Whitewashing Otello.Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By JOHN F. BURLEIGH
A recent headline in the New York Times announced: “Metropolitan Opera Says Its ‘Otello’ Tenor Will Not Wear Blackface.” Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, made clear that the decision not to use any dark makeup on its white tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Met’s new production of Verdi’s opera is not confined to this production. According to Gelb, “That was a tradition that needed to be changed.”
At first blush, the Met’s pronouncement against blackface seems a bit off the mark. If one recalls Plácido Domingo in the role that he owned at the Met for over 20 years, his Otello was made up as an exotic, swarthy indeterminately North African fellow, not as a black, and one whose skin got lighter with the passing opera seasons. White tenors performing Otello have come to resemble Domingo, or the mildly exotic Orson Welles as Othello in his movie based on Shakespeare’s play, more than Laurence Olivier’s extraordinary, seemingly West Indian Othello (whose lead few Othellos or Otellos have had the temerity to follow, interpretively or in terms of makeup).
That the Met’s Otello won’t wear blackface is thus not really the issue, but that he won’t wear any makeup at all. The sweeping rationale seems to be that this country’s protracted blackface tradition of demeaning caricature was so hurtful and deplorable that it poisons any attempt by whites even now to use makeup to depict blacks and perhaps any other ethnic group. Yet one wonders why the makeup worn by Domingo (or Welles, for that matter) should be dismissed as some sort of racist relic. Doesn’t Desdemona tell Otello, “from your dark temples I saw the eternal beauty of your spirit shine” (“Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure splender del genio l’eterea beltà”)? Aren’t the play and opera about race relations, and about the limits of cosmopolitanism, even in the Venetian Republic and its outposts? And where the ethnic character of its protagonists is such an important component, isn’t it useful, if not essential, in a production of Otello or Othello to have Otello or Othello appear to the audience the way he appeared to Desdemona, Iago, and the other Venetians?
Apparently not, according to Gelb, who emphasized to the New York Times that, in deciding not to use any makeup to suggest Otello’s North African roots, his team decided that the new production would instead “be focused on questions of position and power.” Less Otello, it seems, and more Executive Suite. Gelb’s downplaying of Otello’s status as “the Moor of Venice” reminds one of Jonathan Miller’s line in Beyond the Fringe: “In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog, you know.” The new production’s Otello, it seems, is not really a Moor, just Moor-ish.
My suspicion is that Gelb is skittish about another political controversy after taking slings and arrows from both sides with his decisions to produce, and then cancel the HD theater presentation of, The Death of Klinghoffer. I also suspect, especially in light of the nonblackface makeup options that are available, that Gelb is rather less concerned here with offending blacks than he is with avoiding criticism from Muslims and appearing to be a good multicultural citizen. But rather than admit this—which might appear craven, self-serving, and open to ridicule—Gelb has hidden behind the skirts of getting rid of blackface, which really isn’t at issue.
This isn’t the first politically correct sponging of an opera at the Met. In the Met’s current Madama Butterfly, the production is awash with various sorts of Japonisme (vivid set designs, dancers, and puppets as Trouble, servants, and a dancing Butterfly). Yet Patricia Racette, who has been the Met’s main Cio-Cio San and just retired the role this year, eschewed any Japanese makeup and stripped the part of most Japanese mannerisms, lest she seem too much a clichéd Japanese little woman. The result was that at the center of all this Japonaiserie was a feminist Cio-Cio San who seemed to have already become an American woman, even before Act One.
Gelb’s decision is bound to have ramifications for other parts of the Met repertoire. What will become of Aida made up to appear like an Ethiopian princess, as the glorious Aprile Millo was a generation ago? How will the “blackamoor” Monostatos be made up in the next production of Die Zauberflöte? It sure seems that “yellowface” in productions of Madama Butterfly and Turandot is not long for this world. Don’t expect any revivals of Mascagni’s Iris or Leoni’s L’Oracolo any time soon. And as for Samuel Ramey’s thrilling East Asian get-up in the title role of Verdi’s Attila—sic transit gloria mundi.
John F. Burleigh is a partner in the New York law firm of Jacobs & Burleigh LLP.
News you can use.4:00 PM, May 8, 2015 • By DAVID BAHR
St. John’s College, one of the few remaining schools devoted to providing a liberal arts education through the careful study of the “Great Books,” is close to having uploaded all of the back issues of its famed academic journal, The St. John’s Review.
The forgotten growing pains of American fiction. Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
For all of the just wars that have been fought over the cultural canon, one genuine benefit of the (still somewhat undulating) critical consensus is that it’s a pretty genuine aid for determining what you really needn’t bother reading right away. Or, as a professor once said while wielding Samuel Richardson’s 1,534-page doorstop Clarissa, “I’ve read it. You don’t have to.” So it is with most longitudinal surveys of literature.
Hawthorne as chronicler of the American unconscious.Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICAH MATTIX
Nathaniel Hawthorne is an enigma.
On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
My quest for Symons—A. J. A. Symons, that is—began when, many years ago, I first read that strange novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904). Written by the so-called Baron Corvo, and admired by D. H. Lawrence, among others, the book opens with a magnificent description of a hack writer suffering from writer’s block:
Germany’s Nobel Prize winner defends Iran.8:05 AM, Apr 5, 2012 • By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL
One of Germany’s most famous novelists penned a pro-Iranian regime and anti-Israel poem Wednesday in German and Italian daily newspapers, declaring the Jewish state the greatest threat to global security and denying the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
5:31 PM, Oct 4, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
Ladbrokes of London, the famous British bookmaker, lists the Syrian-born poet Adonis as a 4 to 1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize, due to be announced in the next few days. According to one Ladbrokes official, “I really think this is poetry’s year, and without a doubt, the politically correct choice would be Adonis.”
An intriguing, if unmentioned, biographical detail.2:53 PM, Nov 23, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I couldn’t help but notice that the New York Times obituary this past week for Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer, failed to mention the occasion that first brought their love affair to public attention. If the institutional memory of the Times has failed in this instance—which I doubt, since the obit is full of charming anecdotes about Ms. Church Mailer—it is worth resurrecting the story.
4:00 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
A few months ago the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid essay by Allen Barra that could only be described as therapeutic. Entitled “What ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Isn’t,” it was a calm, clear-headed, even humorous, evisceration of a novel that seems to be universally admired, required reading in every classroom--and a sickening repository of every enlightened cliché about American life, with particular emphasis on the segregated South.
5:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
An announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature is almost necessarily accompanied by columns listing those distinguished writers who were passed over, as well as more than a few clunkers who were not.
1:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
This morning the Swedish academy awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” With benefactors like the ones who authored this overwrought passage, who needs critics?
Forecasting the Prize is less like handicapping the ponies than shooting craps, so let the dice roll.2:55 PM, Oct 6, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and various sportsbooks, like Ladbroke’s, are laying odds. But since the Swedish academy’s methods for selecting the prize-winner are a mystery to all but its members, those odds reflect almost exclusively the opinions of gamblers, most of whom are rather like the horseplayers who bet their favorite number or color of the jockey’s silks. That is to say, they’re suckers.