© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Classical 101

The Met's Dark History: A Critical Look at Racism and Politics in Opera

The Metropolitan Opera
One of the images of singer, Aleksandrs Antonenko looking particularly "dark."

This season, the Metropolitan Opera will produce Rossini’s Otello without blackface—the use of dark makeup for a white actor, commonly known as a low point in theatre history—for the first time since 1891.

Okay. Let me repeat that: the Metropolitan Opera has been using blackface until now, and the world is finally taking notice. It may be time to talk a little about race and politics in opera, folks.

By now, you might have read one of the many articles concerning the Met’s long history of casting white actors in roles that were either specified or interpreted as being for characters of another color or ethnicity. Many writers, singers and former Met stars have lent personal anecdotes and stories of what might be called, “just the way things are.” Here is another great article.

If you love opera and its history as much as I do, then the concept of, “just the way things are,” should be as repulsive as the act of discrimination itself. Opera is anything but placid; its history is one of hefty politics, revolutionary composers and purposeful change to the status quo.

Politics in Opera

Before the issues of typecasting, white-washing, blackface and discriminatory practices can be addressed, there is an elephant in the room that must be contemplated:

Can music be political? Moreover, is opera political and how does its social relevance change over time?

These questions are sometimes hushed or untouched in polite company, but behind the scenes, musicologists are busy publishing volumes in academic journals about the sexism and racism in music and drama by the droves. There’s a joke among us music nerds that only Jesus of Nazareth and Mozart are more studied than Wagner and his… issues.

The setting of music to literature and drama affords a particularly detailed look at a composer and her/his psyche as well as a gage for the time in which they lived. Art is both a vessel and a catalyst for politics and social commentary on the personal, communal and national levels.

So what? You’ve seen The Marriage of Figaro; you got the satire. What does that mean for politics today, and what do politics have to do with racism?

The word ‘politics’ can really be described as a sort of catchall for understanding elements of power; personal, relational, governmental, sexual—anything can be described by perceived power. That is paramount to the nature of drama and opera since power often drives conflict.

Think of the chorus; the entity of the chorus speaks as the authoritative voice of reason, public opinion, and consensus in opera. There could be no clearer vessel of a composer or librettist’s own political beliefs and social understanding than the chorus and the protagonist. Opera is inherently political.

Just ask Rossini, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, Benjamin Britten, Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Michael Tippitt, or even the notorious Richard Wagner. Aside from writing operas with all sorts of political and social commentary, many of these men had outspoken views on political topics and even a few revolutionary anthems and essays to their names. 

Opera, Music and Equality

“Who is the free man? He from whom neither birth not title, peasant smock or uniform, hides his brother man,” -from Beethoven’s setting of “Derfreie Mann”, lyrics by G. C. Pfeffel

The political and social implications of music were not lost on Ludwig van Beethoven. Obviously his Ninth Symphony and it’s, “brotherhood of Man,” speaks to the fondness Beethoven had for writers and philosophers like Schiller, but his opera Fidelio has some surprisingly strong views on true freedom as well.

The opera-- originally titled, Leonore: The Triumph of Married Love-- describes how the heroine Lenore, disguised as a prisoner named Fidelio, rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison.

Hello, gender equality and strong female characters!

In the end, having saved Florestan, Leonore also ends up freeing all of the prisoners. This was quite a heady topic when the opera debuted November 20, 1805 since Vienna was under French occupation and the majority of the audience was actually French military officers.

Fidelio was also renowned 20th Century conductor, Arturo Toscanini’s first complete opera to be broadcast by NBC radio in December 1944. This was a clear and purposeful political statement by Toscanini, who believed that Beethoven would have strongly opposed Hitler and Mussolini as he had Napoleon. Both composer and conductor made strong arguments with music for equality.

Rossini was also a revolutionary patriot for his homeland. In fact, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti were part of the Risorgimento movement which brought Nationalism from a severely repressed and restricted Italy—specifically the Bourbon kingdom of Naples, the Papal states and the Austrian provinces to Paris in what can only be described as an aestheto-social frenzy.

Rossini himself was actually under police surveillance at one point due to his “revolutionary tendencies,” in 1821 while he served as the court composer for the Bourbon King of Naples.

Verdi was even more outspoken. In fact, the popular people’s slogan of 1859—“Viva Verdi”—was actually an acronym for the incredibly subversive,”Viva Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia.” Check out University of Chicago Professor Phillip Gosset’s work on Verdian politics here for more on that topic.

But what about Wagner?

You cannot have virtue without vice; you cannot have true patriots without the force they oppose, and often times that force is made of people who are also talented and brilliant but unfortunately confused and hateful. Wagner was that sort of political being.

He was an outspoken man with a huge following of supporters including Adolf Hitler and the French theorist of “race” (…What we call ethnicity today, since there is one human race.), Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau.

Gobineau wrote the infamous, ‘Essai sur l’inegalite des races humaines,’ an essay that summated the Arian principles of inequality. He also attended, and enjoyed, the first full ‘Ring’ cycle in Beyreuth and was a friend of Wagner.

I won’t get into the meanings and distortions of Wagner’s work here. That is a topic that is interesting and equally devastating for someone who enjoys his music as much as I do. I will ask you to think of the sinking feeling that comes with reading about Wagner and Hitler-- that is part of how powerful opera is. The same joy of hearing that your favorite composer was a patriot is equaled in measure to the sadness of knowing that he could have just as easily been hateful and deeply bigoted.

These composers and their works were deeply political and important in their time.

The Issue of Blackface at The Met

Back to today. We still have to cope with the fact that the Metropolitan Opera has been, at the very least, unaware of its complacency to racial prejudice. The issue of blackface arose when the Met’s season overview came out in the mail and this image mortified and enraged many patrons:

Credit The Metropolitan Opera
Here is Aleksandrs Antonenko in full makeup and costume. The Metropolitan Opera has stated that he will appear without makeup onstage, but the online images remain like this one.

This is the same actor without makeup:

Credit The Metropolitan Opera
Here is Aleksandrs Antonenko without makeup for his headshot on the same page as the "darkened" photos.

I’m going to leave those two images for you to consider. I consider that to be, at the very least, unnecessary; the Met should hire black singers for roles they consider to be ethnically pertinent.

If they want a black character, they need to hire a black singer. Also, I think we should take a hard look at whether that role should be cast as black while the rest of the cast is white. Is it appropriate to make the angry, rageful, wild character black still? It’s 2015 and that in and of itself feels… outdated.

Beyond this role, beyond what the character of Otello signifies for prejudice, where can casting directors take the history of opera and continue its trajectory purposefully towards inclusivity?
I do not think that means color-blindness because I do not think that is possible yet in the United States. Rather, perhaps audiences need to demand new interpretations of old characters. 

When I spoke with Christopher Purdy about this subject, he said very clearly: “I think this whole blackface thing is a gimmick—he should be black—that’s what Shakespeare said he was.” He then listed a number of singers from past and present who could likely sing the role. Then he went on to say that not just Otello should be black, but that more roles should embrace actors of all ethnicities.

We need a black Romeo. We need a black Juliette. We need to see an Asian Pamina; a black Pamina; a Pacific Northwest Native American Sigfried; an Ethiopian Mimi. There needs to be an end to typecasting and selective roles. My friend Lena Haleem-- the daughter of two brilliant parents from India-- wants to be the first female Leporello. Sure, why not. That is the trajectory of truly groundbreaking opera. 

You want to make a strong, relevant commentary? Put on a production of Fidelio with a nonwhite cast in the United States where today about 60 percent of male inmates are African American even though they make up only roughly 12 percent of the general population. I have a feeling that opera would carry a little more emotional weight than even Porgy and Bess, right now.

There cannot be blackface or colorblind casting in our worlds of fantasy and drama when there are significant social issues that are very real today. There needs to be purposeful equality and more diversity to create a cultural norm where any singer can play any role - as long as their voice teacher says its okay, of course.