Riccardo Muti refuses to change Verdi’s racial line

Riccardo Muti refuses to change Verdi’s racial line


norman lebrecht

June 26, 2022

The Chicago conductor has been explaining to his orchestra why he stands by a line from the original edition of Un Ballo in Maschera which some now find unacceptable.

The line is ‘dell’immondo sangue de’ negri (she has Black blood)’. Muti says Verdi intended it to underline a character’s intolerance.

‘In many theatres in this country and abroad, for the story of politically correct they change the phrase,’ he said. ‘We should not change so that the next generations must know the abomination that has been done for centuries. If you don’t change, you don’t solve the problem.

‘We cannot change the history, because if we want to change the history, we should change everything, starting from the Greeks, from the Phoenicians, from the Romans. We have to keep the horrible things of the past, to tell the young people that it was wrong.’

In an interview with Corriere della Serra he explained further: ‘I took this decision in the US heartland. Three singers are coloured, one sings the role of the judge who has to pronounce that infamous sentence: ‘Ulrica, of the filthy negro blood’. I have explained that this did not reflect Verdi’s thought; in fact, other characters in the same scene defend the fortune teller Ulrica; Verdi criticizes racism and the cruelty, the ignorance of the judge. To the tenor, who, I repeat it, is coloured, I asked: Do you have any problem pronouncing these words? He answered, [Maestro,] after your explanation, I don’t.’


  • Player says:

    Riccardo leading the way again…

    • CSOA Insider says:

      Unbeknownst to the general public, Muti calculated and labored to place himself in this situation; he insisted on casting an African American tenor more than a year ago, in order to make a black artist sing these lines (“dirty n*** blood”), and in order to be able to boast about it in an interview with Valerio Cappelli, arguably the most sycophantic of all the journalists carefully handpicked by him over the years.

      To his credit, Jeff Alexander, who cannot be accused of being stupid, for once paid mostly lip service to Muti, and steered the English translation of the libretto to a radically less racially charged version.

      • SD says:

        Here is Muti’s interview with Washington Post. “Muti did not alter the libretto in which a white Judge sings a racist insult toward Ulrica, a Black fortune teller accused of witchcraft: “dell’immondo sangue de’ negri (she has Black blood).” Muti says Verdi meant the line to highlight the Judge’s intolerance.

        “In many theaters in this country and abroad, for the story of politically correct they change the phrase,” he told the orchestra. “We should not change so that the next generations must know the abomination that has been done for centuries. If you don’t change, you don’t solve the problem.”

        • Player says:

          Calling it an ‘abomination’ is pretty clear, no? So why does CSOA Insider in the comment above persist in advancing a conspiracy theory? Odd.

          • MD says:

            We should thank BSOA Insider for his generosity in revealing us such important secrets that were so far totally unknown to the general public, to Muti, to the singers, the orchestra and to everyone else but him.

    • Vivian says:

      Can someone find the switch off button on this cranky old man?

      Jesus Christ. Shut the hell up, enough already.

    • Bart says:

      Roads to Perdition.

  • SL says:

    Good for him. This is common sense.

    • Burnham says:

      Are we discussing the same conductor who had the ‘common sense’ to refer to Maestro Myung-whun Chung with racially derogatory nicknames, as transpired in Italian reports?

      Just checking.

  • Carlo says:

    Grande Riccardo!!!

  • Don says:

    Doesn’t seem like anything worth a headline.

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    The line does not say exactly “She has black blood”….

  • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

    Common sense instead of low-impulse control jerky knees–Muti is one of a dying breed.

  • Anonymous says:

    He’s on the right side of history here. Good for him.

  • music lover says:

    He is absolutely right.Verdi always sided with the outcasts,those who suffered racial discrimation(Otello,Ulrica,Azucena), the socially stigmated(Violetta,Leonora)…..He was a liberal,deeply political artist,fighting against totalitarianism,bigotry….for democracy,freedom and egalitarianism.Ballo,Trovatore,and Otello might be the first operas which take a stand against racism(and,relatively few till today…).Otello is a cri du coeur against racism.You can´t change the words of the vile racists in those pieces,otherwise those operas loose their anti racist stance..Same as you can´t change the horrible words of the SS guard in Schoenbergs´A Survivor From Warsaw.

  • Paracelsus says:

    “Do you have any problems pronouncing these words?”

    “Uhhh … I gotta work, so … uhh … no?”

  • MMcGrath says:

    Bravo, Maestro. Don’t be cowed by wokeness.

  • TITUREL says:

    “Coloured”. Could someone please tell the Maestro that’s not quite au courant?

    • PaulD says:

      Well, there is the phrase, “people of color” that some like, and the abominable, “BIPOC”.

    • guest says:

      He was speaking in Italian: “Tre cantanti sono di colore ….”.

    • Phil A says:

      Maybe someone from the Chicago Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People could contact him.

    • J Barcelo says:

      Strange isn’t it, that you can say “people of color” and use the shortcut POC, but simplifying it to “colored people” is just wrong nowadays. What a mine of of political correctness. Point out that the last two works of the NAACP are “colored people” and you get hammered.

      • LondonCalling says:

        You’ve learned the difference, and therefore have at your disposal the ability not to cause a group of people distress. That’s a great thing, right?
        (It doesn’t really matter whether you, I or anyone else finds it strange.)

    • Luca says:

      Your French is incorrect in this context!

  • Tricky says:

    A vital trick for safe motorcycling is always keeping an eye out for escape routes. ‘Target fixation’, – staring at whatever lies ahead – causes many accidents. The rule is – wherever your eyes are focused, the bike will follow.
    Focusing on obstacles ahead is what the politically correct constantly do – they keep boinking into avoidable objects, and just can’t help themselves!

    • Tamino says:

      Does that mean, if the conductor looks at the violas, the whole orchestra will follow the violas?

      • Sisko24 says:

        Well, it just might make more orchestras play as an enormous chamber music ensemble instead of sounding as if they are attempting to portray a blast furnace.

  • Chicagorat says:

    The Chicago Tribune reviewed this concert and commented intelligently on the charged topic.

    First the reviewer offered a brief commentary on the (as usual) contrived nature of Muti’s interpretation:

    “Muti’s control doesn’t seem to come without being, well, controlling. Some micromanaged moments stood out, like Muti beating through the apex of El-Khoury’s ascending line just before her cadenza in “Ecco l’orrido campo ove s’accoppia,” or signaling Salsi’s ornaments with his head in “Eri tu …”

    Then an interesting point of view on the libretto controversy:

    ” … the CSO itself appears to have broken with Muti on this point somewhat, with a libretto translation scrubbing away the very adjective (“immondo,” filthy or vile) which lends the line much of its violent, slur-like edge. ”

    “The CSO’s own internal contradictions there spotlight the shortcomings of Muti’s concert operas. On Verdi nights, it’s been unclear how much onstage context is really welcome at Symphony Center. The soloists themselves seemed split on Thursday: Even in a non-staged setting, Salsi and Mizzi acted compellingly, subtly but effectively aligning their onstage delivery to the plot, while Meli and El-Khoury sang essentially sans gesture.

    Committing to a concept halfway leaves audiences in the lurch. I use “concept” knowingly, and knowing full well that these concert operas are, in many respects, Muti’s very attempt to sidestep Konzept. Muti’s ideal, Platonic though it may be, is to perform Verdi’s music free from the whims of ham-fisted stage directors. But all too often, as the Judge’s controversial line proves, these concert operas become wholly untethered from context. That in itself is a choice — and a strong one, at that.

    Here’s my perspective, fixed, as it is, toward the future. (We’re only moving one direction, aren’t we?) The days are numbered when one can defensibly cast a white singer as a Black character, like Matochkina’s Ulrica. When one can conduct singers like they’re flesh-and-bone sections of the orchestra instead of soloists. When one can argue that nothing else matters so long as the music-making is heavenly, regardless of the earthly flotsam left bobbing in the wake of that pursuit.”

    (End of excerpts from a review by Hannah Edgar)

    The Tribune may cover classical music sporadically due to financial constraints, but when they do, they have a point of view.

    Thanks to the generosity of the Rubin Institute, the Tribune will hopefully get financial support to cover classical music more extensively in the near future.

    • MB says:

      Perhaps. I much prefer the more succint, matter-of-fact commentary of Zachary Woolfe @NYT, who reviewed this concert on 6/24, with Muti’s insufferable, never ceasing lectures apparently on the back of his mind:

      “This positions Muti conveniently in the role of savior: finally wiping the grime from long-dirty windows. Whatever he may think, he is not the only conductor who tries to do Verdi justice”.

      On Muti himself he wrote:”… the bags under his eyes looked heavier than usual, even from a seat in the balcony”.

      COVID and age are leaving their devouring toll?

      • LS says:

        It seems that Zachary Woolfe has been really concentrating on the music making and not on BS. Or is this your personal selection of the high point of the review?

    • BrianB says:

      If one cannot defend casting a white singer as a black character then logic and justice compel that the reverse must be true. Sorry, a lot of people are going to be out of work.
      Woke destroys.

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    If there is an organization in the entire world which is fully entitled to this transformative breach of racial etiquette, it must be the Muti-led CSO!

    The CSO has been the most inclusive and fearless bearer of the black agenda in classical music, as one can easily appreciate by looking at the scores of black musicians, black administrative staff sitting in their ranks, and above all at the flocks of black audiences fighting over Muti’s concert tickets.

  • ruggero says:

    This controversial racial bs will not help the chicago symphony sell more tickets. To the opposite, it will undermine their already shaky revenue streams.

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    … and thank you for posting the link to the Corriere interview by the way! It is truly hilarious.

    It covers everything from Putin, to more criticism of the United States which is the place where he gets most of his income, to a Verdi-Mozart competition in ‘deep erotism’, a topic that the old boy is especially fond of and that he never fails to touch upon, with his signature mix of feigned stamina and genuine regret (for the ‘deep’ part), to his miraculous second healing from COVID.

    Totally worth the read. If we were to be picky though, he isn’t entirely forthcoming. He wants us to picture him shattered and rubbed out while locked in his hotel, covid positive, forgetting to mention the sensational perks that were arranged by Alexander to make his hours shorter! :-DDD

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    Imagine the day when all artistic and music directors are millennials. Imagine a world when there is no space for Butterfly, Carmen, Othello, Turandot etc. because they portrait “the wrong image” of the Japanese, Spaniards…

  • Pierre says:

    Kudos to Maestro! Honesty is the best policy!

  • Charles says:

    Oh my. unsolicited advice to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: fund an hospice for elderly and/or incapacitated musicians (a-la Casa Verdi) and slide Muti in as its first long term guest.

  • Chiara says:

    In the Corriere interview Muti actually says “Tre cantanti sono di colore” which can also be translated as “three singers are of colour” ….. See below, (Google Translate can often be very misleading)

    Other reviews of the Ballo: New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/24/arts/music/verdi-muti-chicago-symphony-ballo.html
    Chicago Sun Times, https://chicago.suntimes.com/2022/6/24/23181535/cso-review-un-ballo-in-maschera-riccardo-muti-chicago-symphony-orchestra &
    Chicago Classical Review,

    I’m not sure if all these have already been shared.

  • Kalvin Krinkle-Kutte says:

    Wow. Just… wow.

  • Skeptical says:

    After having read several interviews with disturbing bigoted undertones, I will only believe in Muti’s inclusiveness and tolerance when he will cast a non binary baritone as Conte di Almaviva.

  • ReadTheFinePrint says:

    A) if we accept Muti’s theory that the judge is a negative figure in ballo in maschera, letting said judge say this bad slur should be just fine, just like an actor acting the part of a nazi can say despicable things against Jews within the movie/play. We don’t embellish that part of history. Actually we want to make sure we see the true extent of that, so that people are warned.
    B) Even if we don’t accept that theory, works of art are a product of their times and sometimes are stuck with the cultural framework they were created in. That doesn’t mean that this opera is a manifesto of racism and that by performing it, we promote it and give undue public voice to it. If anything Verdi has never held racist opinions such as those of other famous composers.
    C) The words are by the way by Somma, not Verdi.
    D) Even in the case of very controversial (including openly racist) artists, the judgement on the work of art cannot be held on moral grounds. We don’t perform a work of art just because a good person (who pays the taxes, helps the neighbors and never says anything inappropriate) has made it. We perform works of art that have intrinsic artistic value: sometimes the artists that produced them are good people; sometimes they’re not (Wagner…???)
    E) Higher education should help us understand context, causes and frameworks. Should help us be subtle in our reasonings. It shouldn’t make us triggered blindly by any word we decide is wrong.
    F) Words and concept evolve in their context and meaning. When we perform a work from 1859, we cannot retroactively apply our rules of today.
    G) If only black singers can sing Otello, there are so many roles that never ever a non-european singer should sing because it wouldn’t be right (Countess, Susanna, Don Giovanni, Scarpia, Rodolfo…you catch the drift…)
    H) Many operas are a product of artists of different countries. It’s called their perspective on it. Madama Butterfly is written by Italian musician and librettist, based on an American dramatist (Belasco) and a French writer (Loti) who themselves based their work on Japanese accounts/reports/experiences of a certain colonial habit. Shouldn’t they write about this just because it’s not their culture? As long as we know that Butterfly is not a documentary, we should stay out of the cultural problem.
    I)The last judgement of Michelangelo was considered indecent because of the nakednesses of the painted figures. In the time of counterreformation Pope Pius IV ordered to have underpants painted to all the figures that were naked (thankfully they were then removed a number of years later) Does our time really wants to be remembered for a similarly idiotic attitude towards art?

  • Larry says:

    Do you have a problem pronouncing these words? How arrogant, disingenuous, and manipulative. Or is this maestro really a clueless moron? It’s got to be one of the two.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    That’s actually pretty admirable.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Thank goodness for some common sense.

  • Pretender says:

    The real news is that he is wearing a mask…
    Otherwise, he s right. This time.
    Why do people need to lie about history?. We ll end up with a new generation who we ll think that africans lived in peace and prosperity in Europe since tthe Roman empire and before.
    Once I saw a tv drama Les Miserables with a black Javert. What does a teenager learn from this tv drama? About life in Paris in the 19th century?

    • Carl says:

      Unfortunately, for the people around him, he wasn’t wearing a mask during the performances this past weekend. Despite recovering from Covid. I just hope it didn’t become a super-spreader event.

      • MD says:

        Interesting. What do you think he could spread since the test showed the virus not present? Never let rationality get in the way of your BS spreading

  • Save the MET says:

    95% of opera goers outside of Italy have no idea what has been sung in Italian on the stage. If the opera houses chooses to translate the line slightly differently on their screens and overhead translations, so be it. That said, African-American attendance at the opera is generally negligible at best unless it is a black composer who has been heavily advertised to that demographic. Black singers will possibly bring out their family and friends, but that’s about it.

  • MD says:

    This is the classic example of a misguided title producing a misguided discussion. Having attended Un Ballo in Maschera at Symphony Hall, a truly memorable performance, and looking at what people have decided to focus on here can only further clarify what was already obvious: the Muti bashers in here are moved by an agenda that little or nothing has to do with music making. What surprised me is Mr. Lebrecht’s complicity in handing them this opportunity on a silver platter with the disgraceful title “Riccardo Muti refuses to change Verdi’s racial line”. It would be hard to pack any more malice and self-righteousness into so few words Let’s start from the end: “Verdi’s racial line”. There is no way around it: by attributing to Verdi the paternity of a racial line, it implies that such line is a reflection of racist beliefs held by Verdi. Even being magnanimous and ignoring that the libretto was written by Antonio Somma, and not by Giuseppe Verdi (as inexcusable a blunder this is for any musical critic who does not usually refers, for example, to the text of the Lacrymosa in the Requiem as “Mozart’s religious lines”), one would hardly imagine that it would be necessary to explain to adults that the words that a writer put in the mouths of his characters are not a reflection of the author’s beliefs. So this line is not representative of any inner racism of Verdi as Jago’s Credo is not representative of any Verdi’s inner evil, or the words of the Queen of the Night do not make Mozart a satanist. Now let’s go to the real pearl “Riccardo Muti refuses”. By definition, one can only refuse something that has been proposed by someone else. Yet the article does not even bother to tell us who proposed what. Riccardo Muti represented Un Ballo in Maschera as written by the authors. No one asked for a change. Where is the refusal? Of course, this is where self-righteousness comes into play. Whoever wrote that title clearly named himself as the Voice of Morality & Decency, and all those capital letter virtues, which, in his implicit judgment, unmistakably required the suppression of that line. A grandstanding position that actually makes very little sense when one goes to put things in context. Let’s do that and try to inject some rationality in the discussion. at the beginning of the opera, a judge wants riccardo to sign a ban for the seer Ulrica. When asked the reason by Riccardo, the judge says “S’appella Ulrica, dell’immondo sangue de’ negri”, literally “Her name is Ulrica, from the filthy blood of the Blacks”. This line comes a punch in the stomach and immediately shows the judge as an evil racist character. There are no half measures: he is scum. This scene is extremely powerful because it shows how easily the deepest of evil can be imbedded in figures of authority, but also how, as soon as the evil comes to light, everyone presents clearly sees it and proceeds to completely disregard the judge’s request: Oscar’s aria is nothing but a mockery of the judge and Riccardo’s decision to go see Ulrica, with his mind already made to deny the ban, is the ultimate defeat of the racist judge’s will. Eliminating the racial line would sugarcoat the whole passage, making incomprehensible the instantaneous and unanimous creation of such a wall against the judge’s request.
    There is no good outcome of sugarcoating evil. The demand to cut that line amounts basically to say that all racist lines (aka, according to the author of the title, “Alex Haley’s racial lines”) should be expunged from Roots, and also from books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird, and from movies such as Mississippi burning just to name a few. This way the past will be completely whitewashed, no one will understand anymore what these operas, books or movies are about, and all those who are disturbed by them could start sleeping peacefully. Which makes one think that those who want to cut “Verdi’a racial line” are not those offended by the line itself. Like the censors that kept asking for modification after modification of Un Ballo in Maschera, they are disturbed by the reminder that such words were routinely used by those in power. And also possibly annoyed by how Verdi proceeds to ridicule the racist judge that pronounces them.