PC London theatre cancels all-white opera

PC London theatre cancels all-white opera


norman lebrecht

October 15, 2017

The Hackney Empire has called off a Music Theatre Wales touring performance of The Golden Dragon, an opera by Peter Eotvos, on the grounds that it lacks racial diversity.

The opera, set in a Chinese restaurant, is performed by a non-Asian cast. MTW originally saind the opera was a fantasy, not to be taken literally. Hackney took a different view.

A statement from the Empire reads: ‘The debate aroused by the non-Asian casting in The Golden Dragon compromises the Empire’s commitment and position as a champion of diversity and accessibility across the theatre industry, and therefore the decision has been taken to withdraw the forthcoming performance.

‘Music Theatre Wales were renting the theatre for this production and Hackney Empire has not been involved in any part of the production or casting process.’

MTW has apologised and promised to review its procedures.

Much as we applaud diversity in all forms of art, this cancellation smacks of heavy-handed political correctness. Why is London being denied the right to make up its own mind about the opera?



  • Sue says:

    Why? Because the dead hand of progressive tyranny is at work. Once again.

    • Mark says:

      No, Sue, because it is unfair on singers of other ethnicities who get over looked time and time again. Even when the story is set in a Chinese restaurant?!!!

      If the Theatre’s decision is progressive tyranny, then the decision of the opera casting is racist!!

      • Steve P says:

        Unless you were there at the casting, Mark, are you certain that singers of different (or “appropriate” if you like) races other than Caucasian were present? And if there is evidence that a more racially correct singer was available and denied an opportunity?
        If singers were auditioned and fairly selected, where is the “overlooked” aspect? I don’t live in England but I would imagine the hiring rules for workers contain similar equality language as most rules here in the States.
        I agree with Sue and NL: this appears to be yet another example of PC run amok in the arts.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The Indian restaurant here in the village has waiters who schmink themselves and parody an indian accent to appear authentic. Simply because there is no diversity here, apart from the Syrians, but they don’t want to work in an Indian restaurant.


      • Alex Davies says:

        I don’t know exactly what roles the opera includes, but although it’s set in a Chinese restaurant, it’s quite possible that a majority of characters are not Chinese. The opera uses five singers to perform all the roles, so I don’t think they’re aiming at being entirely realistic.

  • herrera says:

    An opera set in a Chinese restaurant. If that was not hint enough of how bad the opera must be, I actually googled it and the plot is even worse, confirming all my expectations of what an opera about a Chinese restaurant written by a white dude was going to be about.

    Yes, it starts with finding a decayed bloody tooth in your bowl of wonton noodle soup, and it goes downhill from there.

    No self-respecting Asian opera singer would sign on to this opera, so might as well put it on with an entirely white cast, for the white audience, and the white press to slaver all over.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Eotvos is a convinced modernist, so of course such plot is entirely following convention. No doubt the aural element will be in harmony with the nature of the plot.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Yes, Péter Eötvös is a hard-line avant-gardist. I remember reading an interview with him about 15 years ago when he became guest conductor of the Göteborgs Synfoniker, where he said that he does not conduct any music piece that is older than 100 years. I don’t know how serious he takes that rule nowadays. His recording of Beethoven 5 was surely an exception of the rule, but note that the strings of the Ensemble Modern were electronically amplified.

    • Halldor says:

      I’ve seen it twice now and can tell you that it begins with nothing of the sort. Most of the comments would be more helpful if the commenters had actually seen and heard the opera.

      • Bruce says:

        Oh, and you think you can discern more about the work by attending a live performance (or two) than others can just by reading a headline and part of an opening paragraph?

        How charmingly naive.


  • Anon says:

    I refuse to see another Ring without actual dwarfs as Nibelungen. Racism has prevented talented dwarfs for too long from singing those parts. Same goes for the giants.

    (has the whole world gone mad, that they can’t differentiate between reality and fiction anymore?)

  • Daniel says:

    This report is hideously biased. The cancellation was not because the cast were all white, it was because they were white people playing Asian people. Hackney is one of the most ethically diverse boroughs in the UK with a significant Asian community adjacent to the Empire. Apart from the already mentioned issue of yellow face actors denying work to Asian singers, how can we hope to attract diverse audiences to opera with such outdated and racist casting practices. There are Asian singers who could have been cast. The Empire were entirely correct to uphold their principled policy and people decrying PC need to think a little bit out of their entitled boxes. Ask yourself what harm or offence would you feel seeing an Asian singer in an Asian role and then ponder for a moment your reasons for objecting to the objections to white people playing Asian roles.

    • Mark Henriksen says:

      Just one question: is this sarcasm or your true feelings?

    • Jon says:

      The logical extension of this position that casting must be racially appropriate is that only Asians can be cast as Asians, black singers as black characters, Indians as Indians and white singers in white roles. This will reduce diversity and accessibility, as there will theb be fewer roles open to non-white singers.

    • Maria says:

      First of all, to satisfy Hackney, the singers would have to be Chinese, not just “Asian”. “Asia” covers a very large area.

      Secondly, we’re not talking about the Royal Opera, for which singers fly in from all over the world, turning down a Chinese singer with a proven record.

      Lastly, this is a Welsh company, not a local Hackney one. It’s resources must be relatively limited and I doubt if it has many Chinese opera singers on its books. This is discrimination against small companies – is that really what Hackney wants to do?

    • Ellingtonia says:

      ” Hackney is one of the most ethically diverse boroughs in the UK with a significant Asian community adjacent to the Empire.”……….following this to its logical conclusion, I assume that there will be no performances of Porgy & Bess in any predominantly white area. As regards your comment “think a bit out of your entitled boxes”, do please enlighten us in what way we are “entitled” You are beginning to sound like one of Corbyns momemtun thugs………..

    • Alex Davies says:

      I think that first you need to establish that it is actually a problem for white people to perform Asian roles. I suspect that there have been productions of Nabucco that have not included a single Jewish or Babylonian singer, and I am sure that I have never seen a Carthaginian soprano performing the role of Dido, nor a Persian performing the role of Serse.

      Secondly, you have to establish that the singers are actually performing exclusively Asian roles. I believe that the opera calls for the singers to play a variety of roles, not all of which are Asian.

      Thirdly, it’s irrelevant that Hackney is an ethnically diverse area. The company producing the opera is actually Welsh, and Wales, as you probably know, is ethnically very homogeneous, including an extremely small Asian minority. Furthermore, the production will be touring the UK, not just Hackney! Many areas where the opera will be showing will be much less diverse than Hackney.

      Fourthly, I am confused by your use of the term “Asian”. Only 1.4 percent of the population of Hackney are of Chinese ethnicity. Most of the Asians in Hackney are south Asian, so actually closer in ethnicity to white people than to east Asians.

      I am very happy to see Asian people playing all kinds of roles. In fact, I believe that I have probably seen Asian singers performing white roles more often than I have seen Asian singers performing Asian roles! There are a number of Korean singers who appear regularly at the Royal Opera House in mainly European roles. Similarly, I have never had a problem with black singers performing white roles. Leontyne Price, for example, was superlative in roles that depict characters who are of African, European, and, indeed, Asian ethnicity. I wonder whether you objected to Price’s performances as Cio-Cio-San and Liù.

  • Martin says:

    A Sri Lankan Cast for The Pearl Fishers? A bunch of cowboys for La Fanciulla del West? Chinese for Turandot, Spaniards for Carmen? Where well this idiocy end?

    • SVM says:

      Hear hear! What happened to the simple concept of casting the most suitable *voice*? Opera is an art-form (and one which makes no pretence to verisimilitude), not a re-enactment.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It has always been extremely difficult to find a ‘reine Tor’ for Parsifal, so one makes compromises and a very sinful one is appointed.

    • Alex Davies says:

      This would also be an appropriate time at which to mention that Karita Mattila is much too old to be performing the role of Salome. That is to say, at least 40 years too old. Scholars seem to agree that Salome would have been no more than 17 years old and may have been as young as 9. That is, of course, quite separate from the problems inherent in casting a Finn in a Jewish role (I hope that opera companies are addressing the question of which contemporary Jewish populations most closely resemble the ethnicity of the Jews of 1st-century Judea).

  • Alex Davies says:

    This is ridiculous and actually in itself a form of racism. Wales is a small country with a population of 3.1 million people. Of those 3.1 million people approximately 0.4 percent are of Chinese ethnicity (making the Chinese in Wales approximately half as numerous as the Polish in Wales). How many of those 12,400 Chinese Welsh people are professional opera singers? Given that the opera has a cast of only five, I would say that casting five white singers is entirely representative of the ethnic composition of a country where 24 out of every 25 people are white. In fact, surely more remarkable the fact that out of a cast of five, only two are actually Welsh! (Two are English and one is American.)

    Opera is, as I have said before on this blog, an art form in which nationality and ethnicity are less important than vocal quality. Otello does not have to be performed by a singer who is a Moor (whatever a Moor actually is in modern terms), Rigoletto does not actually have to suffer from kyphosis, nor Porgy actually be disabled, Chairman Mao does not actually have to be Chinese (and Henry Kissinger does not actually have to be a German Jewish American), Nabucco does not actually have to be Iraqi (or whatever present day ethnic group corresponds to ancient Babylon), and so on.

    This decision just shows that the management of the Hackney Empire is at best ignorant about the art form of opera or, worse, values politically correct casting over artistic quality. That is not to say that there are not some excellent east Asian singers (though more Korean than Chinese), but that one needs to cast the singer whose voice is appropriate for the role. Also, the singer has to be available and willing to perform in the show. How many Chinese (or other east Asian) opera singers actually want to commit to a small touring production of an obscure modern work? My guess is that Sumi Jo and Hei-Kyung Hong were unavailable on this occasion.

  • Ben says:

    The piece is rubbish per the “highlights” on YouTube. No substance, bad taste. The only good part of this piece is likely the last 1 second, when the audience — who are likely related to the cast members — know they could get out of their seats and leave without offending anyone. I am sure they would throw their ticket stubs right away, such that nobody else know they are stupid enough to actually *pay* to see this tragedy!

    P.S. You don’t see any “music theatre” about French coffee addicts or romancing in a bedroom, nor whole bunch of Italians in an pizza parlor talking about “family business”, nor German town-drunks enjoying bratwurst & sauerkraut while mediating what they didn’t do during the Holocaust with J. Strauss Jr music playing in the back, nor a bunch of fat spoiled American fat women moaning about their entitled lives in a liposuction clinic while eating burgers/fries, etc. Guess why?

    Oh but it’s perfect piece of art of portrait whole bunch of Chinese in some beatdown corner of Chinatown talking about egg rolls in _perfect_ English.

  • Anon says:

    “‘The debate aroused by the non-Asian casting in The Golden Dragon compromises the Empire’s commitment and position as a champion of diversity and accessibility across the theatre industry,”


    Someone enlighten me. Calling for diversity, by calling for racial pureness? Asian roles must be played by asians? How is that diverse? It is the opposite. Or did I take too many semesters in logic? Are these morons aware of the reverse logic of their ideological confusion?

    Unless there is evidence, that in Wales the casting was biased pro-Caucasian and anti-Asian, they are just wrong and out of their minds.

    • Steve P says:

      Racial purity…now where has that come up before in Europe?

      Oh, right…

      • Anon says:

        It has come up many places. Like in the US, where many millions of natives were killed by white immigrants. They also kept black slaves as ‘Untermenschen’ there for centuries. So it’s not exactly a European but a global phenomenon.

  • Angelica says:

    The cast of five takes multiple roles, including different genders and, going by the presence of a blond air stewardess named “Inga” in the dramatis personæ, different nationalities.

  • Halldor says:

    I suspect that many of those commenting on this affair have not seen the opera. The cast play multiple roles, including an ant, a grasshopper, and several white characters (including two women, who are played by men).

    The piece has problems,, certainly – derived from the libretto, which is by a contemporary German playwright – but the cast is not amongst them. It’s interesting that no concerns were raised when the same cast toured this opera in 2016; or by theatres in municipalities that are just as diverse as Hackney. To that extent, this smacks of opportunism: virtue signalling at the expense of an out-of-town company with limited resources.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Probably hard to find Chinese opera singers in Wales.

  • Zoltan says:

    This is just plain crazy. The sole rule in casting (and in ANY selection and appointment) should be: Pick the most suitable candidate. Yes, regardless of race, gender, orientation etc. Any quota or other consideration (even when disguised under “diversity”) is against that principle and as such it is an enemy of getting the best possible final result.