Nixon is Black but the Chinese can’t be yellowface

Nixon is Black but the Chinese can’t be yellowface


norman lebrecht

June 14, 2021

Scottish Opera has withdrawn its production of Nixon in China from a major award after complaints of ethnic confusion.

John Adams’ Nixon in China features the African-American Eric Greene in the title role, so that’s OK.

But a composer called Julian Chou-Lambert complained that only one of the Chinese was played by an Asian and that was ‘not good enough’.

He has 341 followers, enough to make SO withdraw its show from the Sky Arts awards and effusively apologise.


So brave.


  • Alexander says:

    Why should Europe tolerate that typical American pit-of-mistake pseudo-historical farce ? What next – Black Eugene Oneguin or Lucia ? White lives also matter, especially in Europe, I think 😉
    PS Verdi and Donizetti turn in their graves as electric ceiling fans , Tchaikowski is at “ready-set-go” position ….

    • anon says:

      Funny that you should choose Eugene Onegin as one of your examples, given Alexander Pushkin- the author of the source material and father of Russian Literature- was a member of the African Diaspora. So, yes, a Black Onegin would be brilliant to see and perfectly apropos.

    • Steve says:

      Actually, I saw a black Onegin – the wonderfully gifted Roddy Williams at Garsington a few years back – and he was splendid.

    • Alexander says:

      Mr. Pushkin was half -or-similar blood of his ethiopian prince ancestor who ( in his own turn) had never been a slave. Europe didn’t export slaves as America did. That’s the point. The word “nigger” is still decent in some European countries and means “black person” and no other connotation. Mr.Pushkin was a noble russian man, a kind of esquire with an excellent education.
      Americans should solve their own problems themselves not to shift the load to Europeans hands. That’s enough on woke bullies here.
      As for Eugene Oneguin 😉 Tell black opera story to Russians 😉 I only want to tell you an anecdote I saw on Reddit the other day : ” An american spy had been trained for years to be a very important insider in Russia. The day came and he appeared in a Siberian village to ask the way to the nearest big city. A Russian woman surprisingly asked him whether he was an American spy. No, he answered, I am Ivan Ivanov, an ordinary Russian guy who got lost. A woman gave him a mirror and said “Look there and tell me please have you ever seen a typical black Russian” 😉

      • Alexander says:

        …. didn’t import ….

      • Althea Talbot-Howard says:

        ‘The word “nigger” is still decent in some European countries and means “black person” and no other connotation.’

        Shame on you for shoehorning the N-word into your post – and upon the moderator, too, for allowing it to remain.

        Any European country which allegedly finds such a word ‘decent’ is not one I plan to visit.

        I think that’s your conscience that you’ve just scraped off the bottom of your shoe, ‘Alexander’.

        • Ashu says:

          [Any European country which allegedly finds such a word ‘decent’ is not one I plan to visit.]

          The pain.

          What he was trying to say is that words like _nero_ in Romance languages are untainted by the history that has made nigger (derived from the same Latin word, niger) one of the most unutterable words in the English language today, so that, yes, Italian nero is the normal, decent word for a black man in Italian.

  • Brian says:

    I don’t know what is worse, the people who complain that the singer portraying a character in an opera is not actually of the same ethnicity of the character, or the cowardly, mealy-mouthed administrators who kowtow to them. That the singer portraying Nixon is black is of no consequence to the story, nor is the fact that some of the asian characters are portrayed by non-asians.

  • Karl says:

    People should stand their ground against the woke bullies. If someone doesn’t like a yellowface or blackface production just tell them if they don’t like it they don’t have to watch it.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “People should stand their ground against the woke bullies.”

      But only against woke bullies! The unwoke ones may please go ahead and storm the capitol. And don’t shoot them, because they don’t like this whole leftist stand your ground concept when they are the ones staring into the barrel of a gun. So be nice. But not to the woke bullies. Be nice to the right-wing bullies.

      Any questions? Class dismissed.

      And if somebody doesn’t like to be insulted just tell these f*ckers to bugger off, so they don’t have to listen to these insults. For example, this Karl… erm, Karl, you might want to bugger off for this one. 😉

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        Mister Brettermeier only recognises one-way streets.

        • John Borstlap says:

          There is the story that he was spotted driving on the wrong side of the road in central Berlin, claiming it was the rest who was mixing-up directions.

          • Brettermeier says:

            “claiming it was the rest who was mixing-up directions.”

            Even worse: I could probably prove it. 😉

      • Karl says:

        Thank you for reading Karl’s words of wisdom Brettermeier. I will continue to ignore everything you write.

  • James Weiss says:

    There is nothing more invidious nor dangerous in our world today than “cancel culture.” It’s anti-intellectual, anti-common sense. It seeks to destroy every aspect of our culture and society that doesn’t conform to a narrow-minded point of view. It must be fought at every turn by decent people everywhere.

  • marcus says:

    You would have thought that Scotland, being a beacon of wokery, (viz Gender Recognition act, Hate Crime Bill etc) would have seen this coming?

  • HugoPreuss says:

    How about Macbeth, and none of the singers come from Scotland? Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and not one single ancient Roman in sight. Aida – but where are the pre-Islam singers from Egypt.

    This is utterly ridiculous. If someone would complain about a black singer doing Nixon he’d be accused of racism, and not without justification. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” are just reverse racism, and not much else. At least in this case.

    Final shocker: this opera depicts plenty of politicians. And yet, opera singers impersonate them. Unacceptable cultural appropriation.

  • V.Lind says:

    Do these minorities not realise that the majority of major roles are written for white characters? i.e. Richard Nixon, let alone Lucia or Onegin who are white in their original sources? Opera being a musical form, the thing to do it go for the best singers. This meant some Salomes so weighty that they made the stage shake as they danced and older singers playing young roles and vice versa (Hvorostovsky, being a baritone, sang Germont to sons that were sometimes older than he in real life).

    If ethnic considerations were made no black or Asian singer would very often get a crack at a leading role. Isn’t this thinking a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face?

  • Brettermeier says:

    If nobody’s face painted yellow, how is this #yellowface?

    Isn’t it called #whitewashing when non-colored actors are portraying people of color?

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    If Nixon can be black, why the need of yellow-face for the Chinese?

  • Nik says:

    “ESEA people”?
    Another day, another acronym.

  • Paula Johnson says:

    Take a look at Mickey Rooney at Breakfast at Tiffany or Marlon Brando in Teahouse if you want some insight as to why some of Asian descent might not like Asians portrayed by White people in Nixon in China. And, as if there aren’t enough Chinese opera singers to cast…And don’t try to create a false equivalency in a Black actor portraying Nixon. There is no history of Black playing white because Whites were banned from theaters or performing on stage.

    • BrianB says:

      So basically it’s heads you win, tails I lose. If banning people on the basis of their ethnicity is wrong, then let’s not start now. For anyone.

  • Ulrich Brass says:

    The blackface refers to the combination of 3 aspects:
    a) an specific behaviour: white actors painting their face in black
    b) in a specific context: the American vaudeville
    c) with an specific intention: mocking black people

    And yes, blackface is extremely offensive.

    However, when the behaviour (a) happens in a different context (b) and with different intentions (c) is wrong to call it “blackface” and to assume it is offensive. This is a typical mistake of Americans that assume their own cultural context is the only one existing. I have given up trying to explain this to American people after many years.

    The term “yellowface” was created in late 90s following the idea of “blackface” (do a search on google n-gram viewer comparing both terms)

    However whoever that brought the yellowface fight to the opera was totally wrong by using Madama Butterfly as an example, as in Madama Bufferfly no one wears yellow makeup pretenting to be asian: Cio-Cio-San character wears shironuri that is the white makeup that gheisas used and that is what traditional stagings singers wear. That means that a native japanese would still be using the very same white makeup that an african of a white singer.

    But then the twist happened: yellowface was reformulated to indicate when non-asian singers are cast to play asian roles. The absurdity and racism of this is so absurd that it is not even worth of discussion. As always, the crusaders of this are focusing on a insignificant gesture (let’s cast all Cio-Cio-San only with asian singers) while missing the point (fight the racism in the opera)

  • Concerned about this says:

    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, of course 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. I’ve recently spoke with an important industry insider (USA) who mentioned 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..

    • John Borstlap says:

      “I suspect that a Salome sung by a 17-year old middle-eastern singer won’t be a success…”

      The Dubai Opera experimented with ‘reality casting’ in 2017 with a singer from Afghanistan who matched all the requirements of the libretto, but she was fired after she insisted at the first rehearsel that Jochanaan’s head were as real as she was herself.

  • W says:

    “Some people get their kicks, Stompin’ on a Dream”
    Frank Sinatra

  • JYF says:

    Note to self: do not ever consider employing Julian Chou-Lambert.

  • BrianB says:

    Is Chou-Lambert unaware that Turandot is loved in China, sung by non-Asian singers in Beijing and nobody getting their knickers in a bunch over it? Or is he relishing and reveling in faux-outrage when indigenous Chinese couldn’t care less. Like Mr. Greene, if they (anglos or any occidentals, like Price or Arroyo singing Butterfly or Liu) have the best voice for the role it shouldn’t matter what race the singer is.

  • operacentric says:

    We will need to ban a few operas to comply – Camen (not sufficient gypsy mezzos with perfect French), Macbeth (not many King murderers from Scotland with the high F), Turandot (obviously), Porgy and Bess (only allowed to be performed by a black cast, so discriminatory), any Wagner (antisemitic), Marriage of Figaro (major misogenistic character and a transvestite), Rosenkavalier (offends heterosexuals with those lesbians in the opening scene – but one self-identifies as a man and then a woman so maybe it’s ok), Peter Grimes (child abuse), Suor Angelica and Dialogue des Carmelites (nuns!) – need I go on?

    No way should Scottish Opera have cowtowed to this social media star with 340 followers who probably know nothing about opera.

  • cybersky says:

    Wouldn’t it consequently mean that Asian singers may not sing any European role like Violetta, Alfredo, Tosca, Scarpia, Lohengrin, Gurnemanz and so on..?

    Could it be possible that the composer and SINGER Chou-Lambert missed considering this???

    I would wish that we come back to talking about the timeless MEANING of all those masterpieces instead of superficial criticism and bullying. Stop pretending infinite wisdom, please..!