Farewell To Blackfaced Otellos At The Met

Sep 21, 2015
Originally published on September 21, 2015 9:39 pm

When the curtain rises on the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's Otello tonight, opera fans will quickly notice what's not there. For the first time since the opera was first staged at the Met in 1891, a white singer performing the title role will not be wearing makeup to darken his complexion to play the Moor at the center of the tragedy.

When Otello premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1887, the great Italian tenor Francesco Tamagno sang the role in blackface. Ever since the debut, great tenors have been darkening their skin to play the part.

"I do not know of a black singer singing Verdi's Otello in a major opera house ever," Naomi André says. She's a University of Michigan professor and co-editor of the book Blackness in Opera. The wickedly difficult music makes the role tough to fill.

"There are not many Verdian Otellos ever in a generation," André says. "It's one of those very rare roles. I really believe we should have that opera performed and, hence, we're going to need to make a decision about how do we handle the Moor — the black element of that role."

Verdi's opera is based on Shakespeare's play about a North African general who becomes a war hero and tries to fit into Venetian high society. Bartlett Sher directs the current Met production, which features Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role. Sher says he never even considered using blackface.

"Our cultural history in America is profoundly marked by our struggles with race and the questions of race," Sher says. "And it seems to me, as an artist growing up in America, that there'd be no way on Earth I could possibly figure out how to do it with that kind of makeup and that it just seemed like an obvious choice."

Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb says he was relieved when Sher told him there would be no darkening makeup in Otello. The Met did, however, darken Antonenko's skin for the photograph on the cover of this season's brochure. Nevertheless, Gelb points out that the Met — like many opera companies — has had a colorblind casting policy for more than half a century.

"The Met has historically featured some of the greatest black artists of all time here, from Marian Anderson to Leontyne Price to Jessye Norman to Kathleen Battle," Gelb says.

Black women have had an easier time landing top opera roles than have black men, and there's a reason, André says: "Seeing a black male singer onstage with a white female heroine — there would be anxiety a lot of people could feel in the days of segregation, even in post-segregation times but where racial tensions are still very much around."

Much of the drama in Shakespeare's Othello is precipitated by a black man marrying a white woman. And while the libretto of Verdi's opera downplays the racial element, it's still in there.

African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who's performed with just about every major opera company in the world, says times have changed and more roles traditionally played by white men have gone to black singers. Still, when asked what he thinks about the tradition of Otello being performed in blackface, Brownlee says he understands the dramatic concerns and the history.

"Well, to be quite honest, I actually don't have a problem with it," Brownlee says. "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."

For her part, André says she doesn't have a problem with it either, as long as it's contextualized in program notes. But she applauds the Met for making the decision to not to use blackface in 2015.

"The Metropolitan Opera is in a position to set precedents," she says. "I mean, we'll see what happens, but this is a really exciting moment."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now the evolving look of Verdi's opera "Otello." Since 1891, every time the Metropolitan Opera in New York has staged it, the white singer in the title role has worn makeup to darken his complexion. Tonight, the audience at the met is seeing something different. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When "Otello" premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1887, the great Italian tenor Francesco Tamagno sang the role in blackface. He went on to record some of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "OTELLO")

FRANCESCO TAMAGNO: (Singing in Italian).

LUNDEN: And ever since the debut, great tenors have been darkening their skin to play the part.

NAOMI ANDRE: I do not know of a black singer singing Verdi's "Otello" in a major opera house ever.

LUNDEN: University of Michigan professor Naomi Andre is co-editor of the book "Blackness In Opera." She says the wickedly difficult music makes the roll tough to fill.

ANDRE: There are not many Verdian Otellos ever in a generation. It's one of those very rare roles. And so I really believe we should have the opera performed, and hence, we're going to need to make a decision about, how do we handle the more - the black element of that role?

LUNDEN: Verdi's opera is based on Shakespeare's play about a North-African general who becomes a war hero and tries to fit into Venetian high society. Bartlett Sher directs the current Metropolitan Opera production. He says he never even considered using blackface.

BARTLETT SHER: Our cultural history in America is profoundly marked by our struggles with race and the questions of race. And it seems to me, as an artist growing up in America, that there'd be no way on Earth I could possibly figure out how to do it with that kind of makeup. And it just seemed like an obvious choice.

LUNDEN: Sher's production stars Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "OTELLO")

ALEKSANDRS ANTONENKO: (Singing in Italian).

PETER GELB: The role of Otello is one of the toughest tenor roles in the world, and there only are one or two singers in the world today who can even sing it on the large stage of the Met successfully. And we cast the best one available.

LUNDEN: Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb says he was relieved when Sher told him there would be no darkening makeup in "Otello." The Met did, however, darken Antonenko's skin for the photograph on the cover of this season's brochure. Nevertheless, Gelb points out that the Met, like many opera companies, has had a colorblind casting policy for over half a century.

GELB: The Met has, historically, featured some of the greatest black artists of all time here, from Marian Anderson to Leontyne Price to Jessye Norman to Kathleen Battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO")

KATHLEEN BATTLE: (Singing in Italian).

LUNDEN: Black women have had an easier time landing top opera roles than have black men, and there's a reason, says professor Naomi Andre.

ANDRE: Seeing a black male singer on stage with a white female heroine - there would be anxiety in days of segregation, even in post-segregation times but where racial tensions are still very much around. So I think that was an additional barrier that black men faced getting on the opera stage.

LUNDEN: Much of the drama in Shakespeare's "Othello" is precipitated by a black man marrying a white woman. And while the libretto of Verdi's opera downplays the racial element, it's still in there. African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who's performed with just about every major opera company in the world, says times have changed and more roles traditionally played by white men have gone to black singers. So why wasn't he chosen to play Otello?

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: I'm in a very rarefied genre of classical music. I sing bel canto, which is high, florid music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA DONNA DEL LAGO")

BROWNLEE: (Singing in Italian).

LUNDEN: That's not the stuff of Verdi's "Otello."

BROWNLEE: Which calls for a heroic voice. I don't have that type of voice. Would it be a cool thing if I did have the voice and the ability to sing it and the actual color? I think it probably could make it more realistic.

LUNDEN: Still, when asked what he thinks about the tradition of "Otello" being performed in blackface, Brownlee says...

BROWNLEE: Well, to be quite honest, I actually don't have a problem with it. I think you have to look at all of the things that we're doing in this art form in the context of time in which it was written.

LUNDEN: For her part, Naomi Andre says she doesn't have a problem with it either as long as it's contextualized in program notes. Still, she says she applauds the Met for making the decision to not use blackface in 2015.

ANDRE: The Metropolitan Opera is in a position to set precedents. I mean, we'll see what happens, but this is a really exciting moment.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "OTELLO")

ANTONENKO: (Singing in Italian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.