US students want composer sacked for showing Laurence Olivier video

US students want composer sacked for showing Laurence Olivier video


norman lebrecht

October 01, 2021

Three weeks ago, the eminent composer Bright Sheng screened a video to his Michigan class of Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface. The video dates from 1965, when such acts were commonplace. It was supposed to trace a line in Othello from Shakespeare to Verdi.

After an uproar in class, Professor Sheng was made to issue a grovelling apology.

But that was not enough.

Students at the University of Michigan are still clamouring to have him sacked.

Read the full ugly story here of the death of free speech and the rule of the campus mob.

UPDATE: It’s the students who should be fired


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Neither side comes out of this well.

    It was pretty dumb of the Prof to show the video, unless he was making a point about how blackface used to be acceptable and even then, was it really necessary to show this? Any students wanting to see examples could use their own initiative to search YouTube.

    The overreaction of the students, though, is grotesque.

    • James Weiss says:

      You’ve apparently never heard the phrase “academic freedom.” There was nothing “dumb” about showing Olivier’s classic Othello. The only dumb thing was the student and faculty reaction. This is the Comintern in action.

      • Antonia says:

        No, if it was shown, some comment should at least have been made disavowing the use of blackface in the film.

        The offense came because it was shown without any qualification, this leading the class to believe the professor completely thought use of blackface is and was OK.

        If there was no other masterful interpretation of the Othello character available besides Olivier’s (who admittedly has reigned as a Shakespeare “king” among Shakespearean actors), then a comment HAD to be made in which the professor said he took strong exception to the blackface and apologized in advance for it being seen in his class.

    • Lord Bus Stop says:

      It’s the blackface that is grotesque. The students did their duty.

      • B. Neidermeyer says:

        Blackface is not offensive to adults.

        Mostly white Democrats wore it decades ago for fun.

        How can it be?
        Hillary blacked up alongside Bill Clinton according to a photo acting like HillBillies which is a HOOT! Great pains have been taken to discredit the funny photo to no avail as no other couple was NAMED as the couple.

        Justin Trudeau apologized for his indulgence in blackness as overly Liberal as he is. He’s cute!! So what?

        Currently the biggest problem Democrats have is getting blacks to heel in getting VACCINATED. Hillary should make herself useful and speak to blacks on their level since she’s so adept with the help. She sure won’t live in a black neighborhood with her overblown white privilege!!

        • Brenda says:


          Blackface is just comedy same as blacks who spoof white folks making fun of them. That’s still ok just as Hispanic, Asian and Indian jokes from blacks are acceptable not to mention the violence blacks normally perpetrate against them.

          Blacks created more divisions along with typical Democrats with the recent hysterical mass riots, burning of property, looting, violence and destruction. No leader on the left called for or demanded CIVILITY! Also Hillary should have called for civility pursuant to her 2016 presidential loss but she failed at that too illustrating the left’s embrace of violence by its voting base. None of the other officials or candidates called to stop the violence making further rioting acceptable by them.

          If blacks and leftists truly want to be taken seriously about anything, simply act better. Your misdirected anger divides the USA constantly along with your inability to unite from within. Even Biden (a White male) is tired of your whining while trying to help you.

    • Stuart says:

      Indeed, a serious lack of judgement by Prof. Sheng to show this video. Besides being offensive by its use of blackface, it has not otherwise dated well and Olivier is far from his best in the film. Oddly it still is available for purchase in a number of incarnations from Amazon. There are so many much better Othellos available on DVD than this one, and all without resorting to an offensive use of blackface.

      • Stuart says:

        Having read my post 24 hours after writing it, I too am giving it a thumbs down. Yet I still don’t understand why anyone would show this dated, poor film in the first place. far better filmed versions too show.

    • Abe Litwin says:

      These are children not students.

      The y, z, etc generations will never be able to find a job and move out of their parents home acting as if absolutely everything offends them. They clearly can’t handle anything being so coddled like infants in Higher Ed.

      Considering how unaffordable and useless these degrees have become on the whole, it will usher in the closure of most of the universities going into the Biden-Harris era. They have become expensive entertainment facilities. They are clearly nothing more considering the high number of unemployed and underemployed grads now with not mere Bachelors but Masters degrees or more.

      Biden’s and Pelosi’s failure to follow through on SLD eradication or major relief has settled in. These youngsters feel betrayed by the party who supposedly embodies high virtues and is superior. By their own hand; no. Democrats are clearly no better than anybody else. Those who believe otherwise are unable to qualify or quantify their beliefs with any measurable results. Instead they revert to projection, pivoting, arguing, shutting down and violence. They quickly realize nobody wants people like them.

      The once vaunted Higher Ed system has proven itself unsustainable and is collapsing on their own corpulence!

      Thank you Norman for illustrating “Liberal Fragility”…

    • John Porter says:

      “Pretty dumb.” It’s a lot worse that than that. Blackface can and is shown in educational settings all the time, you just need to have a shred of knowledge as to how it is introduced and explored.

  • Hunter Biden's Laptop says:

    Well… When there are no one else’s oxen left to gore, eventually the mob comes after yours. I hope you people enjoy the progressive, safe-space utopia you’ve created for yourselves.

    • Y says:

      Only Leftists could create a “safe space” where no one is safe and everyone lives in fear.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yes, Orwell described appositely the kind of gulls who follow progressive ideas. And we all end up paying for their stupidity.

      As for these students on this particular witch-hunt, we can only wish them a successful career selling fries at McDonalds. They only need to know two sentences: “Will that be fries with that today?” and “anything else”? Oh, and ‘have a nice day’. Yep, that should be good and sincere.

  • DG says:

    Dear UofM music students,

    You are lucky to have Bright Sheng as a professor. Part of being an educated person is understanding historical context. Grow up.

    A UofM music alumna

    • V. Lind says:

      My feelings exactly, and well expressed. And they would seem to line up with those of the department chairman:

      “[The professor] should be allowed to address your questions before indicting him,” the Chair wrote at the end of his email. “If there is debate to be had, that is what Composition Seminar is for — to discuss, and find understandings, and build bridges where there is lack of connection. This can be an opportunity for discussion. I hope you hear where I’m coming from, and are interested to consider the possibility of multiple viewpoints.”

      The literacy level does not seem very high in this department, though Professor Bright Sheng has some excuse, given he did not move to the US till he was an adult.

      The students are preposterous. Are they utterly incapable of seeing that things were different in the past, and that we learn and move on? That what “offends” our delicate sensibilities today might have been said with no malice aforethought in the past?

      I wonder if they know that all four principals in that Othello were nominated for Academy Awards. In other words, their professional peers in the medium in which the performance was offered thought that highly of it.

      It is not my favourite Othello, nor my favourite Olivier performance. But I still — not having seen it since 1965, when I was a schoolgirl, seeing it with my father — remember the wondrousness of Maggie Smith’s Desdemona and the wickedness of Finlay’s Iago. We both thought Olivier’s make-up was over the top, but that was it — commented, move on. For God’s sake, it’s only a movie.

      These kids need a better education in everything from suspension of disbelief to the idea of stage make-up.

      Bright Sheng moaning that nearly all the Madame Butterfly’s he has seen have been white — so what? He’s a musician — is not what matters how well she was sung?
      I hate to see him grovelling, and I hate what the students are forcing here, from their vantage point of colossal ignorance.

      Bright Sheng may well have seen something of the Cultural Revolution back in China. It must horrify him to see it being replicated in the soi-disant land of the free.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      This is what happens when gulls are too frightened to stand up to thuggery. Remember that now-famous question in Brian de Palma’s “The Untouchables”…. Malone lies on the floor dying of his gunshot wounds and sputters to Ness, “what are you going to do about it”? A wonderful modern trope for our craven society.

    • Brian says:

      Fellow of U of M music alumna here.

      Agreed, completely. Maybe it wasn’t the most tactful choice by Professor Sheng – but really? The fact that they want him fired is a ridiculous overreaction.

      Unfortunately, students are the customers these days and universities usually go by the premise that the customer is always right.

    • Brian says:

      Fellow U of M music alumna here.

      Agree, completely. Maybe it wasn’t the most tactful choice by Professor Sheng – but really? The fact that they want him fired is a ridiculous overreaction.

      Unfortunately, students are the customers these days and universities usually go by the premise that the customer is always right.

  • Gerry McDonald says:

    I wonder if they would have reacted similarly to seeing Janet Baker singing castrato roles, it makes one despair of the future of education.

    • Hunter Biden's Laptop says:

      Hold on there, Gerry. Are you suggesting that roles intended for transgendered and nonbinary performers were preferentially given to cis-gendered birthing-persons? I think we may have uncovered a whole new controversy worthy of an outrage outbreak.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Thje least Mrs Baker should have done beforehand is getting castrated.


  • Adrienne says:

    Strange world in which strident demands for the destruction of livelihoods, the inability to understand motive and historical context and, worst of all, the total absence of forgiveness, are regarded as the signals of a superior morality and the way forward to a more tolerant society.


    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      You need to understand the abiding philosophy (too dignified a word, I know) behind it:

      “If I can’t have it neither can you”.

      Ideas that start their lives as well-meaning have a historical habit of turning appalling. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  • marcus says:

    The University should put on a showing of “Birth of a Nation”, then the wankers really would have something to moan about. Twats.

  • MacroV says:

    I’m as liberal, woke, and PC as they come, and I really don’t don’t want to lend any aid or comfort to the anti-woke trolls of SD who will probably be spewing their toxicity soon, but my reaction in reading Mr. Sussman’s blog is “Grow up!” He may have other issues with Bright Sheng as a professor, and those can be adjudicated, and Mr. Sheng can perhaps be advised to better frame future showings of this video. But an accomplished U of M student (and investigative reporter) taking offense at seeing this? I never thought I was that old, but I’m really not understanding young people, it seems.

  • Bone says:

    I’m more annoyed that the students watched a movie for 90 minutes in class: how about someone get pissed off about the lazy teaching? Give the students an assignment, then talk about it in class.
    And about the outrage: how dare this Chinese composer not recognize how offended white students would be by the appearance of one of the greatest Shakespearean actors performing in costume! The nerve! (***begins trembling, crying, retching, etc.***) The horror! OH, THE HUMANITY!!!!!

  • Ich bin Ereignis says:

    What I find most troubling about the young generation is their radical incapacity not to read everything on a strictly literal level, and without any shred of critical distance. Together with this comes a purist and radical naiveté and its attendant desire to expunge the world from any element that might remotely recall humanity’s tainted past, as if removing all of its existing symbols somehow magically enabled us to eradicate it and start anew. This is a radically immature position, even though it may be animated by the best of intentions. While the professor’s choice was definitely tone-deaf with the times, I find this modern-day reenactment of the mediaeval pillory truly disturbing. But most importantly, it is naive to the point of hypocrisy. It is not by eradicating symbols and destroying reputations that one effects meaningful social change, but rather by confronting our past with honesty — not by putting our collective heads in the sand. Showing something, and even trying to understand it, does not mean condoning it — but then again, this is a notion that I doubt this generation is even capable of comprehending. One effects social change by getting politically involved, and certainly not by devoting one’s existence to the bourgeois universe of musical composition, thereby entering a system most likely to promote the very values these students claim to be opposing from the comfort of their privileged economic positions and being taking part of an overpriced education system which, except for perhaps 2% of its student body, is likely to get them nowhere professionally.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Well, this radical urge to cancel things from the past is a form of modernism – beginning with a clean slate. And the ridiculous thing is that this suggests that by cancelling the past we will be morally superior.

    • Antonia says:

      No the students were correct.

      For students, particularly Black students, to have to sit there for 90 minutes watching an actor in blackface without any type whatsoever of comment by the professor to acknowledge that today, we know this is wrong, and that it’s unfortunate the lead character was portrayed in blackface and that the professor cannot agree with this aspect of the film, to sit through that for 90 minutes without any word from the professor acknowledging the offensive aspect of the blackface is utterly poor teaching. If it was shown, it HAD to be addressed and acknowledged.

      The professor’s great mistake was showing the film without contextuallzing the blackface, thus appearing to lend his tacit approval. What else were the students to think??

  • Phillipe says:

    You are right!

  • Tamino says:

    Two words:
    Maoist Snowflakes.

  • Couperin says:

    Absolutely ridiculous but seriously, did Professor Sheng not see this coming? Couldnt he have discussed it with the class first? Taken a vote of who would want to see it? Or else, he couldve explained that he wanted people to HEAR Olivier and simply play the audio? Or acknowledge that even in the 60s, critics blasted the blackface…
    These days, it just strikes me as pathetically naive for a professor to think this would be ok.

    p.s. reason #4,013 that I’m not having kids, at least in the USA

    • John Borstlap says:

      It was not about Oliver, it was about the Shakespeare play and how it relates to the Verdi opera. Sheng will probably not have paid any attention to the actors in the video.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The ‘deeply harmful incident’ as this student calls the viewing of the historic video, is the reaction of the students. Sheng is a Chinese by birth (so: NOT an imperialist, white suprematist colonizing oppressor), who grew up during the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’ from which he greatly suffered before he emigrated to the US. He must be shocked to find that such deeply harmful mass hysteria took place in the free Western world when he innocently played a video not for the blackface but for the Shakespeare play as part of his subject, and overlooked the right of the students to be ‘deeply offended’.

    What is offensive about such video? In the sixties they simply did such things in such way, and it is by no means decided that in that time playing Shakespeare’s Othello in blackface was meant to offend the American blacks. And Olivier was an Englishman, not an American. No doubt Sheng meant the video as an example of the play and not as a corpus delicti in the context of racism. These silly students just got the whole context wrong, obviously. What if they would see a photograph of blackface in a book? In a magazine? In a historic overview? What if they read Othello in the Shakespearean original and find his depiction of raging jealouzy ‘deeply harmful’?

    The story of this particular student who relates the whole crazy episode is, with all due respect, bordering on the insane. He was even deeply hurt that the professor did not entirely attend his explanation of his harmonic progressions. Maybe they were slightly less interesting than he thought himself.

    That Sheng felt forced to relate that he always had good relations with blacks, is deeply harmful, and grotesque, and must have reminded him painfully of the Chinese cultural revolution with its mass insanity and hounding of intellectuals, artists, people with glasses (they hid their glasses to prevent being suspected of being an intellectual and thus an enemy of the People).

    When educational institutions turn into the restorant type – ‘we serve what you like and pay for’ – they will sink with the weight of indulgent narcissism.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Incredible! You can still see Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ on youtube.

  • anon says:

    Sheng’s white supremacy is truly astonishing!

  • steveb says:

    Is he sure he is saddened by his numbness, or numb at his sadness? Did he expect the classes to go ahead after this? I could go on and on and on…. I am an academic, and I and many of my colleagues are now very afraid of student retribution. We are as careful as we can be to try to foresee anything that might offend anybody and avoid those topics. We guard our speech diligently when talking with students. Tenure cannot save someone, and I am not tenured so I am even more uncomfortable.

  • Titurel says:

    Dvorak will be canceled next. How dare he use Negro Spirituals? It’s expropriation!

  • Andy says:

    The name of the course: You Owe Me An Apology 101 (with thanks to Bill Maher)

  • Nijinsky says:

    What a bunch of formulaic precepts….

    To begin with, Othello isn’t some evil character, or a mockery of what it is to be human. If Olivier took on some Al Jolsen stereotyping that could be more to ennoble black people, even into the stereotyping they had to endure too long. It is (or could be) as little trying to humiliate black people as taking on Yankee Doodle as a song degrades any american, although Yankee was originally an English put down of Dutch settlers coming from the Dutch name Jan, which in English would be John.

    But that would require discussion, and that’s not going on here, although there were different sides seen already from the time Mr. Sussman provides just one quote, from just one side.

    I actually find all sides of this political fiasco quite formulaic, all so full of ideas they are beating each other up with them, and judging anyone not taking part, from whichever side doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe they’ll hit their heads together long enough to knock each other out (amongst or against each other) and something genuine can emerge they were blocking from being there but….

    Like a bunch of knights jousting with some emblem as motor…

    People on the fringe then, whether its blacks, native americans, gypsies, latinos, or people who are deemed crazy because they simply relate to art for what it expresses by nature not by political effect, all those people really have to deal with reality, not…….

    For art to raise your spirit, to give you hope in life, it has to do that by touching on what’s human, and that’s something everyone is, not something you get by demonizing “those-people”… them over there……

    And what’s most shocking is that it shows how, certainly at an academic level, all you have to do so often is have some precept to excuse what you’re doing, and it’s ennobled; as long as there’s a mental excuse, and as long as it also sounds like the banging of machinery, as inflexible as the iron of the industrial age, it’s fine. Need an award for it!? Would you like to be Dean? Need to be a reporter for a news media?

    Disclaimer: My name isn’t John, and I take no offense would it be…

  • sabrinensis says:

    These students are just straight pussies. They have no toughness in them, screeching like a cat stranded in a tree at the slightest perceived offense. There is no future for them in the music business, an industry well known for being unforgiving in its vagaries. Further, they want to be composers? No one deals with more rejection than they. These children will never be ready for the real world of music.

  • Nijinsky says:

    In afterthought, when I mentioned blacks, latinos, gypsies, native americans, and people who simple express art for what it is by nature and are called crazy; I wasn’t excluding others on the fringe, such as Women, Gays, Lesbians, Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, blind people, deaf people; Whales, Dolphins and primates that have shown to have the same sentient experience of life as homosapiens, Space aliens, Jesus, Lao Tzu or anyone at all. Just because I was wondering how politically incorrect I would be would I have listed five examples and not added ” as if that wasn’t understood and I was being exclusive.

    Someone once interviewing Maggie Smith said something regarding how beautiful she was when she was younger, and she raised her head three quarters of an inch or so on her shoulder, and said: “Get over yourself!”

  • Jewleyard says:

    Another manifestation of jealousy for the low achieving overly entitled U of M students. Way to go, trying to “take down” one of the most significant composers of our time for no valid reason! Oh and Sheng happens to be a POC.

  • fflambeau says:

    Black face should never have been used, even by the likes of LO. Sheng was a fool to show this because it is well known what it would do and the UM student body is leftist. I do think that most of the students have overreacted.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    Bright Sheng lived through the Cultural Revolution. His home’s piano was taken by the Red Guards (his mother was a piano teacher). I suspect he’s all too familiar with these circumstances.

    Demanding his termination from a position now while also acknowledging an investigation is underway…that’s a tricky one.
    Let the tribunal follow course.

  • Sam McElroy says:

    The American Taliban is alive and well. Religious zealotry by another name. And equally fraudulent.

  • japecake says:

    I knew and worked with Professor Sheng, one of the leading composers of his generation and an insightful, accomplished, generous instructor. After the U of M music department administration’s cravenness and incompetence in granting tenure to David Daniels, waving away well-documented reports of his predatory behavior, their credibility is approximately zero. U of M doesn’t deserve Sheng, and I hope he sues them to the skies. As for his students, they have a lot of growing up to do.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    Echoes of China’s cultural revolution? I’d imagine that Bright Sheng (born 1955) may have some memories of that. Who’d have thought he would have to experience it again in Ann Arbor?

  • Novagerio says:

    Good Heavens, humanity has now dug its grave below 6 feet!
    Luckily Prof. Sheng didn’t show his class of w*nkers Plácido Domingo’s Covent Garden Otello from the 80s, wich gave him (ironically?!) the Laurence Olivier prize!
    Or Orson Welles’ really “dark” Othello from 1951…

    The problem is that this is the very generation who is supposed to pay our future pensions…

  • Laughing at Libs!! LMFAO!!! says:

    No wonder these hypersensitive “college educated” dummies the universities pushed out over the last 20 years end up UNEMPLOYED!

  • Peter San Diego says:

    In an era when, for instance, 63% of Ohioans born in 1981 or later (Gen Z and millennials) do not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, it seems necessary to provide historical context before showing, for instance, film of an actor in blackface made at a time when it was common performance practice. (It’s also ironic that the resulting uproar should take place in a department of music, where Historically Informed Performance is such an important topic.)

    Bright Sheng is a marvelous composer and the U of Michigan would suffer a grievous loss if it gave in to the pressure to dismiss him.

    (By the way, I know the difference between Ohio and Michigan, but the survey yielding that statistic was done in Ohio; I doubt there’s a significant difference in awareness between the two states.)

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I guess it would have been safer to show the Samuel L. Jackson version. Let’s face it, U of M students, Laurence Olivier needed A LOT of help to even remotely resemble a dark skinned Moor. Moorish, heck, I don’t think he’d even have passed for a Venetian. It’s a case of the Venetian blinds leading the color blind – there’s a joke there somewhere.

  • B. Neil says:

    Not so bright Prof… That said, how does cancel culture and academic freedom exist in the same sphere these days? Is showing videos of Nazi Germany akin to condoning Nazism? Why is the knee jerk reaction pulling out the pitchforks instead of having a mature discussion about it?

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    This entitled children can’t put things in perspective? Can’t they understand that it is a video from the 50s showing a wonderful actor playing the tittle role of a masterpiece? Can’t they see and accept that there was a time with other ways of understanding and doing thing? And is the university so desperate for their high-fee-paying students approval that is willing to fire a teacher for this?

    This tyranny and oppression of the police of the politically correct is getting more and more scary every day.

    Let’s hope that continental Europe does not catch this US-endemic illness.

  • Michael McGrath says:

    The rise of fascism. Full stop.

  • Nick says:

    THe idiots in that class do NOT deserve to know how to spell “Othello”, let alone Verdi. All they need to be shown is “climate change”, anal sex, transgenders in girls bathrooms and this is where there cultural education MUST STOP! This Professor overestimated the intelligence and IQ levels of her students, which is hardly above 50!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      But spelling is important, I’m bothered by it all the time. Is it Othello with an H or not? And if so, why? And how to pronounce it? I often lay awake at night over these questions.


      • John Borstlap says:

        I think the original spelling in Shakespear is better because friendlier, there’s ‘Hello’ in it.


  • TimmyVc says:

    So they want to fire a Chinese man to show they are inclusive…

    Oh the irony…

  • HSY says:

    For someone who grew up as a member of a racially homogeneous society, American racial politics will not be as present in one’s subconsciousness compared to those who grew up in a racially divided society. That blackface is offensive to Americans possibly didn’t even register when he made the selection, even though he is probably aware of this factoid about American society.

    But given his personal experience with the Cultural Revolution, it must be quite surreal for Sheng to once again face Red Guards lite decades later, but this time in the US.

  • I seriously doubt Bright Sheng is racist. The Chinese have faced terrible racism in the USA since their earliest arrivals. With some dialog, I think common ground could be found between Sheng and the students. The School of Music should facilitate this dialog.

    Interestingly, there have been reports about racism toward blacks in China since the 1970s. Scandals erupted due to blackface presentations on Chinese television just a few months ago. From the wiki link below about racism in China:

    “In 2018, the CCTV New Year’s Gala sparked controversies for blackface performances and portraying Africans as ‘inept, pathetic’ as well as submissive to the support from China. During the CCTV New Year’s Gala in 2021, Chinese actors again put on blackface; the Chinese Foreign minister denied that the performance was racist.”

  • Fritz says:

    The author, for all his protestations of being “shocked,” “horrified,” and “saddened” by the showing of the video and the admin’s response, makes clear his real agenda midway through the “article.” As is always the case with individuals who wish to use incidents like this to destroy careers, there’s some axe grinding going on that has nothing to do with the matter at hand.

    After rehearsing the alleged shock and anguish caused by seeing Olivier’s version of Othello, the writer gets to the crux of his piece: Sheng is apparently rude to his colleagues and students, having the temerity to watching videos on his phone during meetings. Worst of all, he left the writer’s UM entrance interview mid-stream, an unforgivable sin. How dare he have tenure, preventing Sammy Sussman from exacting his revenge?

    It is becoming more and more nauseating to witness the temper tantrums of these mini-Madame Defarges, these hypocrites who claim to have a higher purpose in mind (the purification of academia and the world achieved by driving out the alleged racists, sexists, homophobes, and transphobes), but who in reality just want to hurt those who have bruised their fragile egos, or worse, harm people who think differently than them.

    I find Olivier’s performance in “Othello” to be cartoonish; it’s certainly his weakest Shakespearian performance on film. Would I show it to a class? No, because it’s a rotten rendition of a role that has been done much better by others. Does Sheng have a right to show it to his classes if he thinks it’s a good performance that demonstrates his points when discussing the Shakespeare? According to what is now apparently an antiquated notion of free inquiry in a university setting, yes, he does. If the students don’t like it, they can drop the class, or write their thoughts on Sheng’s teacher evaluations.

    If Sammy Sussman doesn’t like the fact that tenure exists, then he should attend a school like Liberty University or Bob Jones University, neither of which offer faculty any protection from arbitrary firing. If he and his ilk can’t see that they are joining hands with the extremists on the other side of the political divide, then they deserve what they will eventually get: the total destruction of the university system at the hands of left and right-wing fanatics.

  • sam says:

    1) No, Olivier’s blackface performance in 1965 was NOT commonplace, in fact, the NYT 1966 scathing review pinpointed precisely this problem.

    2) Sheng’s apology is tone deaf, embarrassing, and unbecoming, it included this line: “This July my daughter was invited by Kanye West to perform in Las Vegas and Atlanta.”

    Oh my dear Lord. To name Kanye West? Why not cite R. Kelly?

    • M McAlpine says:

      You are absolutely and utterly wrong. I can remember that almost every Othello performed at the time (including the BBC) was done in blackface whatever the NYT might have said. Shakespeare wrote the play for a white man to play a black man. It happened until relatively recently in my lifetime.

  • Colored Composer says:

    Dear UM Students,
    Your attitude is grotesque, vindictive and does absolutely nothing to advance the cause of social justice. All you are doing is feeding the narrative of the extreme right who keeps calling you radical leftists by engaging in radical behavior. In the end, and as far as you keep contributing to the mob-like actions in academia, you are making it harder to those you are trying to protect, as they will see more radicalization against them in society as a whole. I am writing this in the condition of a person of color.

  • justin says:

    Black face is still very popular in China.
    What’s behind China’s ‘racist’ whitewashing advert? Chinese TV gala includes ‘racist blackface’ sketch

    As an academic in America teaching American students, he has no excuse.

    • V. Lind says:

      When I lived in Hong Kong in the late 80s, there was a toothpaste called “Darkie.” It had an illustration of a very black costumed character with great shiny white teeth on the tube.

      Nobody I knew thought the slightest thing about it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What is going-on in China about blackface has nothing to do with Sheng, and nothing with his choosing, by chance, the Olivier Othello.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Well what did he expect when he tries to take a bunch of moronic idiots out of their comfortable PC space and teach them some history of theatre. Also some truths like acting is playing someone you’re not and that is the skill of the great actor? Are these idiots offended when a black actor plays Saliari (as at the NT) or Hamlet (RSC) or Leontyn Price sings Tosca? These pathetic individuals should be introduced to real life and real suffering in a refugee camp to get a life.

  • Larry says:

    Couldn’t he (Sheng) have first spoken to the class about the film he was about to show them, explain that it featured a white actor — a most distinguished one, indeed — in blackface which was common at the time and, by showing the film, he was in no way condoning the use of blackface or condoning racism. A little bit of preparation on his part might have gone a long way.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Again, the point was obviously not the actors, not even the video, but the Shakespeare play in relation to the Verdi version. My goodness!

    • Bone says:

      No. Enough with pre-apology for triggering these snowflakes. If you are offended, so be it; demand an apology or move on. But to constantly make a literal mountain out of a molehill is tiresome.

  • mary says:

    Wait a minute, did Sheng actually think Olivier’s Othello was good, even without the blackface?

    Then I have serious doubts about his artistic sense as an opera composer!

    Olivier is a ham.

  • mary says:

    Wait a minute, did Sheng actually show a 90 minute video for class?

    Then I have serious doubts about his pedagogic sense as a professor.

    That’s what my high school driver’s ed teacher did.

  • Alank says:

    So the ignorant pampered little Maoists now want to cancel a Chinese/American composer for showing a film starring one of the greatest 20th Shakespearean actors playing Othello some 60 years ago? Maybe let them spend their junior year abroad in Western China in a detention camp with 1 million Uighers It would give them a safe space

  • Simon says:

    If I ran that institution I’d give Mr. Sheng a raise and insist that the students write a written apology not only to him but to all of us. Sick, woke creeps.

  • Harold Brown says:

    I am sorry, but Bright Sheng is clueless. Maybe he’s a good private lesson teacher for composition but what he did here violated all the norms plus any semblance of common sense. Anyone who teaches today knows that this sort of topic needs a lot of context and set up. And just being a good composer doesn’t make you a great teacher, Go Blue or whatever. Sheng should be disciplined by the dean and provost, including a suspension and should be required to apologize publicly. This is completely unacceptable. This is NOT a matter of freedom of speech, but bad judgment, poor teaching, and a complete lack of sensitivity to the needs of the students and the norms of our society.

    • V. Lind says:

      Oh, rubbish. He showed a film — considered by many, rightly or wrongly, to be a definitive version — of a Shakespeare play, as a preamble to discussing its mutation into opera.

      If these students are interested in opera, it follows that they have some interest in theatre. Do they have no comprehension of the history of theatre? That it has evolved from the Mystery and Miracle plays through many generations and their own additions to the form up until today’s offerings?

      They remind me of Tony Manero, the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever, who only recognises Olivier’s name from camera commercials. (Oh, and by the way, I imagine Mr. Travolta is perfectly aware of who Olivier was and what he achieved. HE WAS ONLY ACTING).

      These morons make me want to vomit.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Strikingly stupid comment. The point obviously was NOT the video as such, NOT the actors, but the SHAKESPEARE PLAY, in relation to Verdi’s opera. Incredible, it’s everywhere.

    • debuschubertussy says:

      I’ll assume you’re being sarcastic/satirical, right?

  • Ross Amico says:

    The century’s premier Shakespearean actor (Laurence Olivier), in one of the Bard’s best plays, with all four principals (Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay, and Joyce Redman) nominated for Academy Awards. Please, by all means, ban this.

    • BrianB says:

      And this just in: you cannot play Lear unless you are at least 75 years old otherwise it’s “ageism.” Nor may you play Iago unless you are in actuality a sociopathic monster. 😉

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed. In a production of the play in Bari in 1984 they found a sadistic sociopath whom they could hire for a week from the institution and the only thing he had to do is learning the text by heart, the acting needed no director at all, just being himself.

        (Alas, after his great success he disappeared in the night and was never seen again, the theatre had to pay a compensation to the hospital and the family.)

  • Dennis Pastrami, MD says:

    I fully support the dismissal of Bright Sheng.

    The University of Michigan should consider a public execution of this monster in the Big House (at 25% capacity with fully-vaccinated individuals, of course).

    Manipulating the minds of our youth and future is disgusting; perhaps we should cancel Shakespeare altogether – his trite musings were never that good, anyway.

  • Jack says:

    This reminds of the constant political attacks that Shostakovich had to endure in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich had far more talent and achieved far more than any of his self-righteous attackers.

    Likewise, I doubt that Sammy Sussman will ever achieve anywhere close to what Bright Sheng has achieved in his career.

  • marcus says:

    These snowflakes should be made to watch “Birth of a Nation”, then they would have something to moan about.

  • BrianB says:

    Two things:(1) all it would take is for adminstrators to say NO once in awhile (2) this is NOT “blackface.” Blackface was a specific racist caricature of blacks with exaggerated and unflattering features of the type applied by whites in minstrel shows and Al Jolson types in performance. What Olivier did and what singers portraying Aida or Butterfly do is apply makeup to become the character they are playing, serious and tragic and empathetic; just as a non-jewish actor can portray Shylock or a non-Russian bass of any race, creed or color can portray Boris Godunov and apply makeup accordingly. It’s called ACTING.

    • Adrienne says:

      Your comment is far too sensible.

      Apparently students are not even capable of consulting Wikipedia, which describes blackface as a “caricature”. Do they know what a caricature is?

    • Nelson says:

      FINALLY someone has made this point that is at the crux of why this student doesn’t get it at all. Olivier’s makeup and performance is indeed not at ALL in the American Blackface tradition, which while it does need to be understood by the non-snowflake part of our population, IS, of course, certainly worthy of derision. Not that I’m suggesting one needs to watch the complete filmography of Al Jolson in order to gain context, but seriously, if you’re an adult with a brain you should be able to discern the difference between “American minstrelsy” and this Othello’s type of theatrical makeup, which however it IS laid on thickly in Olivier’s production, is NOT Blackface….if you’re GOING to use that term, you should understand it before throwing your professor under the bus. Equally idiotic and incorrect is his assertion that Olivier’s deeply voiced rendition is influenced by American Minstrelsy!!! Learn some #$*king history, Mr. Sussmann!

  • Philip says:

    Perhaps it is the students exhibiting racism given that the object of their ire is Chinese.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I can hear Sir “Larry” Olivier laughing from here! What a wonderful sense of humour and theatrical camp that man had (gleaned from an excellent biography), so he would have been highly amused, I’m sure. And he would have had something simply apposite and elegant to say about intellectual pygmies.

  • Dr. Birchley Poundbottom says:

    Perhaps these militant students are unaware that Shakespeare’s Otello was in fact written by his sister, and coincidentally the overture to Verdi’s opera of the same name was composed by his mother, who was herself in blackface at the time. Seem like they should be celebrating to me, poor professor Ching was innocent the whole time.

  • Allan Leicht says:

    And!! What about Olivier as Shylock in whiteface?! In a yarmulka?! But to show his Othello in a schoolroom in 2021 is tone-deaf. Sheng is a musician? Maybe the class could, like, y’know, like, read the play? Whatever.

  • Concerned says:

    If I may use rhetoric that is so in vogue these days..

    I’m surprised students haven’t tried to cancel each other for allowing the video to be played for the entire 90 minutes, thereby becoming passively complicit in causing said trauma to their BIPOC classmates. Come on…90 MINUTES?!! Even 5 minutes is enough time to identify a trigger and to take action against it. Waiting till after the damage is done is way too late and frankly makes one question their true intentions..are they really trying to protect their peers or do they get some kind of weird kick out of letting their fellow classmates suffer in the moment, and then parading their suffering for the world to see? As a BIPOC person I’d rather someone defend me from harm rather than use my injured person as a weapon. And please don’t use “fear of retribution” as an excuse; people have given their very lives – standing in front of tanks even – in protest of imminent discrimination and oppression. You don’t wait in silence for oppression to pass you by and then suddenly claim to be on the fighting side of justice.

    To quote from popular jargon:
    #yoursilenceisdeafening #silenceisviolence

    On the other hand, to consider the flip side with a little compassion:
    Maybe these students deserve the benefit of the doubt. They shouldn’t have been complicit but they were just doing their best and didn’t have malicious intentions. Sure, their best was far from good enough, but they tried to make up for it by taking action later on. Their current response might not be perfect but at least they’re trying. So yes, they deserve to be called out for their earlier inaction, but it’s ridiculous to try and cancel them.

    Here’s a thought:
    MAYBE the professor deserves the benefit of the doubt. He shouldn’t have shown that awful video but he was just doing his best and didn’t have malicious intentions. Sure, his best was far from good enough but he tried to make up for it by taking action later on. His response might not have been perfect but at least he’s trying. So yes, he deserves to be called out for his earlier actions, but it’s ridiculous to try and cancel him.

    Unless, of course, you think that some groups of people deserve fairer treatment than others. #WaitIsThisAnimalFarm?

    • John Borstlap says:

      My fly on the wall informed me that the class really enjoyed the entire 90′ video because it happens to be a good play, which they see so seldom. It was only afterwards that suddenly their normal urge for racial justice re-awoke. That faculty needs a psychiatrist for the students.

  • anon says:

    Bright Sheng has never been written more about than here and now.

    Talking about a succès de scandale. Alas, it’s not the type of notoriety a contemporary composer needs.

    Any chance that any opera house in the US was going to put on a Sheng opera, already approaching 0, would now be approaching -1.

    • Ich bin Ereignis says:

      I’m afraid it won’t make any difference. Except for very few rare cases — and these definitely won’t be major opera houses — you’re unlikely nowadays to hear anything other than Bohème, Traviata, or Magic Flute, because these are bread-and-butter money makers, and the priority nowadays for most opera houses is not to further the art form, but to make money (this was true even before the pandemic, by the way).

    • John Borstlap says:

      What a nonsensical comment.

      Sheng had and has numerous performances, CD-productions (Naxos), and had a fantastic grand opera produced at the San Francisco Opera in 2016 with following productions in China. Because it was such a success, the opera will be mounted again somewhere in the coming seasons by SF Opera.

  • justin says:

    Sheng teaching Othello to Americans in Michigan is like a white American professor going to Beijing to teach Sino-Japanese relations to the Chinese; it’s already a dangerous minefield for the Chinese and the Japanese, they don’t need a white man to blindly walk in.

  • Sheng should not have apologized. BIG mistake. The progressive MO is to have you grovel out an apology — and then FIRE your ass anyway. These profs need to grow a pair. That is the only solution.

  • PeterB says:

    Wow. What an astonishing wave of hysterics here. The sky must surely be falling down on us, now that a student (!) has asked (!) for the dismissal of a teacher who offended them.

    If you’re teaching in the USA and you still don’t know that showing blackface provokes a reaction, you’re a total moron and not capable of teaching young people in today’s context. If you DO know that and still do it, then you’re a boor – as this teacher apparently has proven to be on many occasions.

    No, of course this behavior is in itself not enough grounds for dismissal. The reaction of the student is way over the top. That’s their right. As long as the U of Michigan doesn’t sack Bright Sheng, there’s really nothing to scream about.

    But of course the Hysterical Hordes of the Apocalypse must have their daily ride over the battlefields were Civilisation is being butchered.

    • Adrienne says:

      I don’t see any hysterics here. What I do see, however, are views that you disagree with.

      But that’s typical of your dismissive approach to opposing views, isn’t it?

      • Jj says:

        You can have a different view, but if you use the difference to sack a tenured professor, then it’s abuse of process.

  • Ms.Melody says:

    While we are cleaning up, let us get rid of Domingo, Mario del Monaco and John Vickers video recordings of “Otello” where they perform in THEATRICAL MAKEUP.
    (..clutches pearls in horror, eyes directed heavenward)

  • Jj says:

    I guess it’s Ok for Denzel Washington to play Shakespeare but not Ok for Laurence Olivier to do so. But it’s a more sickening thing for a university like this one to buy into this kind of mentality.

  • Jj says:

    It’s perfectly great for Denzel Washington to play Shakespeare, but it’s just horrible for Olivier to do the same. Of course Denzel Washington is a great Shakespearean, but who the heck is Oliver?
    This is a course for composition, showing the transition from Shakespeare to Verdi. What’s wrong with showing part of this film in a course like this?

  • Leon says:

    Renowned African-American bass baritone Mark Doss in response to Mr. Sussman:

    “This “outrage” is confusing. You viewed a project on a relevant topic from another era to open discussions & that is improper? Any POC in the class?….who are equally outraged? Also your focus is “in hope the piece will get traction” not the subject?”

  • John Humphreys says:

    Oh these poor, poor students – always so angry, so offended, so straightjacketed by their inability to see beyond black and white. How will they cope with the real world? Olivier? It’s called acting for fuck’s sake! If Olivier had expressed anti-Semitic/racist sentiments privately or publicly then it would be a different matter. Acting is when we/they become things we are not. Shame on the University of Michigan.