US soprano refuses Verona blackface

The Metropolitan Opera soprano Tamara Wilson dug in her heels at the Arena di Verona and last night refused to continue singing Aida in traditional dark makeup.

So how did that go?

In the small hours of the morning Tamara told us:

The show is over, it’s 1 am (the shows start at 9 here). I won the battle but lost the war. I did get the makeup lightened so I was still shades darker than my own skin but it wasn’t the pure black paint that it was to begin with. I had asked for sleeves but they didn’t add any. I’m hoping that was because it was so tight a turn around between the asking and the show. Maybe that will change for the 3rd show. I’m going to keep fighting.

Hey kids, become fluent in all languages because sticking up for yourself when no one understands you is extremely difficult. Learn from my mistake.

I’m going to answer everyone’s messages tomorrow but right now I’m going to sleep. I’m exhausted.

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  • Well done. Traditions are important, but blackface has a deeply racist past that cannot be passed over for the sake of just doing things like they used to be done. If people really lose their minds over this, they need better things to do in their lives.

    • It seems to me that she thinks she is more beautiful without a dark skin tone. So who is the racist?After all, the heroine of the opera is the Ethiopian Aida, not an American called Tamara.

  • I cannot understand why people confuse darkening or lightening the skin for a marginally more realistic portrayal with the gross caricature of minstrel blackface as in the old BBC ‘Black and White Minstrels’.

  • And I suppose the idea of women playing young men is also out of the question, or Europeans playing Japanese or – Ethiopian princesses? It’s called ‘acting’.

      • Imagine English panto having to do away with traditional ‘gender fluidity’ for its leading ‘men’ and dames in the interest of, er, equality. These grievance professionals won’t know which way to turn.

  • Me thinks the lady is desperate to generate some publicity for herself. Lousy vocal training and singing will not get you noticed, for good reason, but picking up a cause or fight on social media will.

    • Much as I disagree with Tamara on this one, she is a very accomplished stage performer and certainly doesn’t need to boost her career with any additional publicity.

    • Dude. Have you heard her sing? She is fricking unbelievable and one of the best sopranos alive, no doubt. She needs no publicity. She is doing this because it’s what she believes and she certainly doesn’t need to worry about her career.

      • Paulette. There is a type of person who, no matter what, will never listen to you or the argument you are calmly trying to make. They see things their own way and only from their point of view. They will say, what’s your problem, and not realize that they are the problem. Their ignorance is the problem. They will say, women’s right’s, a woman runs the country, for God’s sake! Depression, but he/she’s a millionaire! What have they got to be depressed about!? Most on here accuse her of publicity seeking. So she can’t really be doing this because of her core beliefs. It tells you so much more about them than her. Education, logic & empathy have, unfortunately, missed them. Pay these, anything goes types, no mind. We know who they are.

  • I don’t see why playing an Ethiopian Princess with a dark skin colour is something racist? Refusing it is more racist to me…. Singing Turandot I looked Chinese and singing Butterfly I looked Japanese (my Korean Pinkerton was made to look a blond American), singing Aida I looked black…What’s the point?

    • The point is that blackface has been historically used in a racist way, especially in the United States, where this singer is from. She, correctly in my opinion, believes that it is unnecessary to wear blackface to communicate the character of Aida, and also is a nod to a more racist past.

    • Blackface isn’t just about painting one’s skin darker or putting on a costume. It invokes a racist and painful history.
      The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of mid-19th century. White performers darkened their skin with polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically “black.” The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
      The performances were intended to be funny to white audiences. But to the black community, they were demeaning and hurtful.

      Presenting enslaved Africans as the butt of jokes desensitized white Americans to the horrors of slavery. The performances also promoted demeaning stereotypes of black people that helped confirm white people’s notions of superiority.

      • “It invokes a racist and painful history.”

        In whose mind?

        Perhaps the people in question should learn to separate the “racist and painful history” from the simple good sense of moderate tinting to enhance one’s plausibility in a role.

        • If you read her comments quoted above, moderate tinting is what she ended up going on with in the second performance. It wasn’t what was in this 1913 production at the start. She was literally painted black.

      • I think your slant is completely misguided. I’ll site Al Jolson who used blackface to GLORIFY the black race (and please remember HE was Jewish) – he used it as a platform to promote and illuminate the artistic richess of black people: he opened doors, not shut them. One must keep in mind rasicism exists in the heart, NOT upon ones skin …

  • For the sake of coherence, shouldn’t Ms. Wilson have resigned and offered the part to a black American singer? Oh, no! Here’s how an American identity warrior can feel good about herself meanwhile she earns a four-digit fee per show, thansforming one of the most traditional and glorious European opera stages into PC horseshit reality show.

    • Aida really is not about “racial” conflict but rather an opera in which the conflict between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians is central to the love story. The fact that ‘Ethiopians are darker’ is incidental and not a key part of the story. It really would not matter if, for instance, the Egyptians were black and the Ethiopians were white.

      Having said that, whether a depiction is “racist” depends on the understanding of the performers and the audience. While “blackface” has rather racist undertones in the English-speaking world, and particularly in the US; it really does not have similar connotations in continental Europe (which, in any case, does not have the same history of Black immigration).

  • If Wilson was uncomfortable donning the tar-baby look for this recreation of a 1913 production, and she had concerns about how her fans and followers (a great many of them also Americans) would react when photos started circulating, it might negatively affect her performance. It sounds as though the venue compromised with her. Shouldn’t Slipped Disc’s readers be applauding this as “Opera being about the SINGING” being reaffirmed?

    I’m always reading here that singers should have refused to go along with something in a staging, or should have demanded that a production be changed or they wouldn’t appear in it, and now a singer has taken this kind of stand and the sentiment seems to be going against her. But I guess that makes sense. A vocal segment of the Slipped Disc regulars will take the production’s side when it’s one from the time of Caruso and Destinn.

    Wilson appeared several times in the Met’s recently retired Aida by Sonja Frisell. The lead soprano and baritone’s complexions were darkened in that when they weren’t black singers, but the makeup got subtler over the years, more of a “tanned” look. Compare Millo in the first telecast to any white woman who appeared in it in the last decade.

    • “I’m always reading here that singers should have refused to go along with something in a staging, or should have demanded that a production be changed or they wouldn’t appear in it, and now a singer has taken this kind of stand and the sentiment seems to be going against her. ”

      I think people who say that are referring to productions where, say, Tosca is required to sing upside down and naked in a rubbish bin in a production designed to awaken the audience to the bourgeoisie’s distortion of truth to mask its financial exploitation of the poor.

  • Not content with submerging us with junk food, appalling TV, rap and other toxic societal excrescences, the USA now expects and demands that the international operatic canon be ‘sanitised’ to pay homage to an episode in North American history.

    Two words, the second of which is ‘off’.

    • Silly reply. One singer isn’t the USA as a whole. Racism is an international issue. Most cultures have junk food and appalling TV of their own making. The most recent country that sought to sanitise opera was Australia (earlier this year) and not the US. Your posting is racist or at least you have a blind spot about the US.

      • Not a silly reply, but you’re right about Australia. The point is influence, and that of the US has far overreached its brief. Tamara Wilson is but the latest singing from the self-same song sheet we are now all required to embrace in our hearts. No other country has had a problem with Blackface; the US should keep its neuroses to itself.

        • Yes, blackface originated in the US but it became popular in the UK and lasted longer there. The BBC aired The Black and White minstrel show from 1958 to 1978. Can’t imagine such a thing being shown in the US as last as 1978. You should look more deeply into your own country’s history with blackface and racism. Your view about the US may not be far off, but your singular focus there is misguided. According to Wiki:

          The show’s premise began to be seen as offensive and racist on account of its portrayal of blacked-up characters behaving in a stereotypical manner.

          A petition against the show was received by the BBC from the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in 1967. In 1969, due to continuing accusations of racism, Music Music Music, a spin-off series in which the minstrels appeared without their blackface make-up, replaced The Black and White Minstrel Show. It did well, with viewing figures to match the Minstrels, but the BBC were not happy and The Black and White Minstrel Show returned to win back viewers.

          Since its cancellation in 1978, The Black and White Minstrel Show has come to be seen widely as an embarrassment, despite its huge popularity at the time.

          ——

          Have you lived much in the US?

          • I remember the B&WM and thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t honestly say it made me – nor anyone else I knew who enjoyed the show – look down on anyone. More importantly for us, it was aired at a time when most people still had black and white TV sets. Those who had the opportunity to watch the show in colour talked more about that than anything else. There was already a sizeable black population in Britain at the time but I don’t recall anyone conflating it with George Mitchell and Co.

            Britain integrated its post-war immigrants pretty well and poked fun at itself with sitcoms such as Till Death Us Do Part and Love Thy Neighbour. People weren’t looking to be offended in those days and different ethnic groups generally rubbed along together quite well. Don’t forget that Wikipedia entries are not always notable for their neutrality. Any platform open to anyone can easily serve as a tribune.

            Yes, I lived in the USA for a number of years and, despite meeting many wonderful people, have no wish to go back.

          • Over the years I have worked in 26 different countries and have lived in the UK for 6 years (2003-4 and 2012-16) and found the UK in many ways as racist as much of the US. I think that it is lessening in both countries, but ever so slowly. I have lived in NYC, DC, NorCal, SoCal, Chicago and middle Tennessee and have seen it in all forms. Then, there is Asia…I would love to live again in the UK though the silly way Brexit has been handled makes it less appealing. I think your justification of B&WM may not be representative of the way many in the UK regard the production. Interesting discussion, yet far away from Aida.

          • I don’t seek to ‘justify’ the B&MW Show, merely state what it was like from someone living there at the time. Much of the outcry seems to emanate from people who neither saw it at the time nor were living in the country between ’58 and ’78, if they were even alive at all. Viewing the past through a biased prism of wokeness is utterly pointless and this millenial fad of incessant finger-pointing indicative of a generation without a cause.

          • “Can’t imagine such a thing being shown in the US as last as 1978. ”

            Although the black make-up was gross, the blokes wearing it always paraded with white girls. Didn’t Petula Clark once get reprimanded for touching Harry Belafonte’s arm in a friendly way on Us TV?

        • One of the early Verdi Otello productions to do away with the darkening makeup altogether was in London (ENO, David Alden; it has since traveled in Madrid and other cities). The director of the Royal Opera House’s subsequent Otello starring Kaufmann, the London native Keith Warner, said, ““It’s about the audience making an imaginative leap. And on top of all that, [blacking up] is of such offence to the black community in London and elsewhere.” (See The Guardian, 15 June 2017, ‘Opera, identity politics and blacking up’.)

          • The Alden twins have perverted almost every opera in the repertoire.
            Their tasteless, vulgar “efforts” are hardly
            to be made out as some kind of standard.
            Most of them, in fact, and I had the misfortune to see many, are beneath contempt.

  • Ms. Wilson doesn’t mention it, but in the States currently, appearing in blackface, or having even decades-old images of yourself appearing in blackface, can be professionally and socially crippling.

  • Is there any hope that the woke and the politically correct will ever learn the difference between playing a role in a production and being racist? To deny a singer or actor of color an opportunity to play a part for which they have talent and abilities because of their skin color IS RACIST,
    on the other hand, to make up to look like the character the artist is portraying is not. Theatre is not just a platform for disseminating ideas and attitudes through art, it is also a place where make-belief is created, where actors dress up and make up. Ms Wilson will have ample opportunity to do the PC Aida in the spring of 2020 in Toronto when she will appear in the revival of the most loathsome production ever to appear on the stage. I am referring to the misbegotten regie opus of Tim Albery. Meanwhile, she should be grateful for the opportunity to appear on the famous stage in a historical production and should focus on her singing and music making, not making waves on social media.

      • And the theatre world is the poorer for it. Thanks for making your guilt complex our problem (not you, Paul).

      • At least the white ones – appropriately. There have been plenty of UK productions of Othello of late. Admittedly the last one that I saw was in 2013 with Adrian Lester.

  • So, from now on, and under this logic of ideas, only black people should sing/play Aida and Amonasro, only japanese should play Cio cio san, Susuki and the all japanese characters, Chinese people sing the whole Turandot, Spanish people sing Carmen and do on….
    Are we Earth people really that ridiculous??…

  • If audiences can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that an Ethiopian sings everything, rather than speaks, and sings in Italian rather than whatever Ethiopians were speaking back in the Old Kingdom, they can imagine also that an Ethiopian princess had light skin.

    • That is true, but that is not the only way of performing it, and the choice of how much “realism” is required for a particular production should belong to the person who is responsible for staging it. As far as I can tell, no one in this instance was attempting to make fun of or denigrate anything about dark skin. If we eliminate everything that may offend someone who, for example, does not understand the difference between B&W Minstrel Show and a production of Verdi’s Aida, we would lose much of great art which would be a truly tragic loss for humanity.

  • Guess what, Aida was an Ethiopian princess, enslaved by the Egyptians… Maybe somebody should explain to Ms Wilson the libretto of the opera, she seems to not understand what is going on in this opera or even have no clue what she is singing from her comments:
    “Hey kids, become fluent in all languages because sticking up for yourself when no one understands you is extremely difficult”
    “Kids”, do not act ridiculous like this singer does, opera is an art form that implies singing and acting a part, which means knowing what you sing and knowing what and how to act, both which Ms Wilson seems to fail!

  • I wonder how many of the people here commenting in outrage about this are middle-aged, middle-class and Caucasian…

    Even if you yourself can’t understand how it can be offensive to somebody, do you think you could try to be empathetic enough to imagine that somebody might?

    • “Middle-aged” is probably being very generous. They probably slapped their knees at the radio antics of Amos ‘n’ Andy, back when they could do so without hitting metal.

    • It’s theatre. It’s called portraying a character. It’s called suspension of belief. It’s a world apart from the one we inhabit on a daily basis. If you want to be offended by that, well, have fun.

      As for your opening sentence, I’d say quite a few. It’s because they’re not up their own backsides the way many among the younger generations are these days.

      • The term is suspension of disbelief. Therein lies the problem, perhaps – perhaps you were confused and didn’t understand that the idea is that you go in and forget that you know that you’re not really in Egypt, or that the guy singing Amonasro isn’t really the King of Ethiopia. Equally, you can suspend your disbelief that a white singer portraying an Ethiopian is not Ethiopian, regardless of his/her skin colour.

        Those whose suspension of disbelief covers everything that happens in an operatic production of Aida, but who can’t seem to deal with the skin tone of the eponymous character being different from how they imagined, probably need to allow their imaginations not to be limited by their racism.

        • Thanks for correcting my mistake but the point stands. We know we are not in Egypt and everything else you list, but that is where Aida is set and Ethiopians – if they are to be plausibly represented in the story – have dark skin. Full stop. It is senseless to overturn such an element because a certain group of people feels ashamed about a period of history in a country 7000 miles away with absolutely no connection with anything around the Nile delta.

    • “I wonder how many of the people here commenting in outrage about this are middle-aged, middle-class and Caucasian”

      If you wonder that, your mind is going in a wrong direction, since it can happen that middle-aged middle-class Caucasians can think things that are true and/or reasonable.

      • It’s more about the presumption that a group of middle-aged middle-class Caucasians are commenting on whether black people should feel offended. ‘Check your privilege’ and all that.

    • Why does it have to be one sided? Why should we feel bad because someone else interprets something wrongly? Why can’t *they* just admit that their offended feelings are wrong?

      • Wow, yeah, that’s right, you go tell them that they’re overreacting. I’m sure you’re in a great position to understand what it must be like.

        And whether you mean offence by something or not has little to do with whether it’s perceived as offensive. There are still people who don’t understand the problem with the n-word. The fact that they think they’re not being offensive doesn’t make them any less offensive.

  • And what are the comments about in the section of this blog post about Tamara Wilson, a white American soprano, refusing to appear in black face? A long history of racist casting decisions that justified offensive depictions of white Europeans who play characters of various ethnic backgrounds? The obstacles classical singers of color face in accessing the top stages in the field? Nope. Reactionary, right-wing bitching masqueraded as concern over “wokeness” and “PC culture.” Eyeroll.

    • Do you remember the story years ago of Opera South, I think it was, putting on Otello? The title role had to cancel through illness and the only substitute they could find in time was white. You basically had Otello in negative. I don’t recall any anguish about that.

      As for your second point, I saw (and heard!) Aida in Manchester back in the 1980’s with Wilhemina Fernandez in the title role (Opera North, funnily enough). She was exquisite. I couldn’t tell you if anyone thought her colour was an advantage or not, she was just excellent. Full stop. Slagging off posters on this thread you feel do not share your concerns doesn’t necessarily serve the points you try to make.

    • “A long history of racist casting decisions that justified offensive depictions of white Europeans who play characters of various ethnic backgrounds?”

      I can’t fathom what that means. Is “depictions” the right word?

    • Opera singer? To be honest, I believe you’re an entitled student of a college in the US trapped in the leftist student victim mindset. Just learn to sing properly first and let’s talk then.

  • Sadly, Tamara’s making Aida about herself, not about the character. It’s one thing to use black face to mock and humiliate African Americans, but that’s never been the case in opera. Otello or Aida have always been portrayed by non-African American singers with dignity. Have Asians ever complained about Asian face in Madama Butterfly? But the Left has reached such a level of insanity that political correctness is more important than playing a role truthfully.

  • Usually, contracts with soloists stare that the artist will follow directions and wear the costume and make up provided by the theatre and production team.
    Of course there can be room for discussion, but in the end it is the soloist who will bend. Refusing to wear the make up provided is a valid reason for making the contract void without compensation.

  • She should be more concerned with the excessive weight she carries, not posing as a SJW. It only shows how crappy and unbereable are those from the new generations. The world needs a new and devastating war to restore the sense of proportions and teach some dignity to hysterical and useless people.

  • She is trying to impose her American culture on Italian culture; black face as a racist thing comes from America. Verona and Giuseppe Verdi are Italy. Please respect our history, for us black color wasn’t synonym with slavery.

  • Tamara is a good singer but one like many. obsessed with self gratuity and ego indulgence. Earlier this week a few American singers began their race or weight rant seeking support from the public. This is a generation of entitled singers addicted to PR and external validation rather than just doing the job. Tamara knows full well before taking on a contract what it will entail. Although everyone supports her on social media, no one in their right mind, if faced with the same issue in their job would simply walk out.

    Nowthen, she may be closer to extinction as we speak. This is not due to this specific kerfuffle, but simply her taking on Turandot and Isolde.

    But she is of the empowerment generation not one of artistry.

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