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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Met casts white Othello, completely alters tone of play

A big change has come to the Metropolitan Opera, the country’s most prominent opera company.

The company is currently performing a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello,” based on William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” 

Otello, the protagonist of the story, is a general in the Venetian military. He secretly marries the beautiful Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. The antagonist, Iago, attempts to lead Otello into believing his wife is having an affair. In classic Shakespearean fashion, jealousy and manipulation abound, and most of the characters are betrayed by the person they trusted the most.

The Met’s current Otello is played by Aleksandrs Antonenko, a Latvian tenor known for his big, booming voice and dramatic performances.

Unlike Othello, Antonenko is white.

For over 120 years, the Met has cast white men as Otello, and in an effort to make them look more like Shakespeare’s Moorish character, painted them with stage makeup called Otello Brown.

Why not simply cast people of color to play characters like Shakespeare’s Othello? Often, it’s simply not possible. Verdi’s opera demands a tenor lead that has both the ability and the stylistic training to accurately perform the role of Othello, and these men are not easily found. And as it stands, all of them are white.

The tradition of “blacking up” white singers has brought forth calls of racism and comparisons to the blatantly offensive blackface performances that stereotyped African-Americans in the 19th century.

“Otello” cannot tell the same story if the main character is white. The marriage between a white military man and the white Desdemona isn’t controversial or even worth noting. Iago’s hatred of Otello no longer has racist undertones, and Otello wouldn’t struggle to navigate Venetian high society as a white man.

The themes of racism in the story are important and relevant as we continue to strive as a society to move past our racist history. Art is valuable because it gives us a chance to reflect on who we are and where we came from. If we sacrifice art for the sake of political correctness, we give up the opportunity to learn and grow as a culture.

We don’t close museums or burn books because their content doesn’t align with modern thought. We study them, frame them with historical context; and learn from them. Authentic productions are historical accounts of past attitudes and cultures. Altering a performance alters the meaning of the work and denies our history.

Professor Beth Greenberg of the UA School of Music is directing “The Mikado,” a Victorian operetta that has been in the news recently after being cut from a noted company’s winter lineup due to concerns over racism and the stereotyping of Japanese characters.

“Our politically correct world has been super-sensitized to racial bias and hatred,” Greenberg notes. “But this exists in many classic works and informs us of the attitudes of the time, and how the authors wrote the character in his situation. It’s important to understand the context and the origins of racism.”

“The Mikado” has racism ingrained within it, but the intent of the performers is not to be racist. Their intent is to perform a work that was created over a century ago, to teach audiences about a culture different than their own and to keep art alive.

To address the sensitivities of audiences that may be offended by the content of works like “Otello” and “The Mikado,” Greenberg suggests that the program notes should include the historical context of the piece and a statement clarifying that the production is authentic to the original.

This complicated issue has no easy answer. To choose political correctness is to choose devaluing art. To choose authenticity of performance is to choose embracing racist themes of the past.

We need a paradigm shift—a new understanding that art is history. We can learn from it if we contextualize it and understand why its creator made the choices he or she did.

We can grow as a society only when we approach art, not with pointed fingers, but with open minds.

Follow Graham Place on Twitter.

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