Opening nights at the Metropolitan Opera have always been grand occasions, attracting Hollywood stars, vaguely famous Wall Street titans, the remnants of New York’s cultural glitterati, and the occasional president for the most important annual event in the arena of high culture. This year’s season opening brimmed with promise. Turning to Giuseppe Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello, adapted from Shakespeare’s play, the Met boasted a new production of one of the repertoire’s most exciting works starring the beautiful ingénue soprano Sonya Yoncheva, the brilliant young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and prize-winning producer Bartlett Sher.
What should have been a feast of pure aesthetics, however, quickly shrank to just one detail that has dominated discussion: For the first time since Otello entered the Met’s repertoire in 1891, the tenor singing the title role did not appear in “blackface,” the catch-all theatrical term for any kind of makeup used to darken a performer’s complexion (see “P.C. at the Met” August 24, 2015). The Met’s embattled general manager, Peter Gelb, announced this decision over two months before the premiere, attracting oodles of casual praise hardly more courageous than the millionth retweet of “Je suis Charlie.”
Gelb’s decision was, by all accounts, precipitous. Met promotional materials, including its website and mass-mailed season calendar, carried photos of the production’s star, the serviceable Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, made up in a brownish hue to suggest the character’s North African origins. But all that disappeared when he made his thunderous entrance as the Met’s first white Moor of Venice.
Does the decision matter artistically? Of course not. Any true opera aficionado will go out of his way to tell you that the art form’s power lies in emotional rather than literal truth. If it were about literal truth, the convoluted plots and logical leaps of so many treasured works would fail any test.
What we most care about is Otello and Desdemona’s pure love running afoul of Otello’s easily provoked jealousy, not the color of the singer portraying him. No one, after all, ever quailed at the sight of African American singers appearing without wearing white makeup. Jessye Norman’s iconic Sieglinde in Die Walküre proved no less effective, even when she appeared opposite white tenors singing the role of her character’s identical twin brother. White sopranos singing the leads in Met revivals of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot have looked progressively less Asian over the years without provoking comment.
In Verdi’s opera, the racial issue registers far less noticeably than in Shakespeare’s play, appearing in passing on two occasions. The first is in an exchange during Otello and Desdemona’s love scene at the end of the first act. The second appears in a solo line that Otello utters in self-pity, wondering whether his race—and age—have driven his bride to her supposed infidelity.
The Met’s subtitle system has long sanitized even these minor lines, translating “my darknesses” (“mie tenebre”) metaphorically as “my shadowed life” and rendering “obscure temples” (“tempie oscure”) as simply “face.” It also alters his triumphant first lines, “Rejoice! Muslim pride lies buried in the sea!” (“Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar”) by replacing “Muslim pride” with the more anodyne “Turkish fleet.”
But if race really doesn’t matter, then why is ditching blackface such an issue? (“Who gives a s—?” one famous critic asked me on the day of the premiere.) Is it just another example of political correctness run amok? Is it an infantilizing insult to a sophisticated audience now presumed incapable of distinguishing the highest reaches of the Italian repertoire from a deliberately offensive minstrel show of three generations ago?
In our age of relentless hypersensitivity, facile “trigger warnings,” and quasi-Maoist “sensitivity training,” Peter Gelb’s decision has one salient characteristic: He made it himself with no apparent suggestion or pressure from anyone else. There was no protest outside the opera house, no smug social media campaign littering cyberspace with platitudinous hashtags, no moving plea from the NAACP. When Otello last appeared on the Met stage, in 2012, no one minded or cared that the production’s leading tenor was “blacked up.”