‘Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past’

‘Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past’


norman lebrecht

July 13, 2019

An academic perspective from the other side of the world:

As opera audiences continue to dwindle, companies need to find a way forward that doesn’t alienate either traditionalists or the younger, more socially-minded generation.

One strategy used by the Canadian Opera Company was to rewrite the dialogue for Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in order to remove racist language. Companies such as Seattle Opera have endeavoured to foster dialogue around troubling works like Madama Butterfly by scheduling accompanying events on diversity and representation.

Another common strategy is to commission new translations or use modernised supertitles(the opera equivalent of subtitles) that revise outdated language. In the case of Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music, a minor edit to replace “retarded” with an alternate term might have been appropriate.

More generally, arts organisations are facing broader calls to diversify their casts and creative teams.

Read on here.


  • John Sorel says:

    Didn’t we have these midguided do-gooders last week? Oh no, I forgot, the last lot were Australians. t

  • Tamino says:

    Reading that headline, obviously opera is not stuck in the past, but in a dystopian, ignorant to history, intellectually dishonest and outright mentally retarded present and future.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Well said.

      ‘He who doesn’t want to know and understand the past, will be child forever.’ (Cicero)

  • Allen says:

    Stop representing the permanently offended, and grow up!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    It seems that ‘historical recordings’ will be the definitive ones.

  • anon says:

    The solution is not to rewrite, but to perform new operas.

    The performance practice of opera is unique in being stuck in the past with a handful of operas.

    Imagine the same in the practice of theater perfomance: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is anti-semitic, but if every theatre in Europe staged The Merchant of Venice season after season, for the last 200 years, and the next 200 years, that’d be a problem with the world of theatre, not with Shakespeare.

    • Christopher Culver says:

      The old 18th/19th/early-20th century repertoire is the bread and butter of provincial operas in large part because they are now public domain. If an opera wants to perform an opera written more recently, then it would have to buy the performance rights, and that costs money these operas often do not have.

      • John Sorel says:

        More pertinently, Canucks in hick towns will not to operas by even established modern composers like Jake Heggie. They want the lush chunes from Madam Butterlfly, but attached to a pop=music video of half-naked pianists in the bath (see today’s SD for examples). Something which ideally has no meaching or substance to it.

        One Fine Day I’ll Get a Mercedes-Benz SUV. Something like that, with lots of landscape shots of Manitoba.

  • Luca Postorino says:

    If you love music you don’t need these gimmics – least of all the ludicrous obsession with sexism. The fact is that junk music is killing real music like a cancer.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Best seems to be to keep the original intact and give information beforehand. Or offer flyers at the exit after the performance with excuses for audience members who have been politically-correctly offended.

    The real threat of this line of PC thinking appears to be simply excluding ‘offensive’ works:

    ‘As audiences continue to evolve, however, the opera industry will soon need to grapple with larger questions about which works still belong in the “canon”.’

    It seems to be a particular problem with ignorant audiences in Australia (and probably the USA). On the LPA website, the category ‘contemporary music’ appears to be pop music, which says it all.

    • John Sorel says:

      [[ Or offer flyers at the exit after the performance with excuses for audience members who have been politically-correctly offended.]]

      “Everything you want to say about the piece should be in the performance of it. If you feel the need to explain or apologise to the audience, by way of program notes, it means you have failed. The longer the program note, the greater is the extent of your failure.” – (Peter Brook, ‘The Empty Space’, 1968).

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Don’t feed the troll: don’t explain, don’t apologize. And absolutely don’t deface the art.

  • Caravaggio says:

    As in the outrageous engagement by the Bayreuth Festival of a drag queen for their Tannhäuser?


    • Bruce says:

      Since it appears he’s going to be portraying himself, I would guess he’s going to play one of the debauchees in the opening Venusberg scene.

      Now if he was going to sing the role of Venus, that would be interesting…

    • frank says:

      Looks like he/ she may be a sex change, not a drag queen. Look at the décolletage.

  • John Scullion says:

    The point of Butterfly is to remember these racist moments in horror to PRODUCE CONViCTIONS that in real life these things must never happen.
    That’s the value if horror in theater.
    In the 1905 version Pinkerton referred to Butterflys relative as pigs. He was an evil character. Not real just like Darth Vader.

    • John Sorel says:

      I wonder if Canadians object to the musical ‘Miss Saigon’, which is essentially the ideantical story?

      Or do they just oppose the opera, because it’s by some dead, white, European?

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Exactly, Puccini’s intentions were anti-colonialist and anti-racist. Shame some people can’t grasp that.

    • Thomasina says:

      I have read the result of a questionnaire in Japanese. The question was ” Who is the most evil person in the well-known opera characters?” and Pinkerton was between Scarpia(1st) and Iago(3rd).

  • JOHN says:

    Madama Butterfly is absolutely up-to-date in its depiction of racism and sexism in a colonial context. Nothing has changed since Puccini’s time, some people are disgusted by all three sets of attitudes, others revel in it. Too many people of power are in the latter category and if they can be called out during a night at the opera, often somewhere the rich and powerful love to be seen, so much the better.

    • John Sorel says:

      About 12 years ago, I had an unpleasant argument with a stupid woman named Yasmin Alihabai-Brown, in the letters pages of The Observer. This idiotic do-gooder had been to Madam Butterfly, was horrified to notice the awful way that Pinkeerton treats his under-age geisha bride. As if Belasco (author) and Puccini (composer) hadn’t had this specific intention?

      But let’s keep things in perspective. What a Canuck knows or thinks about opera is neither here nor there. As the list of major Canadian opera composers quckly shows.

  • George says:

    I think we should also change the grand works of literature and repaint all the masterpieces in the museums. Until we get to the point of 100% political correctness, utter boredom, total lack of humour and the freedom to make up ones own mind, e.g. about Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Otello or Madama Butterfly.
    Why does everything have to be analyzed, discussed and adapted today?
    Can’t we just for once enjoy the music, cry when they die and go home? Please, we are intelligent enough to understand this was written at a different time and that times have changed!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed…. such opinions as expounded in the article, are, in fact, offensive to audiences, as if they are mere idiots.

  • Anmarie says:

    Why not? How hard can it be to re-write all of history?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. All wrongs of history should be exposed before the entire past is blotted-out, to make place for a pure and morally-perfect future: such is the great goal of human development. It’s time to get it all right. And let every school child be forced to read Dr Alfred Hofstädter’s “European Decadence from Stonehenge Onwards'”.

    • John Sorel says:

      Not hard at all. NATO is avidly rewriting 20th century history, with the aid of its subsidiary, The Atlantic Council. Latvian troops – who made up the backbone of the Waffen-SS in WW2 – were apparently not Nazi stormtroopers at all… they were ‘freedom fighters’;. Which is why EU member Latvia has a Nazi Parade (in Waffen-SS uniforms, with Nazi insignia flags) every year – ‘to remember the ‘freedom fighters’ (sic). Riga’s Jews – locked in the synagogue and burnt alive by the Arajs Kommando – don’t get a mention. History is written by the victors.

      If you have the financial resources and military muscle, you can rewrite as much history as you like.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Latvians did not make up “the backbone of the Waffen-SS”; Germans did. Anyway, it is usually Lithuanians who are accused of joining the SS in large numbers rather than Latvians.

  • Escamillo says:

    What twaddle. So great works of art have to be dumbed down to appeal to modern audiences. Says more about the audiences than the works, I would have thought.

  • John Rook says:

    Opera audiences may be dwindling because of the anaemic way these immortal stories are now being told. To constantly chew our meat for us as we incapable of understanding a broader message is patronising and serve only those who seek government funding for their irrelevant, outdated ideologies.

    To present a story as it was conceived enables us to draw parallels with contemporary society, understand a period through the prism of its artistic creation and present us with historical and social context.

    The canon has existed this long due to its inherent quality. I wouldn’t give you tuppence for the vast majority of those producers who declare themselves above those poor, misguided souls Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, Verdi et al, whose work must be edited so as not to cause offence to our current narcissistic social elements.

    • John Sorel says:

      This is all true, John. But there have also been modern productions which have found the visceral message in classic ‘canonical’ works. Just ask anyone who was there for Nick Hytner’s ‘Rienzi’ at the Coli in the 1980s…. when a column of tanks crashed through the scenery of the last scene, dazzling the audience with glaring headlights – illustrating which way things go, when despots are appeased.

  • Wladek says:

    It seems whether in Seattle or Canadian Opera the stupids have taken over the opera world .The absurd,the ridiculous
    have found a pc voice to tamper with works beyond their
    comprehension that the works belong to another period of
    time and understanding .Want a new pc correct work
    then write and compose your own .Don’t vandalize creative efforts of others to suit your two bit pc opinions .Soon some pc idiot will demand that the Mona Lisa be overpainted in day glow colors .

  • barry guerrero says:

    I think the ‘solutions’ proposed in paragraph three make more sense than those in paragraph two (that’s not the counting the little intro. that could be counted as a separate paragraph).

  • Martain Smith says:

    If potential audiences are neither intelligent nor educated sufficiently to appreciate the value of a work and its historic context – PARTICULARLY if it doesn’t happen to confirm with 21C political correctness – then they should surely be encouraged to stay away rather than compromise (or even destroy) the backbones of many-varied cultures.
    Dumbing Down must surely have its limits!
    If all minorities are to be gratified in today’s ignorant perversion of the term “equality”, it’s time to banish Shakespeare, Chaucer – and indeed, the Bible.
    All not far removed from the mutilation of Greco Roman statues, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Valley Buddhas by the Taliban!
    The chilling reminder of book-burning springs to mind!

  • HugoPreuss says:

    If we eliminate every sexist, racist, ageist, xenophobic, classist, elitist and so on text that might somehow be offensive to someone somewhere in the world we might as well abandon just about every opera ever written.

    We probably agree that Don Giovanni doesn’t really to to hell in the end. Perhaps we can also agree that all the terrible things he says and does are theater and not real life?

    Apply the same standard to plays, films, national anthems and what-not, and there is nothing left. And let’s not even start about rock music. Or rap. Or whatever.

    • John Borstlap says:

      After a Don Giovanni performance in 1978 in London the Don got into hell indeed when he caught his wife at home embraced by the Otello from a week earlier.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    We’re living in the futuristic, Orwellian world that Woody Allen so hilariously and disturbingly portrayed in his 1973 spoof, “Sleeper”.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    I’m reminded that when the Royal Scottish Conservatoire did Street Scene last year, a young female reviewer wrote, “The opera’s age also shows in scenes that are distasteful today. Colin Murray’s Weinstein-type Harry Easter is uncomfortable to watch, especially given how jovial his song Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway? Is. It may have some attendees questioning calling whether a production featuring such a character should be performed during today’s sexual-political climate – particularly when the cast includes young children.”

    How chilling! Only nice things and nice people should be depicted. Coming next: Tosca calls on Scarpia and discovers that she made a mistake and that Scarpia never imprisoned Cavaradossi in the first place. They have a laugh about her misunderstanding and then he courteously invites her on a date–no, she invites him on one.

  • Steven says:

    “Opera is stuck in the past!” “Why do directors insist on updating operas?” “Opera isn’t elitist!” “Why are we catering to these feminists?” “Nobody goes to the opera anymore!” “I’d rather stay home and listen to my old recordings…”

    Why don’t we just celebrate anyone and everyone who wants to engage with opera however they like, and trust that the old dame is big enough to take care of herself, without a million grumpy gatekeepers fighting off “the wrong kind of opera lovers”?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The art form is not some personality with a will of its own, but is entirely dependent upon the willingness of contemporary people to engage with it and to invest money in it. Before the 19th century, serious music was almost always contemporary music, and ‘old music’ forgotten and thus, entirely unknown to most people. Nobody thought of ‘old music’. All the repertoire which now makes up the ‘canon’, is ‘old music’ which has enjoyed the interest of people living in very different periods – it has been kept alive by ‘other people’ and not on its own accord.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    I have been in a number of European opera houses in where audience don’t seem to be diminishing. But I am sure some intensive attention from people like this could soon correct that.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The fact is the more these idiotic do-gooders apply their moronic intellects to masterpieces the faster audiences diminish.

  • Araragi says:

    This contest over who can be the “wokest” of them all needs to end or we will lose not just our history, but our culture.