Thursday, 19 May 2011

Opera, Othello and the Practice of Blackface

This weekend the panda bear and I are invited to see the opera Othello. In my opinion, no matter which form the tale takes (opera, text, ballet or film) the themes of racism, manipulation and jealousy are consistent, making it a complex story. What makes it more complicated for me is that it is accepted practice, in opera, that the lead character of Othello is performed by a White man in blackface.

Why, might you ask? Well the character of Othello is a Moor, which many people interpret as a person who is Black or has dark skin. Secondly, there just aren't as many Black males in opera as there are White, coupling this fact with the vocal demands of the role, doesn't leave that many options. Now I am totally fine with a White Opera singer taking on the role of Othello, but the practice of 'blacking up' is just not acceptable to me and quite frankly unnecassary.

I simply don't understand why the beloved 'opera-powers-that be' believe they are justified in comitting racially offensive acts. From my limited exposure to opera, what I have learned is, regardless of music and 'plot', the production or translation of the music can and usually is whatever the director wants. They can take an opera which was originally written in the woods and move the whole damn show to a ship and explain their motivations/vision in the damn notes. A slim seductress can be sung by an large diva with a huge voice, a female role can be sung by a man, a creature can be sung by a human, etc. There are certain plot constraints that are ignored within this art form, which is generally accepted and what I actually appreciate about the whole opera genre. It's about the music and performance of the music, at least to me, this is what separates opera from a musical, in my mind. The visual really isn't the main draw.

In opera, to make life a bit easier and to have the audience follow along we add some visual stimulation just cause we want to engage all the senses. When I go (listen) to opera, alot of the time my eyes are closed or not even focused on the stage because to me, its about the the voice, the song of the character, but I could be doing it all wrong. meh. Now, why oh why, can't people just ignore that Othello is 'suppose' to be Black.

It appears as if the opera folk take bare liberties, taking advantage of their non mainstreamness, and do some pretty effed up stuff in the name of art. This also brings to mind the Madame Voigt dilemma and her getting sacked because she couldn't fit in 'the little black dress', which in real life (non opera land) firing a woman because she is fat is illegal AND unacceptable.
For some reason, opera is exempt, 'we can say and do whatever we want because not so may people are going to notice anyway' or perhaps because the majority of people that will notice are not directly impacted or arsed to speak up about fat rights or the inappropriateness of blackface.

Just in 2009 it was the first time a Black dude performed the lead role in England, or worse it was the first time a White man did not perform the role in blackface. That's properly effed.
I really understand that 'before', yes, there might not have been a Black qualified tenor to tackle this opera but I dont understand why, with opera and its flexibility, it had to resort to blackface. grrr.

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