By Barb Van Atta
For centuries, theater companies have used ethnic makeup to alter the race of Caucasian performers. This tradition, however, does not align with the racial and cultural sensitivities of the 21st century. Thus, in recent weeks, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players canceled a staging of The Mikado after facing stinging online criticism for the use of “yellowface” in promotional material for a production featuring primarily non-Asian performers (for New York Times coverage, visit http://tinyurl.com/ngaj4ej).
Similarly, complaints arose when Metropolitan Opera promotional material for a new production of Verdi’s Otello showed the title character in the traditional dark makeup (sometimes referred to as “blackface”). It then was announced that the makeup would not be used, prompting print and online discussion by many media outfits, including The New York Times (http://tinyurl.com/pq85shs and http://tinyurl.com/pzvz97l) and The Guardian (http://tinyurl.com/o568tu3).
In its coverage of the Met decision, NPR asked internationally famous African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee about the traditional of Otello being sung in blackface. Brownlee, who vocally is not an Otello, said, “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.”
But Francesca Zambello, the general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, told the Times that, if she could not cast a black tenor as Otello, “I certainly would not present another singer ‘blacked up.’ The great stories and characters fascinate us because we recognize something of ourselves — for better or for worse — in them, and not because of the color of their skin.”
Obviously, the ideal casting for Otello would be a black tenor, but the role is one of the most difficult in the operatic canon, and, at any point of time, there is only a handful of dramatic tenors – of any race or ethnicity — capable of singing Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Moor of Venice.” So, should the fact that the character is black be ignored, or rewritten when race is crucial to a plot teeming with professional and personal jealousy?
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