Piotr Beczala: It’s absurd we can’t blacken up for Otello

Piotr Beczala: It’s absurd we can’t blacken up for Otello


norman lebrecht

July 05, 2020

The Polish tenor, interviewed by Christian Berzins today in the Aargauer Zeitung:

Es ist lächerlich, dass man sich nicht mehr vorstellen kann, Otello in einem Theater schwarz zu schminken. Jemandem verbieten, sich schwarz anzumalen, wenn er Otello singt? Verbieten, einer Butterfly Schlitzaugen zu malen? Das ist schwach, selbst wenn es Gründe dafür gibt,…, Es gibt visuelle Reize, die aufs Publikum wirken, sie verdreifachen den Effekt. Dazu gehört die schwarze Haut Otellos. Das Visuelle entfacht den Zauber der Emotionen,…, Oper ist ein Gesamtkunstwerk, jedes Element zählt – auch der schwarze Titelheld.

It is ridiculous you can no longer imagine wearing make-up for Otello in a theater. Forbid anyone to paint themselves black to sing Otello? Forbid painting narrow eyes on Madam Butterfly? This is tough, even if there are reasons for it … There are visual stimuli that affect the audience, they triple the effect. That includes Otello’s black skin. The visual kindles the magic of emotions, …, opera is a total work of art, every element counts – even the black hero.

He goes on to say:

Wenn eine Probezeit über fünf Wochen geht, ist das Opernhaus schlecht organisiert oder das Konzept so weit vom Original entfernt, dass man besser gar nicht zusagt.

If rehearsals last more than 5 weeks, either the opera house is badly run or the Konzept is so remote from the original you are better off not knowing.




  • Hermann the German says:

    Piotr, be careful about what you say, or youll lose your engagements.

  • Novagerio says:

    Piotr, it is indeed absurd to PAINT HIM BLACK, because Otello is a berber man, from Cyprus.
    It goes back to the old stereotyped idiosyncrasy that all moors and ottomans were “brown-faced”. Mustafà in Rossini’s Turco in Italia was always coloured like a chocolate figure, and turks are generally as “pale” as mediterranean people.

    • Luca says:

      Othello in fact says, wondering if it is the reason why Desdemona no longer loves him, “For that I am black”. As to the PC side, I consider it ludicrous.

      • V. Lind says:

        Given colour-blind casting, we are facing a white Otello and a black Desdemona.

        Sorry, but I do not equate stage make-up with racism. I consider it part and parcel of what is a major aspect of theatre: illusion. (I do take a dimmer view of “blacking up” for things like costume parties — there it is a choice and I think IS, possibly unconsciously, racist).

        • Cubs Fan says:

          Well said. Illusion – I like that.

        • John Borstlap says:

          However, there is an underhand touch of racist prejudice in the plot: Otello is supposed to be a great warrior, a great lover (the emotionally saturated love duet) and in the same time, suffering from lack of emotional control, hence his exaggerated jealousy and uninhibited killing of the love of his life. There was a trope of ‘moors’ exhibiting all those characteristics.

          • buxtehude says:

            Well that’s just Shakespeare, isn’t it? He takes the path of least resistance in his plots, hence the weasel Scot, the vengeful Jew, hot-headed Black, doddering Frenchman — not to speak of retarded artisans and unhinged teen lovers. The Merchant of Venice alone would have cost him any National Endowment for the Arts support and in the current atmosphere, he’d be finished.

            So would Bach.

            On the plus side I guess, that would make room . . .

          • V. Lind says:

            Excessive jealousy is a theme (not usually a trope) throughout all of literature and the uses made of it, on the part of people of all races. Why should a black man in a tough situation be any different?

            Reminds me of a friends of mine taking against a film called Basic Instinct because the baddie (possible spoiler here is anyone has not seen this and actually wants to) was bisexual. He was gay and thought the film was anti-gay — as if films were not LOADED with murderers of both sexes and probably every sexual predilection.

          • Yes Addison says:

            Yes, but Basic Instinct was released 28 years ago. At that time, as mainstream cinema went (without getting into the micro-budgeted indie fringes), LGBT characters were very limited in their characterization and subject matter, when included at all. The main options were psycho killers and predators, heavily stereotypical friends/neighbors intended as comic relief, and AIDS cases nobly marching to the grave. In the decades since, there has been a fuller representation of the spectrum of experience and behavior.

          • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

            I always thought that it was an “underhand touch” of anti-Muslim (but not necessarily inaccurate anti-Muslim) “prejudice.”

        • Paul Brownsey says:

          Yes. It astonishes me that too many people acknowledge no difference between the gross caricature blacking-up of minstrel shows (including the Black and White Minstrel Show in the UK) and a bit of tinting to fit the character.

      • Karl says:

        Maybe the script can be rewritten and have Otello be a little person? The tenor can just sing on his knees.

    • Eric says:

      Osmin and Monostatos are both called moors in the libretto but it’s a slippery term because you also have the word blackamoor, like “der kleine Neger” who serves chocolate at the beginning of Rosenkavalier and darts out to pick up the dropped handkerchief at the end.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In former ages, i.e. before ca. 1800, all ‘foreign’ people were considered ‘moors’, and their colour scheme ranges from beige via capuccino to really black. And it was not considered something ‘wrong’, in spite of occurring racism. In the Middle Ages there were lots of ‘moors’ in Europe and generally, they did well. It was only later with the development of colonialism that cynical racism set in.

      See the discussion about the Mohrenstrasse in Berlin in another post.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Indeed: Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather was a North African, and he achieved fame and was ennobled as a general in Russia. He was probably an extreme example of “doing well,” but it offers nuance to an oft-oversimplified perspective.

  • mary says:

    If you sing well, no one cares what you look like. What distinguishes one Otello from another isn’t the shade of your makeup, it’s the quality of your singing.

    If you opera singers really cared about realism in their role, 300 pound tenors would shed 150 lbs to play Rodolfo, 40 year old sopranos would need more than to paint their eyes narrow to play Madame Butterfly, they’d better have plastic surgery to tighten up their entire sagging face and turkey neck to look 20 years younger.

    Makeup is used as a crutch by those who can’t convince with their singing.

    • today says:

      You’re behind the times mary.

      Vocal quality, technique and academic credentials mean NOTHING today.

      Race, hurt feelings and violence if not appeased are the most important factors.

      It’s about making social statements to align with petty narratives, not about being the best in your field no matter the profession.

      That’s why white singers are pulling out of opera. There’s no opportunity besides how poorly run the opera houses have been managed with no cash reserves during the pandemic.

      It’s been a precipitous lack of talent and interest by the supposed newly educated anyway.

    • Tim Read says:

      Where in the libretto does it say that Rodolfo is thin? No where. Otello’s libretto does say he’s black. Do some research before spouting off.

      • mary says:

        Sure, a 300 pound Rodolfo would explain why he’s starving all the time.

        • Gen Y says:

          I just figured Rodolfo was on benefits (in a food dessert making poor choices) and Mimi was into fatties..

      • M McAlpine says:

        The libretto specifically says Otello is black. Shakespeare’s play is about racism. It would never be allowed today

      • Not Rodolfo says:

        Well if you read the libretto, Rodolfo is a poor man, and I’m not sure there were overweight poor people back then.

    • V. Lind says:

      Not the point. His colour is an ISSUE in the plot (and plotting) in Otello/Othello. He has to be played as different from the others.

    • Vincent Freeman says:

      You are spot on. I’d rather Piotr et al. be more concerned with whether they can realize the character with their voice. “Blackening” up is silly and unnecessary.

      • Cameron Abbadovar says:

        Too bad all of your kind are too poor to build your own opera house and re-create your own history.

        EVERY production would be argued into oblivion and you’d be broke since nobody donates to empty theaters.


      • Peter San Diego says:

        I find myself agreeing with both V. Lind and V. Freeman.

  • DeepSouthSenior says:

    Not only am I a senior citizen, I’m old-fashioned and conservative by nature. This year, though, I feel positively antediluvian. I’ve always thought that the theater, musical and otherwise, involved something called “acting.” Isn’t that like, you know, pretending to be someone else? No, we’re told, we must flee the sin of cultural appropriation. I’m waiting for the guardians of the social justice culture to demand that “Hamilton” be cast with all white performers.

    • Jim says:

      Hamilton is cast with Black and Latino actors to distract the audience from the kidnapping and murdering of the slave-trading protagonists.

  • pjl says:

    the main thing is that an actor/singer shows he feels he is an outsider who is only grudgingly accepted by the Senate etc. Patrick Stewart did this by being a white Othello with an otherwise black cast in Washington. I remember a radio production (the great Paul Schofield, I think) where he used an accent so that he sounded different from the others. There are enough great black actors now for the play but fewer black tenors with all the notes, so surely a costume might be used to give us a sense that the general is different from Iago et al
    An interesting footnote is how Willard White, unable to sing a tenor role, was given a chance by the RSC; cf Paul Robeson.

    • buxtehude says:

      Fair point but you make it with the example of two geniuses. There are not enough of them to go around; it is not enough to merely “show the way.”

  • Leporello says:

    It is completely idiotic. Verdi’s opera (and Shakespeare’s play) loses a great deal if Otello/Othello looks no different from anyone else in the drama. What’s next – young singers can’t play older roles? Falstaff can’t be fat? Rigoletto can no longer be shown with a hunchback? Absurd.

    • Jim says:

      Sorry that you have a hard time following the plot if Otello isn’t in blackface.

      • Nelson says:

        By the logic that Otello can’t be performed by a Caucasian with makeup, but only by someone with a native moorish complexion, then those singers who pass the PC test for Otello, should never be cast as Caucasians? Obviously that’s ridiculous, but the arguments about this whole issue all go up in smoke at some point. It’s the theater folks. How does one square gender politics with Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier? I suppose we’ll have to hear some BS about that one day too.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Somewhere in the future we will see Tristan und Isolde performed by two nuns, or two gays – just to compensate for historic injustice.

  • Alviano says:

    Yes, but if Otello looks like everyone else on stage, then the plot makes no sense. Iago’s scheming only works because Otello fears Desdemona may no longer love him because of his race.
    Oddly, by covering race, we not only pull teeth from the story but obscure a powerful racial message.

    • Jim says:

      Sorry, I know it’s very difficult to keep up with the plot when Otello isn’t in blackface! I also saw a production once where they didn’t even bring in a real ocean or a ship into the opera house for the opening scene, it was very confusing.

    • Novagerio says:

      Iago’s scheming and Desdemona’s fear are about Otello being a moor; it’s about the title role’s race, temper and personal insecurity, not about his skin colour. Being a moor is what makes him different from the others. Remember Othello and Otello are about a cypriot in Venice.
      Remember, Cyprus was an overseas possession of the Republic of Venice from 1489 until 1571, when the island was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

      You act him, and hopefully without colouring neither the skin nor the voice.

  • James Weiss says:

    I suppose the “woke” left will now cancel Piotr. The pearl clutchers at Parterre Box will go ballistic at the mere thought of having an informed conversation about this.

    • Karl says:

      Maybe he can get away with it because he’s one of the world’s top tenors.

    • Bruce says:

      Do people even notice or care what opera singers say?

      Pretty sure the answer is no.

    • Emil says:

      That’s cancel culture for ya. As in, screaming “Cancel Culture” at nothing, jumping up and down at the anticipation of the sure-to-come cancellation, and watering at the mouth, waiting for the hordes of cancelers. And if they don’t come, well at least waiting for the Cancel Culture ™ is fun, isn’t it?

      For your information, I just checked Parterre and the last mention of Beczala was on March 15 (to mention he was singing Werther with DiDonato). Does that mean they cancelled him all the way back on March 16th? Preventative cancellation! Gasp!

    • jLibrarian says:

      Yeah right – whatever! As a black person I have mixed feelings about “blackface” in the arts. I really do. That’s for me to deal with. One thing I am definately sure of however is Piotr’s comments (I read the entire article) and the discussion here has NOT changed my opinion of him as a person or performer at all. He is and remains my favorite tenor.

  • Brian says:

    Kind of amazing a singer would rekindle this issue at a time of global protests over racial justice. I guess Poland is its own separate universe, but doesn’t he follow the news headlines? It’s not going to win him many fans among casting directors, if anything else.

    • V. Lind says:

      Which makes it rather courageous. Good for him.

      • jlibrarian says:

        Agreed. I see no reason why he shouldn’t discuss it especially as he wants to sing the role as most top tenors do.

    • Allen says:

      “global protests over racial justice”

      No, it’s not. It’s a tiny number of people concerned with very specific instances of racial injustice, a racist anti-White element, a larger number who see an opportunity to pursue left-wing political goals under the guise of a worthy slogan which people are reluctant to speak up against, and a huge number of virtue signalling, middle class hypocrites who, if it came to the crunch, wouldn’t lift a finger.

      • Roger says:

        “Racist anti-white element”. Right. Maybe it’s time to leave the comments thread here. I think you’re needed at a KKK/Trump rally.

        • Adrienne says:

          ‘I think you’re needed at a KKK’

          That’s ridiculous, there’s clearly a strong anti-white streak running through this.

          He’s also right about the (presumably white) middle class involvement. It’s an affectation that will last until they get bored, or a cooler cause comes along. I suggest the Uyghurs in China – any takers? No, thought not.

        • Efram A says:

          Perhaps the black communist rallies for George Floyd are better.

          Projecting as you willfully infect both each other and everyone else you’ve come into contact with is a crime those savages are now being charged with.

          • Jim says:

            Comments are moderated before they appear on this site – so presumably the moderator approved a comment calling Black people “savages”?

        • Tyler says:

          Please have this comment removed.

        • Shalom says:

          I’m highly offended by Roger’s comment as a proud Jewish Trump supporter!

          Please remove his incendiary post.

      • David says:

        Tiny number? This is the biggest civil protest in decades that has permeated throughout the world. There is no right or left to justice, can you try to see things for what they are instead of through the lens of divisive and simplified politics?

  • Bloom says:

    Othello/Otello s “blackness” is a very deep social, psychological , moral issue , a sort of Pandora’s box, a bleeding wound that one has to (re)open if he wants to get to the core of Shakespeare s tragedy or of Verdi’s opera . Either by black facing or not.

  • Cyproot Otello's Please says:

    It’s ridiculous to have anyone non-Cypriot singing Otello!!!

    That is where this race baiting, anti-artistic, fascist mob is going.

    The months long lockdown has led to a brainwashed politically correct and cultially inept population.

    Bravo, Piotr! You are right and a great artist!

  • Tyler says:

    Please have this comment removed.

  • Jim says:

    It’s 15:20 UTC right now, let’s see how long a comment with the N word is allowed to remain on a blog post featuring one of the world’s most famous opera singers defending blackface.

  • Civil Discourse. says:

    He is correct. However, he still should not sing the role.

  • Peter says:

    PB is a very good tenor, but not a great one… he has a beautiful voice, but not a memorable one.
    And we could probably say the same about his character… the interview is “bald” for a guy like him, who always has been somewhere in the shadow, somehow boring. But with Austria and Germany praising him as a star tenor probably he felt Ok being different now. His recording career (and he is 53 yo) counts just a handful of CDs, nothing over the top, so I find using the “star” word for every other singer a little bit too much.

    In the same interview he goes on slacking Netrebko a bit, which is a little bit curious to me:

    “But if a very good Mimi should suddenly sing Turandot, then I express my doubts”

    Finally, I agree with him about the productions and so on, but if we see some of the productions he has accepted to sing in, and then it also makes one think that these are only words, but not facts…


    • Sandra Mortimer says:

      Anna brings in $$$

      EVERYONE says the same thing about her lack of vocal quality yet people PAY to see her unlike the other MET ‘stars’.

      Today there’s only a couple of male stars; a handful of tenors and no basses anymore…sad

  • Helen says:

    I do not agree with him. As far as I am concerned whoever is playing Otello should be able to get over the feelings of difference or being outsider without black makeup. The power of the performance should convey it. The audience is not stupid. They do not need a blacked up white singer/actor to get the point.

  • Emil says:

    *Whispers*: If there were enough Black tenors around you wouldn’t need to!
    And Madame Butterfly is an Italian opera so there’s no point, really.

    • Juicy says:

      Can you please be more specific regarding your comment about “enough Black tenors”. Are you saying that there aren’t enough Black tenors being hired to sing Otello? Or are you saying that there aren’t Black tenors that CAN sing the role?

      • Emil says:

        I’m saying that opera suffers from a chronic underrepresentation of non-white singers. And that if there were more Black tenors, there would – likely – be more Black tenors who could sing Otello, and who therefore could be hired to sing it.

        I don’t have a problem with white tenors singing Otello. But if people really need a Black singer to understand the opera, hiring Black singers seems like an elegant and easy solution – it only requires fixing systematic underrepresentation!

  • Emil says:

    We absolutely need a dark-skinned Otello, but a woman playing a young boy (Cherubino, etc.), a high-pitched Julius Cesar, a white Cleopatra, 50-year old sopranos playing Butterfly and Lucia, etc. are all good. Got it.

    • Vincent Freeman says:

      Nope, it’s not needed at all.

    • V. Lind says:

      It’s STAGE MAKE-UP. Donned for three hours for someone in character and then removed. I am as liberal and anti-racist as anyone on here, but I simply do not accept that the convention of making up to look a part is discriminatory. Actors pad themselves out to play Falstaff. Actresses sometimes wear strategic pads to play pregnant. They don wigs, and make up to look older than they are (rarely works the other way, though film is making some inroads from what I hear about The Irishman). They use accents not native to themselves. Actors and singers wear all sorts of things they would never don in real life, or they remove clothing in public to play a part where they would do no such thing in the village square.

      The theatre is PRETENDING. If the text is not insulting, then the costumes and make-up should certainly not be so adjudged.

      • Jim says:

        Yes, theatre is pretending, so why aren’t you able to suspend your disbelief when characters don’t don blackface or brownface? There are people on a stage singing to each other for three hours and the part you find unbelievable is that the protagonist didn’t wear dark makeup? It must be hard for someone so unimaginative to enjoy the opera and theatre at all.

        • V. Lind says:

          I don’t find it unbelievable at all. I remember seeing Alicia Alonso dance Giselle at 49 — a village girl of 15 or 16 being danced by an ageing, almost blind ballerina. When she entered, I was a little taken aback. Within minutes, I had utterly forgotten her age, so great was her performance. She was the last Assoluta.

          And I lobbied the then-artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada hard to engage a young black dancer called John Alleyne, whom I had seen perform. The AD admired his talent, but said he did not think a black dancer could take the principal roles — Romeo, various princes in the classics. I am happy to say he later engaged Alleyne, though I believe for other roles,
          and he was the last of the English artistic directors of the NBC and this attitude left with him.

          As someone who had to cast students as old people when directing at university, I have long suspended my disbelief.

          But I still do not think that STAGE MAKE-UP is a racist issue — not in the legitimate theatre. It is not being used to mock. In the case of Otello/Othello, it is being used to illustrate. It need only be a suggestion.

          I do see that there is history of bad attitudes, but can’t white people also be credited with having learned from history? I seriously doubt Piotr Beczała is a racist. And I imagine every white actor or singer who makes up to play or sing this role is thinking hard about t every time he puts on the make-up.

          Companies must make up their own minds, but those fighting for justice ought to learn to separate the important things from the trivial. Artists with no malign intent ought not to be pilloried for observing theatrical conventions.

          • jlibrarian says:

            Racist, he most definitely is not – I’ve met him at enough stage doors to know that he treats all his fans the same!

      • Emil says:

        It’s not *just* stage make-up, though: it’s embedded in a long tradition of offensive depictions of Black and non-white people. That tradition of portrayals, whether you like it or not, exists beyond the context of a specific performance of a specific play or opera. And that tradition’s relationship to power structures cannot be wished away.
        More broadly, though, it’s well established that opera has a problem of severe under representation of Black artists. The least that can be done is listening to them when they say something is offensive, and removing egregious displays that cause offense. We may not agree with it, but that is part of living in a society – not causing unnecessary offense if it can be avoided.
        And, as mentioned above, I just don’t buy the ‘it’s necessary for the understanding of the opera’ argument. Butterfly being a naive 15 year-old is an equally crucial plot point, but somehow Mirella Freni is just fine there. Cherubino is a teenage boy with irrepressible teenage boy hormones; he’s frequently played by not-very-well disguised women in their 40s, and that somehow does not ruin the opera (indeed, it was written that way!).
        To you who say ‘disguise is part of the theatre’, I say that suspension of disbelief is equally part of it. That’s what makes Sarah Connolly a believable Julius Caesar, Bryn Terfel a valet in Seville, and that makes Anna Netrebko pretend to be Anne Boleyn. In many cases, it’s written into the work itself – such as Cherubino mentioned above, where the cross-dressing of a female mezzo dressed as a boy who dresses like a girl in Act 2 is done for comedic purposes; believable? No. Funny? Yes. It’s also what made the RSC stage an all-female actors of colour production of Richard II last year, which was excellent – and I understood the drama just as well, despite Richard being a Black woman.
        As a final question, *if* Otello must absolutely be blackened to create a difference with Desdemona, does that mean that a Black soprano could never sing Desdemona? My position is that she absolutely can and should if she can sing the role.

        • Adrienne says:

          ‘it’s well established that opera has a problem of severe under representation of Black artists.’

          Why is it a problem? I’m the only member of my extended family with any interest whatsoever in western classical music or opera. This is far from unusual. Are you saying that they are a problem because YOU have decided that their interests should reflect yours?

          They are not being excluded. Believe it or not, Black people are capable of making choices without your input, thanks all the same.

          • Emil says:

            Do you really not see the mutually reinforcing logic uniting the underrepresentation of Black artists and the presence of blackface in opera?

          • Adrienne says:

            For the last time: Underrepresentation doesn’t matter if it is the result of less interest in opera amongst Black people which, in my experience, is certainly the case. The same argument applies to orchestras.

            We don’t need to be told by White people that we should change our preferences to satisfy your ideals and quotas.

            We get this patronising nonsense all the time, and it needs to stop. In the meantime, I am going to insist that you join a Gospel choir because White people are underrepresented.

          • Emil says:

            And you don’t the Black artists who *are* interested in opera may want to not get confronted with blackface stereotypes?

            As for whether underrepresentation is a problem, I may refer you to Russell Thomas, who says exactly that, here: “There needs, he says, to be more black administrators — an avenue he’s starting to explore himself. “If you’re not going to change the structure of the institutions,” Thomas says, “what’s really going to happen?””

            The rest of the article discusses the problems of pigeon-holing Black artists, of exceeding pressures on Black singers,

          • jlibrarian says:

            Here is Russell Thomas with Reginald Smith Jr. as Iago singing Otello in a concert setting.

      • Bacquier lives says:

        Do you know Howard Haskin? In 1994 Mr Haskin auditioned for the part of Otello in France and was told his skin colour was a problem. He had the voice for the part, he is black and was initially not contracted (before the singer they chose canceled and they had to call Haskin to stand in. Thus he became the first black tenor to sing the part). His agent, who was black too recounted this. I think your point of view is interesting but unfortunately insensitive to the profoundly derogatory history and meaning of blackface. In 2018 I saw a Traviata at the Bastille operahouse in which Annina was blackfaced just because the stage director had decided to exhibit a famous Manet painting ‘Olympia’ on stage with its black servant attending a prostitute, but the opera had not bothered to hire an actual black singer to sing the few bars for Annina. As I personally know a couple of very good black singers who could have done it, I was incensed. The production was discontinued the year after although La Traviata was given again (that is last October or sth) Pretty Yende was one of the two sopranos singing Violetta, so whitefacing her to mimic the painting would not have been an option, or would it?
        I thought there were no black tenors who could sing the part but this is not true. I know now at least two, but you don’t see them on stage. Why? And unlike Beczala they really have the trumpetty voice necessary for the part.
        These anedoctes I hope will prove you that the problem is more complex than what you think it is. There is also the fact that mores change : would you accept all male Shakespeare plays because this is how it was done at the time, because theatre is pretending as you said and staying true to original customs is of paramount importance?
        And please don’t tell me that my stance means that for example only hunchbacks are acceptable to sing Rigoletto, which would be reductio ad absurdum.

    • David says:

      Your reasoning is irrefutable, yet emotional people appear to be automatically downvoting you without being able to argue why…This comment section reminds me of fights by petulant children erupting on a playground. I bet the same people would be outraged if only black singers were cast as Otello, not knowing that the arguments they are making above would certainly justify it.

      The bottom line is, if people are going to make the argument that the Opera is an illusion, then they should be able to accept creative choices such as painting one’s facing black, especially as it has significant consequences.

      If they are going to argue that the Opera must reflect the original text carefully, then they should require such essentialist reading for every production and for any aspect of the performance, including the set, costume, language, etc. That would, however, discredit most modern productions.

      In the end, people disagreeing aren’t doing so based on reason. They immediately perceive ulterior political motives that they believe would undermine their existence. Somehow, like children, they perceive everything to be either or, you against me, black and white. They don’t want to even begin to think about racism in our world. They wish not to look deeper into themselves and question whether they have participated in perpetuating systems of oppression. We are all the product of our environment and necessarily have racial biases, and we should be able to admit this so we can work towards betterment. I don’t understand why this is so hard.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Oppression is not a matter of ‘systems’ but of attitudes of uninformed people. There is no apartheid law in the West, and not in most countries outside it. It is people badly functioning within systems, not the systems themselves.

        • Emil says:

          Once again, the first sentence is completely and ludicrously wrong. That is not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of fact, documented by a plethora of scholars and studies. Focusing on oppression as “attitudes” is not missing the forest for the trees – at this point you’re focusing on a few leaves and missing the forest.

          • John Borstlap says:

            It depends upon how the term ‘system’ is used. I think it is a wrong term because it suggests something legal, abstract, rational, impersonal. But racism is the opposite of all of that, it locates in the minds of people, and is uninformed, irrational prejudice.

          • David says:

            I understand what you mean, ultimately racism is perpetrated by human actions stemming from human minds. However, I think it is not accurate to assign a dichotomy between systems and individual action. We are a product of the environment, including the systems, culture, structure, etc. We don’t act randomly, and we are not born with prejudices but rather learn it. Sometimes we learn directly from actual systems of discrimination (housing discrimination), and other times it is the cultural consequences of such systems that may no longer exist (like slavery).

            The issue here in regards to the traditions of Opera is precisely the second aspect I mentioned, which is that of cultural consequences. If black people have been portrayed as evil, then continuing that portrayal is contributing to the perpetuation of bias. Even if you’d like to think that this is all in good fun, no one really thinks black people are evil etc, clearly the reality is that we are not so aware of our own biases (look at the inequality of treatment within the police force, most of them will not admit to being racist because they are not aware). We are not aware because we are not aware of these systems that influence us, and therefore have been unable/unwilling to change them. This is why this discussion is important when we are hoping to change. Just saying “equality for all” is not going to magically change one’s attitude and behavior. We have to take practical steps towards it

          • John Borstlap says:

            How? By law? That has already been done and it does not always work – why not? Because people can avoid breaking the law and still act racist. It is impossible to create a system that prevents racism. It is trying the wrong tool, and it may led to totalitarianism. It is information and education and collective social disapproval, which can hopefully do something about it.

            What if we had to choose between a free society which alas also includes people inclined to racist behavior, or a totalitarian state where the regime checks and monitors every civilian’s behavior, through apps, all kinds of IT measures etc., with the threat of grave penalties, what would we choose? With freedom comes responsibility and that is the weak spot of free societies, especially when educational systems fail to address such problems enough.

          • David says:

            Yes, laws themselves are insufficient, if it does change the culture of discrimination and racism at the level of individual minds. Slavery has been abolished but its consequences still linger till today because it has not entirely changed how we perceive, and therefore, how we continue to operate certain systems (police force, for example).

            However, that does not mean there is nothing we can do. Tackling inequality, providing better healthcare for all, reforming the police, educating the people about their own biases and history of discrimination, providing better policies of integration, and addressing issues discussed here about the link between racism and culture/opera…all these things together can contribute to a shift in mentality. We cannot expect individuals to solve such issues and reform them, since they are largely a product of systems created and regulated collectively.

            You also raise one of the most important issues of political philosophy dealt with since Plato: what is freedom and how should it be guaranteed? If you believe that liberal democracy is about total negative freedom (the freedom from any external factor), then we will have a profound disagreement. That means you will be against mandatory education, vaccines/healthcare, tax, social security, and all other forms of aid that is meant to promote well-being of all. But not many people take this extreme position, because we understand that our freedom to choose what we want to do is only guaranteed if others also respect our choices and abide by the same rules. It is reciprocal coercion, in the words of Republicanist Kant, which guarantees collective freedom. We believe that democracy is important not only because we value individual freedom, but because having our individual voices heard and reflected leads to a better society that guarantees freedom and well-being of all, not just for a few privileged.

            This idea is therefore completely different to totalitarianism, since the tenet is checks and balances of power for the collective good. We can reform systems without oppressing (we do not need the state to control our means of production in order to solve inequality, look at scandinavia). We can offer more options without taking away other people’s options (marriage equality, for example). And one day when things do become equal and fair, that’s when we can finally be colorblind, and respect artistic choices of blackface, for example. Because at that point, it has no power of discrimination. However, we are not at that point yet, and we have a lot to reform before.

            I appreciate you engaging with me, and I think you make good points. I hope you can also try to understand my point that the issue at hand is not about whether it’s system vs individuals, or freedom vs totalitarianism. Systems and individuals are inextricably linked and influence each other, and freedom is not just about absence of coercion, but about how to guarantee maximum opportunity and choices that contribute to our well-being.

    • PaulD says:

      Cleopatra was of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Her lineage was Macedonian Greek, so we should be ok with a White Cleopatra.

  • Alphonse says:

    The endless navel-gazing about race and gender will seemingly never cease…

    • V. Lind says:

      And it probably shouldn’t. These things need to be examined. But it is a long way from the sort of lively debate above to a culture of finding offence in everything. How about a little perspective, a sense of proportion?

    • Emil says:

      Yeah, it’s almost as if there are people who are not white men in the world or something. Maybe even a majority! Who knew…

      • Alphonse says:

        What are you trying to prove, Emil? No one is impressed. Perhaps a better question would be: what are you trying to hide? Your overcompensation speaks for itself. As we ‘90s kids used to say- ‘nuff said.

        • Bacquier lives says:

          I see Alphonse, what you really mean is that Emil is a traitor to the race, don’t you? I am impressed that a white person such as Emil dares to articulate cogent discourse on this issue as he redeems what I can only term as careless reactionary viewpoints from most (white) posters on here. The voice of the majority here is the reason why there is a BLM movement, and the reason there are so few black people in classical music. No wonder though as if we focus on for example opera, its central status in European culture almost exactly spans the period between the birth and end of European colonial empires roughly from mid XVIth century to mid 20th century.
          You have people here denying the legacy of racism, bigotry and oppression, and its current manifestations by writing about Pushkin’s great grandfather (who never was North African as someone claimed here to whiten him a bit, he was from West /Central Africa) or the Chevalier de Saint-George. As if these singular destinies redeemed all the centuries of horror and oppression.

  • Herbie G says:

    O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! You are just scratching the surface! If you ‘black up’ to play Otello, then you will be excoriated for ‘blacking up’. If you don’t, you will be excoriated for playing a black part as a white person. But then there’s the doctrine of Cultural Appropriation; Verdi was Italian and any non-Italian performing his works is robbing the Italians of their cultural heritage – so to be absolutely politically correct, the whole cast, the chorus, the orchestra and conductor must be Italian, and of course the star part must therefore always be sung by a black Italian. However, not only must he be played by a black Italian but by one who has killed his wife; if the singer hadn’t, he would be exposing himself to hatred from the audience for this dastardly crime. For that matter, all Beethoven must be performed by Germans, all Grieg by Norwegians and so on.
    Before the performance, there must be a health warning prominently displayed to the audience stating that this opera presents attitudes that are not acceptable today, and that this story is fictitious and none of the characters ever existed. And don’t try this at home.
    But wait… why is Otello always played by a male singer? This is surely a hangover from the male-dominated classical music tradition, so from now onwards Otello must be played by a female. Another problem is that Desdemona is described as ‘his wife’. The possessive ‘his’ denotes the age-old oppression of women by their being chattels of their husbands. So from now onwards Desdemona should be described as his partner. This presents another problem though, because if Othello is played by a woman and so is Desdemona, then the opera would display a woman killing another woman, and we all know that this never ever happens – so Desdemona must be played by a man, as they all deserve to be killed as serial exploiters of women.
    Now comes Desdemona’s ‘Ave Maria’. This represents the Church, which has historically sponsored murder (inter alia, the Crusades) and discriminated against women – so this should be replaced by ‘We shall overcome’.
    OK – so let’s abandon Othello as presenting too many political pitfalls – and let’s turn to Nabucco, with its famous ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Unpaid and Exploited Workers’ – or let’s not. Verdi was an Italian composer and Italy committed appalling war crimes in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) so none of his operas should ever be performed and all his statues should be destroyed.
    How long will we keep kow-towing to these vacuous pseudo-political concepts? They all deflect attention from the real villains – principally the institutionally racist, violent, murderous police in the USA, supported by a megalomaniac, paranoid and illiterate fake ‘president’ who fans the flames of white supremacy. Whatever happens here is a mere scintilla against all that – which is not to say that there isn’t still much to be done here to eliminate public hostility such as that which regularly occurs at football matches. There, that’s my rant for the day – a day much enhanced by my first meal in a real restaurant for nearly four months, after a morning listening to some obscure music with a friend.

  • psq says:

    Have the Japanese been complaining about the misappropriation by non-Japanese singers taking on the role of Butterfly and all the pseudo-Japanese productions that sprang up outside Japan ever since Butterfly was introduced to the world?

  • leroux says:

    when porgy and bess (not really an opera, but still) can be performed without any hoopla by an all white cast, then perhaps “racism” is near done with.

  • Alfbek Lorder says:

    I really hated Martinelli’s singing but thought his blackface was wonderful…..duh

  • Nick says:

    Right, this is not only killing the arts but also appeasing the vandals! Piotr is 100% right. It is ABSURD and we should stop appeasing the morons.

  • John Rook says:

    …dass man besser gar nicht zusagt.

    This actually means ‘then you’re better off not accepting’.

  • BrianB says:

    In the recent Porgy symposium hosted by Joseph Horowitz, both noted African American artists, George Shirley and Kevin Deas (a noted Porgy) said that blacking up for appropriate roles–including a white baritone blacking up for Porgy–is entirely legit and neither had a problem with it.

  • Steve B says:

    Get over it! As the late Anna Russell said, “You can do anything in opera – as long as you sing it!”

  • AngloGerman says:

    Finally someone not afraid to voice his (in my opinion entirely correct) opinion, even if the race-obsessed left wing will attempt to destroy his career over comments such as this, but love China despite their state-sponsored racism and genocides…

  • Great interview! I totally agree with Piotr Beczalas statements. Because the most important things on stage are voice and character. If you put black makeup on a white person, it doesn’t mean that you have something against black people, but it means that it is important that this person is black or depicted in black, if the composer and lyricist determined it that way. A director should always remain true to the concept of composer and librettist in opera.