Next they’ll ban Madam ButterflyNews
Reader’s Comment of the Day on the Nixon in China furore:
I am very concerned about where this is going and fear it would ultimately harm the art form and everybody in the industry – performers, presenters and public. Once a work of art is created, it is out there for performers and producers to interpret and produce in different ways (unless dictated otherwise by the rights’ owners – for instance, the Gershwin estate requires an all-black cast for Porgy and Bess). By definition opera involves acting, and the whole idea of acting is of a person embodying another character on stage. Yes, it’s good to have authentic casting (matching the age and looks of the character) but that’s not always possible nor desirable, and that’s really not the point.
The Nebraska-born Irish-German 48 years old Marlon Brando still was memorable as an ageing Italian mafia boss, and the English Vivien Leigh still moving as an American Southern Belle. Opera has the power to reach deep into our minds and emotions in unique ways. It is that combination of drama, music and the human voice that is much greater the sum of its components. We have countless examples of great operatic performances by artists who were not of the “appropriate” age, race or nationality but still managed to capture the essence of a role in unique and moving ways. We must also realise that works of art that were conceived 50 or 150 years ago do not necessarily convey or adhere to the same values that we aspire to in 2021.
We have to remember what makes these works great and why it is that we want to keep performing them. These works can reach us still now, because in their core they communicate deep truths about emotions and about the human existence. We are currently hearing many complaints about non “racially-correct” casting. These complaints to me are too literal and entirely miss the point of what opera is.
I suspect that a Salome sung by a 17-year old middle-eastern singer won’t be a success, nor a 15-year old Japanese singer as Butterfly. Further, I think that the idea of “racially-correct” casting would be most harmful for non-white artists, in seriously limiting the range of roles that they would be considered for. Case in point – if we apply the “racially-correct” principle across the board, then Eric Greene (a very fine singer) should not be cast as Nixon, and so on.
I applaud and support the movement for more diversity across the board in the music and opera world but hope that artistic merit, talent and skill would continue to be the main parameters by which artistic decisions are made, rather than identity politics, and I believe that artistic excellence is what’s going to sustain the industry long-term. I hope that everyone accepts that artists of all races, shapes, ages and nationalities can and should be considered for the whole gamut of operatic roles if they can sing and act the part convincingly. As far as repertoire – almost every opera deals with difficult themes such as a war, violence, sexual abuse, racism, xenophobia, class warfare.. With our 2021 sensitivity it would not be difficult to find something offensive in pretty much every standard opera, but these are still fantastic and important works of art that have a lot to tell us nowadays. We have to watch out for how cancel culture is affecting us.
An important US industry insider mentioned to me that he might never get to hear Madama Buttefly again – an opera that is very much a target of the “racially-correct” crowd, and that an Asian mezzo-soprano he knows and who has sung Suzuki for many companies is now seeing her many future jobs singing the role being pulled away. I know that this a very sensitive topic right now, but hope that opera companies (especially in the US and UK), while working towards diversity and inclusivity, do their part to defend the art form. I also hope that some of the activists, sometimes in their zeal to increase racial justice and inclusivity in the business, realise that some of their demands might decimate the entire industry – in other words, everything will be just and politically correct, but there might not be so much of it left.