Can the role of Otello be sung by a singer who is not black? Can Wagner still be visited? Shall we eradicate the misogyny of Mozart’s operas?
Posted at 8:15am
Like other artistic disciplines, opera has been strongly affected by the wave of revisionism, which tends to eliminate or correct values and realities that are difficult to reconcile with our century. This art, deeply rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries, offers the guardians of political correctness a thousand and one reasons to intervene.
Get ready, the phenomenon of “offensive operas” is just beginning. He conquered the biggest opera houses. One can imagine that works will be heard and seen in the original less and less often. Worse, some risk being blacklisted altogether.
The latest glaring example of this broad movement is England’s renowned Glyndebourne Festival, which announced just ahead of the bank holiday that it would be “rethinking the way objectionable operas are presented to audiences”. The company acknowledges that some works contain “historical and social” viewpoints that might shock audiences today.
“Where once the exoticism and orientalism of depicting non-European cultures was acceptable, through our lens we recognize that what was wrong then is wrong today,” reads a press release.
Elimination of blackface in Aida
This festival joins the Teatro Real in Madrid, which announced last fall that it would eliminate all blackfaces from its Aida production. Previously, in 2022, the Arena Di Verona had the misfortune of resorting to this ancient practice (in the same opera), drawing the ire of certain spectators and performers (the American soprano Angel Blue was withdrawn from the production).
I must say that I fully agree with this vision. It is even frightening to see that this has not yet been settled. Opera lovers have always accepted a 17-year-old character being sung by a 43-year-old performer. Can they be imaginative for the rest?
On the one hand we fight against transformations, on the other hand we are looking for authenticity. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann tasted the effect of this mix of demands. While in November 2021 at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples in the title role of Otello by Verdi, he was treated to some boos. The public didn’t accept Kaufman, who is white, playing this character, who is black.
Which brings us back to the topic of inclusion in opera. Great progress has been made in recent years, but much remains to be done. If there were enough black singers to perform Otello, the problem would not arise.
Speaking of Otello, renowned choreographer John Neumeir had the surprise of his life when he learned that the work he had been doing around this ballet had been canceled by the director of the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen because of “racist stereotypes” he was conveying would.
The performance of an African dance was the trigger for this controversy sparked by the dancers. The scene, which lasted only two minutes, showed a white dancer painted blue performing an African dance. The 83-year-old choreographer defended himself by saying that this dance was “codified and documented”. That could not convince the management, which shelved this ballet last November.
Some opera houses today require more careful preparation before presenting an opera. Such was the case with the production of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in London last summer. Specialists accompanied the director for a year to ensure that Japanese culture was respected in his performance (set design, costumes, make-up, etc.).
These are things that are easier to rethink. But opera is an archi-complex world that offers directors all sorts of pitfalls and challenges.
What do we do with certain “uncomfortable” elements that form the core of the stories that the librettists have come up with? Should we suppress the misogyny in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte or the instances of incest in Wagner’s Ring?
How do you deal with the fate reserved for certain female characters like Tosca, Carmen, Desdemona or Pamina? Assaulted, kidnapped or seized, women don’t always have the best roles in opera.
And then there is Wagner’s anti-Semitism or Verdi’s racism.
How many pebbles in the shoes of those building the programming! A few years ago they were predominantly male and white, but today they meet women and members of minorities who are concerned not to offend the public.
The climate is currently cold. Opera house managers look at what others are doing. We constantly live with the fear that a controversy will break out. We protect ourselves as best we can. The Metropolitan Opera of New York has even issued a warning on its website to those who wish to view a work through its online service.
It states: “Certain performances available in the Met Opera on Demand catalog contain objectionable racial and cultural depictions and stereotypes. Topics range from objectionable production practices of the past, such as blackface, brownface, and yellowface makeup, to racist cultural depictions in the lyrics of the operas themselves. »
A revolution in staging
Where will all this lead us? A revolution in staging, I think. Imaginative and daring directors still have many years ahead of them. Opera directors will increasingly turn to them for ‘solutions’.
But predictably, this wave creates another problem: opponents of progressivism in opera. More and more artists are complaining about the distortion of classical works. In May 2022, tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak withdrew from the production of Tosca currently offered at the Liceu in Barcelona.
To highlight the Church as a tool of political oppression and moral domination, director Rafael R. Villalobos incorporated elements from Pasolini’s film Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, which depicts the last days of the fascist regime in humiliation and sadism.
After viewing video images, the two interpreters were shocked to discover a universe where sadomasochism, nudity and pedophilia were intertwined. When Aleksandra Kurzak saw Scarpia’s character wearing a sadomasochistic necklace, it was too much. The two singers have left the ship.
The world of opera has great challenges ahead. And certainly many controversies, crises and hard debates. The war between purists and progressives will no doubt be epic and entertaining.
But since this art form is capable of anything, including having a character sing a six-minute aria with a knife in his stomach, I’m sure it’s capable of entering the 21st century, too. .