Discomfort Zone
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Discomfort Zone

Can opera ever meet twenty-first-century standards of POLITICAL CORRECTNESS? Should it even try?
by Philip Kennicott. Illustration by Nigel Buchanan. 

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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan


There is simply too much history involved, too many centuries of social change and evolving moral codes, since the form was created more than four centuries ago. Opera emerged in an aristocratic age, when slavery was legal and women were chattel, and people still parsed the problems of love and duty in the basic terms handed down to them by the ancients. It’s hard to think of a single work in the canon that doesn’t bear traces of some discarded bigotry or discredited prejudice. Take the classic ABCD operas that fill out the standard opera season—Aida (race and militarism); La Bohème (gender politics and ageism); Carmen (sexual violence and male domination); Don Giovanni (rape).  

So the Metropolitan Opera’s decision, announced in August, to stop using black makeup in the depiction of the Moor from Verdi’s Otello was quixotic, given how much there is to offend progressive modern sensibilities throughout the opera repertoire. It was also a strange flirtation with a culture-war discourse that seemed designed to start a debate that no one was actually having. It was hard to sympathize with either side in the ritualized argument. The use of skin-darkening makeup isn’t remotely akin to blackface, a sordid tradition of minstrelsy and racial caricature. But then again, opera is theater, and theater is all about imagination, so who needs makeup anyway? 

As the Met was disavowing black makeup—“We can’t give in to that cultural trope,” said Bartlett Sher, who directed the new production of Otello—the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players decided to cancel a December production of The Mikado, after complaints about the prospect of its mostly white cast enacting the comedy in “yellowface.” This came roughly a year after a similar debate, in Seattle, about The Mikado, in which a newspaper columnist wrote of the operetta, “This is the wrong show—wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country and wrong for this century.” The disorienting realization that opera can be a bit dated in its world view even crept into a New York Times review of Puccini’s Turandot: “Is it right, today, to show Turandot so unquestioningly, and so unashamedly? And in a genre in which so many insist on focusing so strongly on works from a distant past, where do we draw the line of taste and tolerance?”

Debates about the embedded social values in opera have been going on for a long time, and there is now a wide range of strategies for dealing with uncomfortable depictions of race, gender, sexuality, religion and violence in opera. Characters such as Monostatos, the conniving Moor in Mozart’s Magic Flute, have become touchstones for how to present classic works with problematic librettos to modern audiences. Some companies allow the uglier bits of Schikaneder’s text—“All men feel the joy of love,” he says, “And I am supposed to avoid love, because a black man is ugly”—to fall out of the projected titles, or mistranslate them to generalize the sentiment to one of mere loneliness or social isolation. Other companies have found productive ways to confront problematic material directly, without bowdlerizing or glossing over it. In Richard Jones’s 2014 Glyndebourne production of Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, the purely ornamental character of Mohammed—a black servant boy famous mainly for his brief appearance onstage at the end of the opera—was transformed from child to adolescent, which gave him agency and dignity and underscored rather than denied issues of race and sexuality. Theater is, in general, a lot more sophisticated when it comes to these strategies—the Wooster Group’s use of blackface in its widely admired production of Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones is a classic case—but there are opera directors and dramaturges willing to trust the audience’s innate sophistication and critical sensibility when it comes to offensive material.

THERE'S NO DENYING  the serious offense given to contemporary audiences by the bias and bigotry embedded in many opera librettos, and in some cases, the ugliness of that historical residue may make the work unperformable. But opera is, in fact, in a better position than other forms of cultural expression when it comes to thinking through how to navigate these challenges. Opera is a marginal art form, which means for the most part it is out of the spotlight; it has the freedom to create its own rules and protocols. The starting point should be a realization that opera isn’t ordinary entertainment. Entertainment assumes that the audience listens and engages without critical detachment, that it can’t be fully immersed in the story and intellectually self-aware at the same time. The rules of entertainment are relatively simple: never do anything that distracts the audience from complete immersion in the experience. If Monostatos offends, then simply translate him into a generic villain. Remove specificity if specificity gets in the way of pleasure. When Washington National Opera presented The Magic Flute a year ago, his racial self-loathing was translated into the generic doggerel of a love-struck loser: “Other guys get lots of action/other guys have all the luck/When it comes to interaction/with the ladies, I get stuck.” The author of that translation, Kelly Rourke, explained her purpose this way: “I don’t think they were trying to make a statement about race but about a character who felt oppressed and turned nasty. I think for a modern audience, it would take them out of the bigger story.”

But opera is a complex, historic art form, with its own arcane formal language. Rather than think of it as entertainment, it makes more sense to conceive of it as a vast archive of emotional, historical, social and theatrical data. Opera allows us to enter into, understand and actually feel emotions that are culturally and historically extremely distant from our own time and sensibility.

The rules for opera conceived as an emotional archive will tend to preserve much of what is ugly in its storylines. But that won’t be easy. The guiding theology of many opera directors—particularly those brought in from commercial theater—is committed to the virtue of relevance, the belief that opera will only work if contemporary audiences recognize themselves in the characters. Opera as archive demands more of the audience, compelling them to step outside their own historic contingency and make an effort at sympathy with people who say, do and feel things that may be deeply repellent to us. It means engaging with the historical specificity of the emotional content. Violetta makes what must seem to contemporary audiences an irrational and self-destructive promise to Germont, to leave his son and forgo her own happiness. It’s tempting to make Germont a monster at this point, rather than a conventional bourgeois smoothing the way for his son to adopt the same value system that has served the father so well. But Violetta’s acquiescence, and hence the reality of her pain, depends on Germont’s being a relatively ordinary man within the given moral system he inhabits. We needn’t listen with emotional detachment to their interaction. But some degree of intellectual distance, and historical context, ultimately makes the scene more rather than less emotionally engaging.

Complicating this, however, is a deep-rooted contemporary need to personalize our relationship with art and artists. We want Mozart to be a nice man; we feel alienated from Wagner because he so manifestly was not one. We expect artists not just to offer us material for thinking about morality but to be moral exemplars themselves. And yet, perversely, we hold them not to the moral standards of their day but to the moral standards of ours. No one who lived two or three centuries ago will ever meet those standards. There will always be something to embarrass us, even in the life of Verdi, or Tolstoy. Perhaps we should scrutinize this odd need to think of artists like friends, to be as invested in their character and personality as in their art. There is something egotistical about it, as if centuries of cultural production await our blessing and benediction.

SCRUBBING ANY ART  form of its historical ugliness also flatters our own sense of goodness. Whatever progress we have made in our treatment of women, or racial, ethnic and religious minorities, was hard won, slow and painful. It wasn’t magically delivered yesterday, when we all woke up and decided to be better people. The bigotry embedded in art reminds us that this has been a process, an evolution of sentiment and values, not a sudden transcendence of history. The disturbing reminders of how far we’ve come, scattered throughout the operatic canon, are best left intact, not just because we owe it to our historic sense of ourselves, but as a goad to thinking about our own contemporary moral blindness, in how we relate to animals, the planet and the billions of people who occupy economically subordinate roles in the world economy.

A few weeks after the opening night of Otello in New York, The Washington Post convened a group of African–American opera singers to discuss the issue. Not surprisingly, there was agreement on one thing: using makeup to color the face of a white singer playing Otello isn’t a problem. What mattered to the singers was the internal racial politics of the opera house, the lack of opportunities and typecasting that make it difficult for African–American singers to pursue careers in the same way their white peers do. If a black singer says yes to too many Porgy and Bess gigs, will he or she be compartmentalized as a “black” singer? Are there roles that remain fixedly in the mind as “white” roles?

When it came to Otello and the tradition of blackface, soprano Alyson Cambridge summed it up: “It’s called makeup.” Tenor Russell Thomas added, “The conversation about blackface is a distraction.” 

IT'S UNLIKELY THAT  we’ll find one rule that solves all the problems this magnificent and flawed art form presents. Comedy will be especially difficult, because humor is often designed to short-circuit our critical distance, to appeal to our less charitable instincts and categorize people by type. But the conversation about Otello suggests a useful rule as applicable to the present moment as to the historical works that continue to trouble us: we need to listen. If African–American singers are saying that it is still difficult to make their way in the contemporary opera world, we should listen. We can’t change what Mozart and Schikaneder were thinking two centuries ago, but we certainly can change the world we inhabit. At the same time, the past has things to tell us, too, and we should listen to them attentively. Opera isn’t merely another species of contemporary entertainment but a record of feeling stretching back to the Renaissance. We should respect that. spacer 

Philip Kennicott , chief art critic of The Washington Post, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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