L ast month, New York’s Metropolitan Opera made news with its decision not to put dark makeup on the face of Aleksandrs Antonenko, the tenor singing the titular role in “Otello,” in its opening-night production. “Getting rid of Otello’s blackface was long overdue,” Anthony Tommasini said in the New York Times. Largely absent from the discussion, though, were the people with the sharpest perspective on the issue: singers of color. In advance of the Met’s high-definition broadcast of “Otello” Saturday afternoon, The Washington Post gathered four singers — soprano Alyson Cambridge, bass Soloman Howard, bass Kenneth Kellogg and mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel — to discuss blackface, race and opera. The tenor Russell Thomas was unable to participate in the conference call, but he responded by e-mail. Anne Midgette edited and condensed the discussion, and she interpolated Thomas’s remarks.
Anne Midgette: Is it offensive to darken a white singer’s face or not?
Alyson Cambridge: [In “Otello,” skin tone] is integral to the plot line and people sing about it throughout the opera, and I think it is different than, say, casting “Porgy and Bess” and having it be all white singers in blackface. Otello is a specific voice type. There may or may not be a person of color to sing that role; regardless, though, it’s key to the story line. So I feel like it’s a costume in some ways.
I’m doing my very first “Madame Butterfly,” and I had the discussion the first day: Okay, are we going to put me in geisha makeup? Are we going to lighten my skin? It’s a part of the story line. Geishas wore makeup. Whether I am black, white, green or purple, there will be a certain amount of makeup, because that is a geisha. I’d be curious to ask a Japanese person, “Are you offended when you see somebody who is not Japanese made up to look like a different ethnicity to suit that show?” But if you’re asking me, who is a person of color, am I personally offended by somebody having makeup to make them look darker for the sake of the opera, I personally am not. I don’t know if I’m in the minority in that.
Kenneth Kellogg: I totally agree with you. For me, the power of “Otello” is that racial difference. That’s the tension of the entire opera. I think this whole issue of blackface and the negative connotations of blackface — I wouldn’t consider darkening a white tenor’s skin to be blackface. The historical context of “blackface” is a mockery of a specific race.
Cambridge: The word itself has been misused. It’s called makeup.
Soloman Howard: It’s almost media propaganda to use the term “blackface” to force us into thinking that it’s racially driven. But at the same time, we do have to be sensitive to the fact that there are more African American or more non-light-skinned European singers that are singing now, and I saw, when the “Otello” thing first came out, [people saying,] “Why not just hire black tenors?” because of the history of this country and people feeling neglected or seeing that darker people were passed over.
Russell Thomas: The conversation about blackface is a distraction. It’s not about whether or not Mr. Antonenko was painted dark. It’s also not about whether whites should be allowed to sing “Porgy and Bess.” It’s about this: Why aren’t the stages representative of the communities in which they are located? There are so many orchestras or opera companies that don’t hire a black musician outside of February [Black History Month], school shows, “Porgy and Bess” or something else blatantly black. That is offensive, especially as there are so many talented artists of color.
Cambridge: I wonder about the greater issues, in general, of casting opera. There are black singers who are qualified to sing these roles. Why don’t they get cast? Whether people are saying it or not, it is still considered a white, predominantly European art form, and the stars must reflect that. I see these Facebook posts about the African American Art Song Alliance and Opera Noir, and all these groups that celebrate black singers, and I’m like, okay, I know all these people; why are they only existing in this group? Why is there only a handful of us — I’m sorry, it is a small handful — that are singing at the top companies?
Kellogg: It’s an uphill battle to be a black opera singer. And a lot of the singers I know that have the talent to do it and the potential to do it, they get discouraged very early in their career. Half of my friends make their living on “Porgy and Bess” tours, because they can’t get work in the “A” houses.
Midgette: When a black singer does take on Otello, is he going to have to worry about being typecast as Otello as well?
Thomas: As I began the conversation with my management and others that I look to for advice, this has also been a concern about adding Otello. I don’t only want to be Otello. If I didn’t get to sing a variety of repertoire, the joy in singing would be lost. Also, who could last vocally on a steady diet of Otello?
Midgette: There aren’t that many operas in the canon in which race figures, but there are a lot more roles in contemporary opera. It would be very hard to cast Martin Luther King [in Philip Glass’s revised “Appomattox,” coming to Washington National Opera in November] with a white singer. Is there a difference between the canon and roles being written now?
Howard: Fictional or nonfictional? If I’m portraying an actual person who was a real figure, then I want to cast someone who has something in common with them. For me, it’s a little funny, because Martin Luther King was not a 6-foot-5 bass.
Deborah Nansteel: My character in “Cold Mountain” this summer was a runaway slave. The character itself was made up. But I don’t see how you could cast a white person as a runaway slave, when all she’s talking about is how much she wants to kill white people because of her enslavement.
Kellogg: Do we ever think about race when we get cast? I personally never think, “Am I being cast as a black person in an opera?”
Nansteel: I think about race if I’m playing somebody’s sister, or his daughter, but otherwise, no. The only time I had an in-depth discussion about race is this summer in “Cold Mountain,” because we had to come up with a back story, and the first question was, did this character work in the field or was she in the house? And I was like, “Well, if it’s me, I’m light-skinned, so I would have worked in the house,” and we came up with all of this back story. But that’s the only time I’ve come into contact with a race issue in casting.
Cambridge: What I think is interesting is sort of the larger musical-theatrical landscape with respect to representation of non-white singers. I feel like we see in every other medium a much broader and more diverse landscape of ethnicities being represented. I think we’re getting there in opera. We have some directors, producers, companies who are real champions of that. But I still don’t think we’re necessarily caught up with the other arts.
Kellogg: In pop music, you can upload something on YouTube and you can be seeing it instantly. It can’t quite happen in opera; you have to go through certain doors, you have to go through certain people. I don’t think enough black people hold the keys to those doors.
Midgette: What do you wish was talked about more? What can the opera world do?
Howard: We need to have people on the boards or people behind the scenes that are making the decisions that represent the face of this country.
Thomas: Unfortunately, when our white colleagues decide they don’t want to sing anymore, they are welcomed [into opera administration] with open arms. This doesn’t happen for our black colleagues.
I feel if your stage is not representative of the community in which it is located, your audience will also not be. Your funding sources will not be. You will always struggle financially. Many say minorities don’t buy tickets or donate, but why would they if they don’t see themselves represented in the casting?
To read a longer version of this discussion, go to wapo.st/opera.