When the curtain rises on the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's Otello tonight, opera fans will quickly notice what's not there. For the first time since the opera was first staged at the Met in 1891, a white singer performing the title role will not be wearing makeup to darken his complexion to play the Moor at the center of the tragedy.
When Otello premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1887, the great Italian tenor Francesco Tamagno sang the role in blackface. Ever since the debut, great tenors have been darkening their skin to play the part.
"I do not know of a black singer singing Verdi's Otello in a major opera house ever," Naomi André says. She's a University of Michigan professor and co-editor of the book Blackness in Opera. The wickedly difficult music makes the role tough to fill.
"There are not many Verdian Otellos ever in a generation," André says. "It's one of those very rare roles. I really believe we should have that opera performed and, hence, we're going to need to make a decision about how do we handle the Moor — the black element of that role."
Verdi's opera is based on Shakespeare's play about a North African general who becomes a war hero and tries to fit into Venetian high society. Bartlett Sher directs the current Met production, which features Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role. Sher says he never even considered using blackface.
"Our cultural history in America is profoundly marked by our struggles with race and the questions of race," Sher says. "And it seems to me, as an artist growing up in America, that there'd be no way on Earth I could possibly figure out how to do it with that kind of makeup and that it just seemed like an obvious choice."
Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb says he was relieved when Sher told him there would be no darkening makeup in Otello. The Met did, however, darken Antonenko's skin for the photograph on the cover of this season's brochure. Nevertheless, Gelb points out that the Met — like many opera companies — has had a colorblind casting policy for more than half a century.
Black women have had an easier time landing top opera roles than have black men, and there's a reason, André says: "Seeing a black male singer onstage with a white female heroine — there would be anxiety a lot of people could feel in the days of segregation, even in post-segregation times but where racial tensions are still very much around."
Much of the drama in Shakespeare's Othello is precipitated by a black man marrying a white woman. And while the libretto of Verdi's opera downplays the racial element, it's still in there.
African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who's performed with just about every major opera company in the world, says times have changed and more roles traditionally played by white men have gone to black singers. Still, when asked what he thinks about the tradition of Otello being performed in blackface, Brownlee says he understands the dramatic concerns and the history.
"Well, to be quite honest, I actually don't have a problem with it," Brownlee says. "I think you have to look at all the things we're doing in this art form and the context of the time in which it was written."
For her part, André says she doesn't have a problem with it either, as long as it's contextualized in program notes. But she applauds the Met for making the decision to not to use blackface in 2015.
"The Metropolitan Opera is in a position to set precedents," she says. "I mean, we'll see what happens, but this is a really exciting moment."
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