt free to say or not say in a very public forum read by potential employers and audience members.

          Absent the guarantee of anonymity, I can easily imagine that some singers would decline to participate. Perhaps Midgette herself could clarify whether the panel was in some sense self-selected.

          Nor, it should be noted, do the singers themselves appear to be completely comfortable with the idea that blackface is “just makeup”. Contradictions peep through. If I read them correctly, Soloman Howard does not want to see a white person made up in blackface to play MLK in Glass’ “Appomattox”, Deborah Nansteel doesn’t want to see a white person in blackface playing the role of the Runaway Slave in “Cold Mountain”, Russell Thomas didn’t want Hans-Peter Koenig blacked-up in Don Carlo.

          Turning to the substance of their opening remarks: Alyson Cambridge wants to make sure she can sing “Madama Butterfly”, and all of the panel fears being typecast in certain roles. Rightly, everybody expects that they should be able to sing any role. But none, I think, would want to be white-faced to take a role in, say, Cenerentola. Yet in certain instances, blackface is given a pass.

          I don’t blame them in the least -- they are being put on the spot, they operate professionally at a structural disadvantage, they work in a world where the rules aren’t equal for everybody. But that’s also why I wouldn’t take any isolated quotation from an excerpt of a lengthy roundtable at face value.

          • armerjacquino

            the idea that blackface is “just makeup”

            To be clear: blackface isn’t in any way ‘just makeup’. It has a whole very difficult tradition behind it. But, because of the way privilege works, when people say that there’s something dreadful and censorious and anti-artistic and whatever nonsense about blackface being taken off the table, it’s worth mentioning that what they are complaining about is some makeup not being put on. Welcome to real life, kids: sometimes there are paradoxes.

            • To be clear, I agree that “just makeup” is not an argument, but merely hand-waving away the issues. Always a good habit to be wary around the word “just”.

          • melisma catatonia

            I recall suggesting to Jessye Norman that she perform Britten’s Gloriana, because I thought it would be ideal for her voice. She replied that assuming the role of Queen Elizabeth I might be somewhat “provocative.” I still think it’s a pity she didn’t sing it. Would it be less provocative today?

            • armerjacquino

              Verrett had already played Elizabeth by then, surely, in MARIA STUARDA?

            • melisma catatonia

              To armerjacquino:
              I wish I had thought of Verrett’s Elisabetta when I spoke to Madame Norman!
              Now it occurs to me, I may have misunderstood Her comments all these years--
              Perhaps she found the idea of singing Britten provocative, and it had nothing to do with race-blind casting at all. I may have been projecting my own (non-white) racial issues.

          • classicalbeat

            m. croche, I chose the panel. I focused on singers in the DC area, hoping we could physically be in a room together for the conversation and there would be tie-ins to upcoming DC events (like “Appomattox”). But I got involved in a Twitter debate on the topic into which Russell Thomas and one other singer got pulled, so it was only natural for me to ask them to take part as well. The other singer respectfully declined -- he was the only other person I approached.

            • Hi there, C.B.: Thanks for the clarification. (I found that Twitter debate -- yikes!) Keep up the good fight.

              P.S. Could you have a word with PK?

      • Lankin

        “Because a round table with Anne Midgette in the Washington Post, for the consumption of the predominantly-white patrons and administrators of opera, is the very epitome of a Safe Space where opera singers of colors can talk Real Talk.” This was what I was thinking.

  • jackoh

    It seems to me that the best approach for the (opera) art form is to let directors tell the stories in any form that they find to be relevant. And to let the audiences react to those told stories in any way that they feel about them. If a given director wants to use blackface, or even minstrelcy, let them. I will react according to my personal assessment of whether that makes the story resonate with me. But this notion of applying some form of political correctness as a layer of censorship over the art is, in my opinion, obscene. The real danger in this notion of observing “political correctness” (that is, not exhibiting or publicly evidencing anything that would give offense to anyone or any group) is that those who harbor dangerous opposition to those groups are sheltered and can hide under the overlay of “political correctness.” If someone has an existential problem with any particular group in society, blacks, gays, muslims, opera lovers, I would prefer that they could feel free to express their opinions so that I could identify them and know exactly who my enemies are. And as to the notion that operas (or other art forms) that were created centuries ago do not incorporate the social norms or sensitivites of today’s societies, of course they don’t. But that very fact is what gives exhibitors or directors today their challenge, and their potential of triumph. The stories are universal, in terms of humans on the globe and in terms of the march of time, and a well imagined and crafted production can make that evident.

    • armerjacquino

      If you find the decision not to use blackface in ONE production of ONE opera ‘obscene’ I think you need to rethink your definition of obscenity.

      I agree that art is universal and that it’s troublesome to layer the mores of one age over a work written in another. I just fail to see how Verdi’s masterpiece is harmed, or compromised, or insulted, by a director deciding that a white person slapping on the Leichner has unwelcome cultural overtones.

      • jackoh

        “If you find the decision not to use blackface in ONE production of ONE opera ‘obscene’ I think you need to rethink your definition of obscenity.”

        I would appreciate you pointing out where I have said that.

        • armerjacquino

          Given that the whole thread is about an article based on Sher’s decision not to use blackface in OTELLO, your sentence ‘this notion of applying some form of political correctness as a layer of censorship over the art is, in my opinion, obscene’ is either referring to the production in question or is so hypothetical as to be meaningless. Which is it?

          • jackoh

            I would hope that it is a statement that could be applied to any given production or, indeed, to any form of art. Censorship, in any form, I find to be “obscene.” And that, to me, is not “hypothetical.”

            • armerjacquino

              Why is deciding not to make a singer put on makeup ‘censorship’?

  • armerjacquino

    You know what? I need to step away from this thread, or any thread where the idea of saying ‘Hey, let’s not have white people blacking up!’ is in any way controversial.

  • phoenix

    Who really cares about what ‘Sher’ says? Are there any ‘Sher’ fans or worshippers on this site besides La Cieca (sic)…

  • On “This Week in White Fragility”, Pulitzer-prize-winning critic Philip Kennicott explains why making sure that Monostatos is black-black-blackity-black will cause us to be kinder to animals.

  • jackoh

    I would think that a singer (or actor) could be made to do anything that the director wanted him or her to do in the service of the production. To require that the director make one sort of decision or another in order to make the production acceptable I find to be problematic.

    • jackoh

      Sorry for the placement. This is in reply to AJ above.

      • Fluffy-net

        What I find has gotten lost here is the viewpoint of a group of black opera singers who no not object to Otello-in-blackface.

        This tells me something. This opinion matters more to me than that of a white liberal who lives in a white neighborhood who only encounters a person-of-color when s/he opens the door for the maid.

        In America we often do not condemn the reality of discrimination, but rather the appearance of discrimination.

        • armerjacquino

          This opinion matters more to me than that of a white liberal who lives in a white neighborhood who only encounters a person-of-color when s/he opens the door for the maid.

          How about the opinions of both white people and people of colour, who don’t happen to be opera singers? Because I’m sure you weren’t offering a strawman argument.

          • Fluffy-net

            Maybe I should just have said that what these kids said matters to me. That I created an example of another hypothetical person whose opinion matters less [to me] does not imply that the world is divided into two camps or that there aren’t other opinions too.

            And you can do whatever you want with your straw men.

            • armerjacquino

              I’m glad to hear it. Yes, their opinion matters. But I’m wary of the idea that it should be given much more weight than the arguments made by anyone else with a massive vested interest.

              I’m sure you can see why I thought you were using strawman arguments: I don’t know anyone who lives in a ‘white neighbourhood’ or has a maid: like most city dwellers these days I have grown up and continue to live in diverse communities.

            • steveac10

              This whole exchange raises the conflicted feelings I have on these issues. On the one hand we have to be sensitive to peoples who have been marginalized over the centuries. Issues of race, the history racial relations, along with cultural stereotypes and their appropriation are huge topics these days. When a masterpiece cannot be performed as written for fear it might offend someone- at what point have we reached the illogical extreme?

              If a work of art offends some because of attitudes it portrays that were accepted at the time of creation, is it no longer viable for performance even if a masterpiece? Who cannot be offended? What crosses the lines? Who decides what is offensive and which offense trumps another? Does a work like the Mikado offend the people portrayed, or people who think the people portrayed are offended by it and fight on their behalf (even if in that case they are to ill informed to realize that the Mikado really has very little to do with Japanese stereotypes)?

              I saw a video on Hulu today that challenges today’s so called social justice warriors to think about their positions in just those terms. It will likely offend some, but makes some pertinent points (if not in context of opera. It made me both profoundly uncomfortable and profoundly amused.

            • antikitschychick

              steveac10 asks: “If a work of art offends some because of attitudes it portrays that were accepted at the time of creation, is it no longer viable for performance even if a masterpiece? Who cannot be offended? What crosses the lines? Who decides what is offensive and which offense trumps another?

              Thank you SO MUCH for posing these questions as this is precisely where (I think) this sort of discussion involving a work of performance art like Otello, which is very rooted in a certain historical and cultural context usually told to us through a white male narrative, should begin. To only question the end-product or manifestation of the work of art but not the work itself in many ways facilitates the “white fragility” driven discourse that is highly problematic and largely useless as m.croche so eloquently puts it. To be sure I love opera and I greatly enjoy watching and listening to Verdi’s Otello, but at the same time I don’t think it’s right to deny or ignore that some of the de facto racism and its remnants, which manifest in the form of cultural appropriation and lack of diversity within the performing arts as others have pointed out, can be traced to the work itself and it just bothers me that questions like this which really get to the heart of the issue are often sidestepped in favor of presumptuous and scripted, p.c. rhetoric because of the untouchable status of works like Verdi’s Otello.

              I don’t presume to have the answer to those questions steveac10 poses but I am happy that he had the b*alls to pose them. Just sayin.

    • armerjacquino

      The director wasn’t ‘required’ to make a decision. He made a decision of his own free will. Is that still ‘problematic’? And you’ve yet to explain how the absence of some makeup is ‘censorship’.

      • jackoh

        Sher made his decision, and I applaud that. (I actually expressed my opinion on this precise matter in an earlier thread.) What I object to is the notion that he should have made one decision or another based on how it would play politically

        • armerjacquino

          It looks as if you’re arguing against any room for politics in art. Are you saying artists should never make political decisions? Surely you can’t be. Art and politics have gone hand in hand for as long as both have existed. And I’m still waiting to hear where ‘censorship’ comes into the Met’s OTELLO.

          • jackoh

            The very fact of the existence of any work of art or, indeed, any utterance is, by its very nature, political. Language is, at its base, an expression of the political. One of the first stories in Genesis is that god gave to man the ability to assign names to the elements of creation. And that is taken to be a crucial gift to man because of the power over creation that is given on the transference. As any political operative can tell you, the power to define whoever you are engaged with by assigning a name or label to them is to be able to exercise power over them. The words of a libretto, of a play, of a novel, of an essay are always political in nature, in that they try to assign a definition or interpretation to whatever person or topic that they are dealing with. I simply want the words that are expressed to be heard, whatever they are and in whatever form they can be delivered, no matter what the consequences.

            • armerjacquino

              jackoh, I think we’re passionately agreeing! There’s nothing I disagree with in that post. I just don’t understand how it applies to the matter in hand: just as I don’t see why Sher saying ‘blackface is problematic so I won’t use it in my production’ is censorship, I equally don’t see how it’s in any way stopping ‘the words that are expressed to be heard’.

            • jackoh

              “just as I don’t see why Sher saying ‘blackface is problematic so I won’t use it in my production’ is censorship”

              I don’t consider it to be censorship. He can make his directorial decisions an any basis that he wants. If his decision is made primarily in the face of “political correctness” however, I might be inclined to say that he lacks….balls.

            • armerjacquino

              Who’s saying his decision has been made ‘primarily in the face of ‘political correctness’?’ Maybe he finds blackface weird and horrible. I know I do, and I have balls for DAYS.

  • Fluffy-net

    Lot’s of Americans live in all-white communities and have maids-of-color. Some of these white Americans are very P.C.: they don’t discriminate, but none of Them [people-of-color]are their friends.

    That’s why I travel a lot.

    • armerjacquino

      Had any of those people expressed an opinion in this thread on this subject? If not, I wonder why you said you discounted their opinions.

      • Fluffy-net

        I surrender.

        • armerjacquino

          Jade’s trick.

  • phoenix

    My mother had a Mexican maid -- but she was a friend of the family. Really, I wonder if she would like to comment on parterre or not --

  • RudigerVT

    You can be warm and friendly toward employees. But they aren’t your friends. Friends don’t pay to spend time with their, uhh, friends.

    None of my best friends get paid so we can hang out.

    LPR

    • phoenix

      You can before … and afterward -- as long the you owe me / I owe you shit stops. I saw many, many sincere friendships between individual employers & former employees over the years -- with no race, nationality, religion, sexual ID, or other cards played in the game.

  • Does a work like the Mikado offend the people portrayed, or people who think the people portrayed are offended by it and fight on their behalf (even if in that case they are to ill informed to realize that the Mikado really has very little to do with Japanese stereotypes)?

    This is a gimmee. You will find plenty of evidence online for Asian-Americans who have found the Mikado (or specific productions of The Mikado) distasteful. I’ll leave proof of this assertion as an exercise for the interested reader.

    Now is this the point where you tell the Asian-American who considers “Yum-Yum” an offensive name for a young Japanese woman that they are ignorant?

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    Oh yeah. It totes makes sense to ask black men, still least likely to get hired and first to get fired, their public opinion on the racial politics of stage directors.

  • Porgy Amor

    Here is the longer of the two versions of the much-discussed (but hitherto not linked) Washington Post article.

    http://tiny.cc/2jx08x

    • mrsjohnclaggart

      Thank you, PorgyAmor.

  • Operatic Othello without the blackface.

    Video interview here

  • Lankin

    Hm, hm, … I think that Otello might not be a good example. Or it might be a perfect one. I’m not sure. Let me explain …

    White people (in the US and elsewhere) used blackface to be the scary black man, to create a caricature (like Monostatos in Die Zauberflöte). Black people were covered under light makeup to ennoble them somehow. Black is bad, fair-skinned is good. So if we’re talking about Jessye Norman as Brünnhilde vs. Del Monaco as Otello, we’re not comparing equal things.

    Moreover, the comparison isn’t quite spot-on because in the Ring, Brünnhilde’s being fair-skinned is not plot relevant to the same extent. Oh yeah, yeah, nordic God’s offspring, … Who knows what colour of skin Erda has and – no one really cares.

    In Otello, Jago specifically uses the fact that Otello is black to prod him along a path where in the end, he fulfills every cliche of the violent, animalistic black man. That’s the point of the story. It’s not about “black men are evil” but about how society creates self-fulfilling prophecies. The colour of skin is plot relevant.

    I also think that the issue and permanent discussion of blackface might even deflect from the real problem. Even if it’s the authentic opinion of POC singers when they say they don’t mind blackface for Otello, it’s not the same as if they were saying privilege and real discrimination don’t exist, but the first statement might be taken as sort of an absolution and will be eagerly quoted to go on pretending that all is well.