So You Want to Do Otello

The new Met Opera brochure for the 2015–16 season is here! It came on Tuesday, and even tho I don't live in NYC right now, I was still excited about it, because a) simulcasts are a thing and b) the Met is an institution of national significance in the music world I move in, and I like feeling hip to what's going on. Usually I have some gripes with their repertoire selection (predictably, all the operas they're doing were written by men, and the most recent is Alban Berg's Lulu from 1935), and while I have many thoughts about those things, there is a more pressing issue that needs to be addressed:

They're doing Otello in blackface. Again.

Starting on the first night of the season and continuing almost to the very end, the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko will be singing the title role. I am sure that Mr Antonenko is a fine singer, and I have no doubt that he is fully capable of tackling the technical demands of the role, but he is also white. And as such, it is unacceptable to cast him in the role of Otello, and the people responsible for doing so should be deeply ashamed.

Does this seem like harsh language? It is. It is also warranted. There is a long and despicable history [The Grio] of white people using blackface to imitate, mock, and dehumanize black people, to justify slavery and the terrorist campaigns of the Ku Klux Klan, to shore up white supremacy in all its ugliness and brutality. There is no getting away from this. Even if the script of Otello were a shining beacon of racial sensitivity (and let's be real, it's not), daubing bronzer on the skin of a white tenor to fill the title role still sends the message that black people are superfluous and unnecessary, that there's no conceivable harm in entrusting black stories to the hands of people who have historically oppressed, enslaved, and killed them.

Oh, but doesn't the Met use colorblind casting*? Isn't it good that South Korean soprano Hong Hei-Kyung can play Mimì in La Bohème instead of being confined to roles specifically written to be South Korean? Well yes. But there's an important distinction to be made.

Most operatic characters don't have a race specified. Oh, certainly we may make assumptions about what race they are given the setting, and the equation of "no race specified" with whiteness is an aspect of white privilege*, but most operas do not center on issues of race, and it is thus entirely appropriate to throw many roles open to anyone who can sing them. (Historical accuracy is a flimsy shield to hide behind to resist this. Not only has Europe — the setting for the vast bulk of operas — been considerably more ethnically diverse for centuries than many people realize (erasure of people of color being another tool in the arsenal of racist power structures), opera as a genre is . . . not exactly known for its historical fidelity. We may not have any examples as iconically absurd as Shakespeare's "seacoast of Bohemia", but the idea that a difference of demographic breakdown would be opera's gravest sin against historical veracity is simply farcical.)

The thing is, in these cases, they're changing the race of the character, not just the actor playing the character. There are still important things to discuss with this: Some changes may be more compelling than others by adding interesting wrinkles to thematic interpretations, or foregrounding elements that aren't as salient in other productions, and (insofar as there are roles that have traditionally been played by people of color without that being a requirement in the text/plot) racebending away from whiteness is always more desirable than going in the other direction**, but taking "no race specified" to genuinely mean the role is open to a singer of any race is generally something I welcome.

Otello isn't like this. Otello, the character, is black. Otello has always been black. Otello's blackness is a critical thematic thread running thru the work, and there's really no way of working around it. You can't treat Otello like a character whose race isn't specified, because Otello's race very much is specified, and it's specified as black to boot. (See the raisin analogy in the above footnote for why I'm much less fussed about changing white characters to non-white ones. The systemic power imbalance of racism means that situations are not necessarily analogous when "white" and "non-white" are interchanged.) The production staff for the opera know this, or they wouldn't be darkening Antonenko's skin; they're not putting up a version of Otello where the title character is white, they're using a white actor to play a black character. That is blackface.

But what of vocal quality? What if there just aren't any black tenors capable of tackling the role of Otello on the operatic stage? There very well might not be. The head of casting for the English National Opera claims there aren't, and I trust his evaluation. What, then, is an opera company to do?

Not Otello. Seriously. I don't understand why this is so difficult to understand. If you can't cast an opera, you shouldn't perform it, and if you don't have a black tenor who can sing the title role, you can't cast Otello. No one is making the Met do this show. There is no Supreme Dictator threatening to "disappear" their entire artistic staff if they don't put on this opera. Their hands are not being forced in this; they chose to put on this opera, and they bear responsibility for that choice.

For some, this may seem a bitter pill to swallow. I confess to being not particularly fond of Verdi, but I know there are many who consider this work one of the peaks of musical achievement, a gem in the operatic crown. Does this masterpiece really need to vanish from our stages until such time as we can find a black tenor for the title role?

Yes. Consider it the price — less than a pittance, an embarrassingly small nothing — of white supremacy. We destroyed nations. We stole people from their homes, broke apart their families, treated human beings like objects, like property. We built an industrial empire on the back of slave labor, and have not paid a penny in reparations in return. We banned black people from our towns after sunset and organized campaigns of terror and murder to keep them from exercising the most basic civil rights. We arm our police forces with military weaponry and train them on black communities, ruining lives on the mere suspicion of paltry offense, then turn around and blame these communities for the very dysfunction we have created. White people have done and continue to do all these things. Look honestly at the centuries of antiblack depravity and then try to argue seriously that consigning Otello to a temporary silence is the greater hardship.

If you want to do Otello, you have to address the pipeline problem. You have to figure out why such a small part of the population is interested in this musical tradition (hint: the blackface probably isn't helping). You have to address structural issues of economic privilege and class — even rudimentary voice lessons take time and money, and those demands only balloon when you start looking at top-notch conservatory programs. You have to tackle the culture of white supremacy that makes musicians of color feel unwelcome in our world — it is a travesty that the Classical Microaggressions blog should be able to exist. You have to figure out why so few black people go into opera, and why so many of those that do wind up getting out.

These things aren't easy, they aren't trivial. They involve hard conversations and radical change. Some of them involve the abolition of white supremacy altogether. But they are necessary. Deeply, desperately necessary. The status quo is unacceptable, and it's not going to change by itself.

If you want to do Otello, either find a black tenor, or find another opera.

*Colorblind casting is not necessarily identical to the colorblind racism of "I don't see race!". For information on why the latter is not actually a productive stance to take with regards to dismantling white supremacy, these tumblr posts are a good place to start.

**For more on issues related to this, see "All Politics is Identity Politics" over at Vox.

***There is an excellent analogy involving chocolate-covered raisins in this tumblr post that drives the point home brilliantly.