Covent Garden is weeding out operas for racism

Covent Garden is weeding out operas for racism


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2021

The Royal Opera House has announced that it will review its repertoire to take account of ‘cultural sensitivities’.

It said in a statement: Our repertory contains a raft of work both contemporary and historical. To ensure we present these stories in a way that is suitable and enjoyable for modern audiences, both our artistic companies consult widely to ensure that the Royal Opera House takes account of all cultural sensitivities in its staging, casting and presentation of much-loved historic works.

So Carmen won’t be a Roma, Otello is colour-neutral, Don Giovanni is a chaste mentor to young women and Peter Grimes is just … nice.

That live stage prop is also not full of it.



  • phf655 says:

    This is a solution for which a problem has to be found. Somehow, ‘racism’ in such a context, doesn’t include, or includes only after prodding, Antisemitism. And if Antisemitism were to be included does that mean that Siegfried (=Mime) and Meistersinger (=Beckmesser) will be included too?

  • Gary Freer says:

    Chorus of the Hebrew Migrant Workers?


    Here we go – another outburst of breast-beating and virtue- signalling.

    • henry williams says:

      where does it end. i was told that
      i must not say ginger bread man.
      i must say ginger bread biscuit.
      i buy them for the grandchildren

  • Aleph says:

    Long overdue.

    The only thing sacred is the music, not the plot, not the characters, not even the libretto; directors should feel free to change the race, the gender, the setting, the words.

  • Adrienne says:

    An art form which relies very heavily on suspension of disbelief now thinks that audiences should interpret everything they see literally?

    Centuries of artistic freedom out of the window.

  • CA says:

    Give me a break. If it’s offensive to someone then maybe they needn’t attend. Read the plot beforehand. This wokeism in the arts is just getting totally out of hand in my opinion.

  • Come on now... says:

    Instead of speculating as to what this might mean, perhaps you could approach ROH for clarification with examples?

    Representative casting is a good thing where possible (which it usually is) for a myriad of reasons – from breaking down barriers in developing audiences, to encouraging young people from all backgrounds to consider careers in classical music and opera.

    I am highly concerned by the polarisation of the debate that is being stoked here on SD (since the ETO story broke), and the consistent undermining of any positive progressive action, of which the industry has been dragging its heels for decades, under the guise that it all virtue-signalling and “wokedom”.

    Yes, there are stupid decisions being made out there, and an awful lot of scrambling in the UK in fear of the next Arts Council England NPO round, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem to be addressed.

    • sabrinensis says:

      “Positive progressive action”… That must be satire. They should be weeding out management for its reason-free capitulation to and reductive pursuit of identity politics. There is no place for that in opera if it is to remain the summation of the performing arts.

      There is no problem here although some are seeking to create one in order to impose a particular solution, one that is in and of itself racist.

  • David Derrick says:

    How pathetic

  • Adrienne says:

    “Representative casting is a good thing ..”

    No, it isn’t, because it is the complete opposite of what acting is supposed to achieve. The actor is supposed to “represent” the character, and nobody else.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    I hope incest is not deemed to be ‘culturally insensitive.’ I’d be sorry to think I’ve seen my final performance of Die Walküre.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The formulation ‘cultural sensitivities’ is so vague that it can be interpreted in all possible ways, in the same way that ‘deviations’ from Soviet party lines could be found anywhere, like ‘formalism’.

    This would be the end of productions of Wagner’s Ring, because the story is filled to the brim with sensitive crime: murder, poisoning, incest, theft, animal cruelty, illegal building, deceit, illegal underground dwelling, you name it.

    Even the ‘religious’ Bühnenweihfestspiel Parsifal would have to either drastically cut – the killing of the swan, the almost orgy in the 2nd act, blasphemy in the 3rd act – or simply prohibited.

    THe ROH seems to want to turn itself into a religious sunday school.

  • Marlene says:

    When will insanity end!! “Cultural sensitivities”? Whose “cultural sensitivities”? What about the sensitivities of the opera lovers? If “they” are offended, then they can just stay home. Why change the art form?

    • V. Lind says:

      The very question that occurred to me as I read the post. Is the ROH forming a Committee of Taste (and you should read Clive Bell on THAT notion) to go through every opera in the rep, past, present and future, with box-ticking forms?

      What will be the criteria? They would only need to step into an English lit class at any university to find that for practically every situation, character, setting or even word in some timeless classic there is someone whose cultural sensitivity would be “harmed.” These people do not get to themes, or moral greatness — they are too busy searching for nits by which they can disrupt the whole enterprise.

      Is the ROH being lobbied by intelligent, credible, serious people who have a documented point to make? Or are they, or more likely their funding masters, being intimidated by the Twitterati, and small committees of insignificant numbers of noisy, and noisome, agitators who are creating problems where none exist?

      Are they convening town halls among various communities to canvass their opinions, coupled with questionnaires as to whether, if Turandot were played in natural make-up, and Ping, Pang and Pong renamed Tom, Dick and Harry, the Chinese community would gladly fork out the several hundred pounds it costs for a good seat and become opera subscribers?

      The primary cultural sensitivity of any opera is musical. Casting should have no other consideration. Staging can be an opportunity to dig deeper into the music — and, yes, the libretto — to bring a new shape to a production, something that makes an audience nod and think, hmmm…never thought of that before. Erik Bruhn achieved that with Giselle when he double-cast Bathilde and Myrtha. Polanski achieved it in his filmed Macbeth several times, starting with making the Macbeths so young and attractive. (I grew up with a mental image, garnered from I know not where, of Maurice Evans and Dame Judith Anderson, who to me were as remote as Bernhard or Beerbohm Tree, so to see Finch and Annis as a student was a dazzling opportunity for a rethink).

      What can’t cultural leadership see that these people are destroyers, just as surely as the Taliban were when they blew up the Buddhist statues? They are small, petty people who are incapable of looking at the overall picture, and disinclined to do so — too much like work.

      And before anyone goes targeting the “left” with all this: one of the first things Fidel Castro did when he took power was to send to New York and beg Alicia Alonso, last of the assolutas, to come back to Cuba and form a national ballet company. Which she did, and it has been providing the world with great, wonderfully trained and classically experienced, dancers ever since. And whatever the Soviets did, they managed to hold on to the high arts. As did the Chinese.

      They all wanted, rightly or wrongly, system change. But they valued their cultural heritage — THEIR heritage. The only system changes, pre-Taliban, that went about dismantling their own heritages when they did not align with their monstrous beliefs were the Third Reich and Pol Pot. Yes, bad things happened in the arts, too, as totalitarianism replaced previous relative social freedoms, but the regimes did not start by denying who they were. That they may have wanted to use those very arts to pacify unhappy people caused many problems, but in the end it was perhaps the very artists who fought — think Vaclav Havel, samizdat, and the Cambodian dancers who worked in hiding — who were instrumental in bringing some of these regimes to their much-desired ends.

      What’s next — Panto? Will Widow Twankey henceforward have to be played by a widow?

  • Monsoon says:

    Is it really so terrible that opera houses stop using black face in Otello, brown face in Aida, and yellow face in Turandot and Madame Butterfly? And that productions seek to avoid utilizing 100+ year old racist stereotypes with how non-white characters are presented?

    • Adrienne says:

      How many times does this need to be pointed out? There is a difference between “blackface”, which is a caricature, and can be based on a stereotype (racial or otherwise) or an individual, and stage makeup, which makes the actor look more appropriate for the role.

      Search “caricature” in Google Images – they look nothing like any Otello, Aida, Turandot or Butterfly that I have seen.

    • M McAlpine says:

      How many times does it need pointing out that acting is playing someone you are not and that make up is an aid to providing that character. If people are not intelligent enough to see that instead of thinking of everything in terms of the Back and White Minstels / Al Jolson stereotypes I despair.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Well I wish Covent Garden good luck (irony alert, irony alert) with this fool’s errand. All opera is by necessity a compression of vast amounts of time into just a few hours and unlike a novel where you can devote whole chapters to character development, in opera you have an aria, maybe two, to convey the desired message, in shorthand. That is why opera is so stuffed with stock figures and stereotypes, which serve an essential function: the ditzy women who don’t recognize their own boyfriends in disguise, the crafty and sarcastic servants who are one step ahead of the boss, the lecherous nobleman, the bitter cripple, and the list goes on.

    Combine a bit of honest ignorance or naivete with the need to cut to the chase and you can end up with things that may look like racism, especially to the easily offended, but is it really? Is Turandot less or more negatively stereotypical to a Chinese than is La fanciulla del West (with those goofy murmurs of “doo dah doo dah” when the miners are nervous or unhappy) to an American?

    Racism is also a form of stereotyping and yes opera has its full share of it too. But isn’t it Italians who come in for the worst of racial stereotyping, by Italians, and due to the need to make a long story short? Think Cavalleria Rusticana. Or Rigoletto. What or where is the reductio ad absurdum of this effort? If the Covent Garden demand is going to be librettos which tell the full honest story, no shortcuts, no stereotyping, no portrayal of other nationalities or ethnicities other than the creator’s own, then what’s left? The Ballad of Baby Doe and Il segreto di Sussana?

  • christopher storey says:

    “That live stage prop is also not full of it” . Quite wonderful, NL!!

  • Gary Freer says:

    Thank goodness they managed to squeeze in the current production of Jenufa while they could …..

  • In the name of all fat people I demand the removal of Falstaff from the repertoire.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      In the name of all incels, I find Kundry: (grell lachend) “Haha! Bist du keusch?” grossly offensive.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Me too (no pun intended). When I watched the contested scene (for which I had gone to Bayreuth, after years of waiting for a ticket, to see if it were indeed shocking), I found it thoroughly repulsive and left the theatre there and then, which was quite hard, climbing over the knees and chairs of protesting listeners. I did not sleep for 4 nights after that unnerving sight and sound.

  • George says:

    How about they present them as they were composed and give the audience some credit to make up their own minds?!???

  • George says:

    I am getting so tired of being morally educated all the time. 🙁

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    The ROH has lost the plot. A recently-retired head of department, if I can put it like that, told me of a recruitment drive for someone to look after the soloists’ needs. After all, most don’t live in the UK and need some help and guidance getting around the day-to-day issues they need to deal with, including practical musical matters such as finding scores etc. He suggested said person should have a working knowledge of opera and should, at least, be able to identify the Da Ponte operas, place Wagner and Verdi in historical context and be familiar with some twentieth-century opera composers. Nothing heavy, just information which would demonstrate cursory knowledge of what an opera house does.

    Cue shrieks of horror from the panel: ‘Oh no! That’s discriminatory! Why should that even be important?’ etc. And we wonder why they’re hell-bent on woking themselves out of existence.

  • M McAlpine says:

    As Orwell I think said, “You have to be a member of the intelligentsia to believe this nonsense. Ordinary people aren’t so stupid”

    • John Borstlap says:

      I don’t know who this Orwell is but I think he’s right! I’m quite ordinary but not stupid, and in my experience so-called intelligentia is just the kind of people who want to correct you al the time while it’s really not important.


  • Eric B says:

    High time to boycott ROH in my humble opinion….

  • bgn says:

    “Tak[ing] account of all cultural sensitivities in staging, casting and presentation”” is not the same as weeding the repertoire.

  • Michael P McGrath says:

    Next people who make these horrendously stupid decisions will be burning books. And then, once again, the world will look on quietly, or at best, tut-tut.

    On another note: I guess Don José and the other soldiers will not be chasing and drooling over the cigarette-making women and girls. Instead, they will invite them to a cup of tea at the Military Neighborhood Café.