Met will stop blacking up Otello

Peter Gelb has told the Hyperallergic website:

‘We recently came to the conclusion that it would make sense, that this production should not employ any makeup. I realize it’s a sensitive issue. We feel that it’s the appropriate direction for this production and we’re happy with that decision. Quite frankly, [director Bartlett Sher] and I have talked about this for some time, how [Otello] should look in this production, so it’s a decision that has evolved over time.’

met otello
2015 production photo of Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko

Gelb added: ‘The [poster] look that was achieved was mostly through shadowy lighting. It was meant to be very moody and atmospheric. It wasn’t meant to launch a controversy or represent the actual production.’

h/t: NPR

UPDATE: Chicago got there first, as usual:

John von Rhein’s Chicago Tribune review of Lyric’s Otello that opened our 2013/14 season with general director Anthony Freud:
October 6, 2013:
It’s worth noting that, at Freud’s behest, Botha eschewed the blackface makeup that remains a shameful part of “Otello” performance tradition in most opera houses, even though the spoken theater has long since banished its use in performances of the original Shakespeare “Othello.”

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  • At last the Americans are following the Europeans. But there are some very depressing comments on their page.

    Otello was a Moor so why black face anyway? “was it because Paul Robeson sang the part?” Good grief.!.

  • Suppose now if we should get a black tenor to sing the role he would do it in white face ?one does get the feeling that the lunatics are running the asylum .

    • Or rather, the black tenor will perform the role in his own skin color, as he would in any other role. When, for example, the African-American tenor Russell Thomas performs Pollione in Norma or the title role in Faust, he does not “white up.”

      But by all means, ignore Alexandrs Antonenko’s singing, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, Verdi’s music, Boito’s text and the Shakespeare masterpiece upon which the opera is based: what is of vital importance here is few grams of face paint.

      • A little difference you seem to have missed: Pollione’s or Faust’s colour is not the subject. Otello’s colour is.

        • I think that if we can tolerate contraltos or mezzos being Julius Caesar and other very masculine men in Baroque opera, mezzos playing boys in Faust, Romeo and Juliet, and of course Der Rosenkavalier (where the sex of the Knight is very much the object of the opera!); if we can tolerate sexagenarians playing young lovers, then I think that we can recognise Otello without painting his face.

          After all, how old is Lucia, and how old was Joan Sutherland when she last played the role?

        • Not jealousy? Not trust? Not betrayal? Not the downfall of a great man?

          No, Otello is only about the color of the fellow’s skin.

  • Illusion is fundamental to opera and the theatre so that only a bigot would claim that “blacking up” is a form of racism. This “pensée unique” that the media and others are imposing on us has gone too far.

  • I agree that the comments page on the NYT article is depressingly shallow, any hopes of elevating the discussion here is, thus far, just as disappointing.

    • Well, let’s elevate. Is it a racial issue? Or is it one of political correctness, which is and always should be regarded as what it is, an irrelevance thought up by people who are about as shallow as gossamer?

      It’s theatre. In Shakespeare’s day, when the play was written, it is unlikely a black actor played Othello. Did they use blackface? I don’t know; Shakespeare specialists might inform. But I doubt it — the language had to cover the illusions on those days. After all, Desdemona was played by a boy or young man.

      Similarly, these days, Romeo or Hamlet or other ostensibly white characters are often portrayed by actors of colour. That took a while — I remember a ballet artistic director saying to me in the 1980s that he could not see casting a particularly spectacular young Caribbean dancer as Romeo because he thought the audience would not accept it. Braver A.D.s had to clear the way, but they did.

      On the other hand, it is only make-up, and in Otello/Othello, the issue of race is explicit, which it is not in Hamlet or R&J. It might be more mature to treat it as exactly what it is, a stage prop.

      But in the opera in particular, where half the audience is unconcerned about the nuances of the story anyway, it is the voice that matters. When you can have overweight Salomes and blushing young thing romances between two elephantine figures, as was possible till recently, and when a singer in her 40s can sing Juliet, I think a white singer can carry Otello on the strength of his and the surrounding performances.

      I think people who are utterly at home in the theatre can accept it either way. It is not a racial insult to use the makeup. Nor is it political correctness to do without it. Both fit into conventions. The only racism would be if — as in days gone by — a talented black tenor would be denied the role, or any other. I don’t see that happening in most places any more. And those who draw their breath and feel queasy if they see an actor made up to present as darker than he naturally is should just see greasepaint, not offence.

  • Listen to Strauss’s Heldenleben. I love the way he portrays the mealy mouthed, whining critics, who can be transposed into today’s p.c. brigade. They really need to get a life.

    • The critics in ‘Heldenleben’ always remind me of filthy Jews with their ugly language. The Fuhrer certainly had his way with them.

  • Next thing you know, the PC Brigade will ban singing from the opera, because it’s offensive to people who can’t.

  • Isn’t it in tHe same category as Butterfly? Any performance I’ve seen has had women made up to look Asian. In the US at least, blackface is not a neutral issue in any setting but does have huge racial overtones.

  • It is much about race and to ignore skin color in the play is stupid — a white Otello
    is absurd as we have to then ignore Iago — “an old black ram is topping your white ewe ”
    he says to Brabantio, father of lily white Desdemona , driving the father into a rage .
    It is about dark skin on white …setting the stage for tragic events to follow .

    • The line you quote has no counterpart in Boito’s libretto. Besides that, the Shakepeare play, including that line, is frequently, in fact generally performed today in productions that do not have Othello “blacked up.”

      Of course in live theatre there is the expectation that the audience are not a pack of literal-minded bigots, so maybe that latter point is irrelevant in discussing opera.

      • “I foschi baci di quel selvaggio dalle gonfie labbra”. Good enough for me.

        Let’s not forget “progetto di cioccolata”.

        Otello is black. There are black people in the world. Apparently, representing them as they are on an operatic stage – is unbearably shocking to you (“Cover up that blackness, which I can’t endure to look on” – Tartuffe’s line, Act III, slightly modified). Not for me. Who’s the bigot here?

        Next stop – Rigoletto’s hump?

        • The solution, then, is to send all prospective tenors to the plastic surgeon’s for a quick injection of lip collagen.

          The term “progetto di cioccolata” does not appear in the libretto to “Otello.” You’re grasping pretty hard.

  • “The Merchant of Venice” should be banned because it is offensive to Jews. “Macbeth” should be too since it shows the Scottish to be brutal murderers. Falstaff should always be played without padding in order not to offend fat people and Sir Andrew Aguecheek should be well-padded so as not to offend the skinny. And what about Aida? Maria Callas blacked up to play her on occasion. Shouldn’t Callas’s recordings be banned for such a sin?

  • The “update ” only confirms that the ignorant and stupid whether at the Met or
    Chicago opera are always with us .The review seems a self serving PC
    hack writing reviews . Following this stupidity Hamlet can be performed only by Danes
    Lucia by Scots,Grimes by Englishmen …what do we do with the Swan Lake? what
    a field day of correct PC that opens up here .

    • Do you even read? Everyone who can sing it is eligible to perform Otello; the only thing that has changed is that some of them will no longer smear burnt cork on their faces before doing so.

      • You remind me of Mr Gérard Mortier who, having dared to produce La Juive at the Paris Opera, let the chorus sing the last words of the libretto “Mort aux Juifs!”, but censored them in the surtitles, lest anyone think he means it…

        Some years ago, there was a advertising campaign in the Paris metro, picturing smiling, naked babies swimming in Evian mineral water. You could tell little boys from little girls. Some Morality League obtained the banning of the campaign as… pedophile.

        There is no filthier mind than that of a puritan censor.

      • It all depends on how one wishes to present Othello/Otello —
        as a Verdi melodrama or as a tragedy by Shakespeare.

  • Othello’s blackness is not about race (which would be anachronistic) but about being “excessively male”. Within any racial group males are very slightly darker than females hence “blackness” represents male sins and virtues, while “whiteness” represent female sins and virtues. Hence describing someone as having “a black heart” means they are cruel and unkind, or “a black mood” is one where we are hostile; while we say someone has “turned pale” when they are afraid, and they wave a white flag to surrender.

    It is a common tropos, dating back to the ancient Greeks to argue that people should mix male qualities, such as bravery, with more female qualities, such as reason. The Greeks thought the East (Persians) were too “female” and the barbarians to the north too “male”. Othello is “manly” since he is a brave soldier, but he lacks reason, and rages angrily. He can be manipulated by the more “feminine” Iago. Hence while Othello’s blackness is central to the story, this isn’t about race.

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