Today’s Washington Post features a conversation between five opera singers about race in opera, motivated by the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to stop using “blackface” in its new production of Verdi’s “Otello.” The following is a less-abridged (though still shortened and edited) transcript of the same conversation, the gist of which was that the opera world has a ways to go in terms of racial awareness, but focusing on supposed “blackface” in “Otello” isn’t necessarily all that helpful. The five singers involved in the conversation were Alyson Cambridge, Soloman Howard, Kenneth Kellogg, Deborah Nansteel, and Russell Thomas (biographies of all five appear here); Thomas’s comments were submitted by e-mail, and interpolated into the discussion. (The shorter version of the conversation, from the print edition, is here.)
ANNE MIDGETTE: Is it offensive to darken a white singer’s face to sing Otello, or not?
ALYSON CAMBRIDGE: [In “Otello,” skin tone] is integral to the plot line and people sing about it throughout the course of the opera, and I think it is different than say, casting a show like “Porgy and Bess” and having it be all white singers in blackface. That I think is an issue, because you have a plethora of singers to choose from to sing that role. Otello is a specific voice type. There may or may not be a person of color to sing that role; regardless, it’s key to the story line, and there is reference made to it in the libretto. So I feel like it’s a costume in some ways.
Now I’m doing my very first Madame Butterfly, and I had the discussion the first day, my first costume and makeup fitting, OK, are we going to put me in geisha makeup? Are we going to lighten my skin? Obviously there have been many non-Japanese people to sing the role of Madame Butterfly. But also, it’s a part of the story line. It’s on and an talking about, I am a geisha. Geishas wore makeup. Whether I am black, white, green, purple, there will be a certain amount of makeup, because that is a geisha. That’s where I drew the parallel with “Otello.” I had to think about it just because I was in it with “Madame Butterfly,” and I [thought], I don’t really see it that way. 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.
DEBORAH NANSTEEL: No, I agree with you.
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. The director can make a choice [about] casting Otello, but Otello has to be different from everybody else. In this case he happens to be a Moor. I was thinking about it, because I’ve done “The Magic Flute” several times, and the character of Monastatos is a Moor as well, but the way Monostatos is talked about — like, there’s a line that says, “I know that your soul is as black as your face.” And the first time that I read that, my heart cringed: oof, do I really want to say that as a black man? Can we get away with changing this? I mean, Monastatos doesn’t have to be. It’s not an integral part of “The Magic Flute” for him to be a person of color. But “Otello,” for me, the tension of the whole story lies in that difference.
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. If you say, I’m doing a show and it’s in yellowface, it’s implying that there is a mockery of people of yellow skin. Otherwise, I’m sorry, it’s just makeup.
RUSSELL THOMAS: Blackface is a [deliberate] caricature, not JUST the darkening of one’s skin. Personally, I find that many of those taking issue with this practice are not fans or supporters of opera.
SOLOMAN HOWARD: So do we feel the same about “Aida,” when there’s specifically Egyptian singers, but most of the singers who are hired to sing the show aren’t of an ethnicity that has darker skin, but they are tanned, they are painted to look that specific culture or race?
THOMAS: I don’t believe it is offensive at all. I would be more offended if I didn’t see artists on stage with a tan. Those choristers are playing characters. The makeup allows them to realize those characters.
HOWARD: We get into the back and forth of [whether] everyone at that particular time was dark. If we start doing that, then we potentially eliminate ourselves from certain types of roles, because now everybody has to be this [or that] particular shade. For me, the majority of opera [roles], if not all — there were few to no blacks around at the time. If everybody started to [say] it has to be this particular color, we would either be in “whiteface” or we wouldn’t be allowed to sing at all.
THOMAS: How limiting would it be to tell black, white, Asian, Latino, Spanish artists they could only play roles conceptualized for their skin tones. We will get into what I think is a slippery slope if we begin to start casting “people of the ‘correct’ skin tone.” What is the “correct” skin tone for Hoffmann, for Don Carlos, for Turriddu, Faust, etc? I would have not been allowed to sing so many roles if those administrators that hired me only cast with the “correct” skin tone.
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.
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? Is that maybe a stigma that is still attached to the opera world in general, that we can only have perhaps so many black stars in opera? In general, 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 African American or black singers, and I’m like, OK, I know all these people, they’re part of this community; why are they only [appearing] 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? I know that the talent is out there. It’s just maybe not being as celebrated as it should be.
KELLOGG: I know a lot of singers of color, they’re so discouraged. 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: Alyson, you and I talked about your nervousness about singing “Porgy and Bess.”
CAMBRIDGE: Early on in my career that was the case, and I was explicitly cautioned not to accept all the offers that came my way. I made my debut at Washington [National Opera] singing Clara, and I mean I sing one production, and the offers just came rolling in, for Clara and for Bess, which was inappropriate for me at the time anyway. We made a conscious decision that I would accept a few Claras at the A houses and that would be it. And that’s fine, because it was a nice entree into a few houses. I sang three or four productions, it was great, I love the show, and now, many years later, I’m getting ready to premiere my first Bess this summer, and I’m so excited. But I also have twelve years of singing non-”Porgy and Bess” stuff under my belt, so nobody can say, well, she’s a “black singer,” she’s just a “Porgy singer,” quote-unquote. I have that confidence as an artist now, that I have that ground to stand on. But I also know that I was managed very carefully and had people to support me to help make those decisions.
MIDGETTE: That being said, when a black singer does take on Otello, is he going to have to worry about being typecast as Otello for the next 20 years as well?
THOMAS: As I began the conversation with my management and others that I look to for advice about repertoire, this has also been a concern about adding Otello. I don’t only want to be Otello. I would be a very unhappy person. I love new music. I love bel canto and Mozart. My voice loves French repertoire. If I didn’t get to sing a variety of rep, the joy in singing would be lost. Also, who could last vocally on a steady diet of Otello?
KELLOGG: Otello is not an easy role. It’s not just, oh, throw any black tenor in there.
MIDGETTE: There aren’t that many operas in the canon in which race figures — “Otello,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Aida,” and a few others — 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 the Washington National Opera in November] with a white singer. Is there a difference between the canon and roles being written now?
HOWARD: Fictional or non-fictional. 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. One, the appearance first, that’s what people are going to see when they walk out on stage. For me it’s a little funny because Martin Luther King was not a 6’5” bass. [laughter] Now, when he did speak some of his speech was around the baritone range.
NANSTEEL: My character in [Jennifer Higdon’s] “Cold Mountain” [at the Santa Fe Opera] 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. In my opinion, a role like that, you couldn’t get away with casting anyone but an African American in the role.
MIDGETTE: How about when you did “Penny,” [a contemporary opera about an autistic woman)? Was race discussed as a factor at all?
NANSTEEL: Actually no, not at all. The fact that Kerriann [Otaño] and I look like we could actually be sisters, that helped the story be a little more believable in that regard. But it was never about race; that wasn’t any sort of issue. I actually never thought about race until you brought it up right now.
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 daughter, but otherwise, no.
HOWARD: I had that experience this summer, in [Verdi’s] “Macbeth” at Glimmerglass. I’m playing Banquo, and my son was a white kid. And one of the kids from the community who had come to see the show was like, wait a minute, is he really supposed to be your father? He can’t be your dad. And they were saying, we’re just hired as actors to come in here and do the roles. But just to even think about it that way…
NANSTEEL: The only time I had an in-depth discussion about race and being cast 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 this back story. But that’s the only time I’ve come into contact with a race issue in casting.
THOMAS: There was a time when I did think about being black, mainly because of familial relationships. I figured if I wanted to sing a Don Carlo they would feel they needed to hire a black King Phillip, so my chances would be limited if they didn’t have a black bass they liked. I sang Carlo with Hans-Peter König as my father in Berlin. He was fabulous, a great colleague and we had fun joking about it. I was worried that they would put him in dark makeup or make me lighter, but they didn’t, and I appreciated it. Recently as Turriddu in Berlin [in “Cavalleria Rusticana“], I had Ronnita Miller as my Mamma Lucia. Maybe it makes the audience feel better, but it didn’t really make a difference to me in either situation, because I was on stage with great colleagues.
CAMBRIDGE: I never thought about it in my career except for if it was specifically a race-based show, something like “Porgy.” I think this speaks to the changes just within in our American culture and society and how we view race: in the beginning of my career when I first started singing Mimi, honestly, every interview that I did, all the publications would ask, “So, what is it like being a black Mimi?” And it was like, that’s a bizarre question, I actually never thought about it… And now fast forward I’ve sung however many of them, I’m not asked that question any more.
The only time when I’ve had to talk about it and it’s been a subject of conversation was in “Show Boat.” That’s another character where, I think I was very well cast in that it is a biracial person who is passing for white and then is being exposed, and of course you’re going to have a limited handful of people who can fall into that slot without hair and makeup or whatever. I had a moment one day when we were doing the premiere at the [Chicago] Lyric [Opera], and I was in a taxi on my way to rehearsal, and my cab driver gets cut off by someone driving a truck. And he goes off on the guy, who happened to be black: ranting and raving, and he sort of looks back at me for approval, like, don’t you agree with me, black people are this, this, and that. I had two reactions. One was like, “I want to tell you off, do you know who you’re talking to?” But the other reaction was, “I need to get to rehearsal safely; let me just make it this extra five blocks and get out of this man’s taxi.” But it was one of those moments when I was just Alyson Cambridge going to rehearsal, I’m not trying to look like one thing or another, but this Caucasian man saw me as his ally. And I can only imagine how Julie must have felt at that time in American history, passing, and seeing the people who are part of her be so discriminated against. So that was kind of an Aha moment for me. But otherwise, I don’t think, “I’m a black Mimi;” I just don’t think that way. It’s the media who will put that [spin] on it.
…What I think is interesting is the sort of the larger musical theatrical landscape with respect to colorblind casting and 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 see 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 do you think the opera world can 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.
KELLOGG: As you’re talking I’m thinking of every audition I’ve ever done for a role, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black person sit in front of me, on the other side of the table. I can’t remember one.
CAMBRIDGE: Non-white. How about taking it even further, just non-white.
NANSTEEL: Yeah, I just did an audition yesterday, and I was very shocked to see an Asian man behind the table, for some reason.
CAMBRIDGE: In terms of upper administration, it is fairly homogeneous, for sure. And then what comes first; whose responsibility is it to inspire, to get a diverse group of people interested in giving the money, the support to be on those boards. Is it upon the artist to get in their face, to be more known, to say, hey, we represent you, so we need you to help us be represented? Or do we just sort of wait for the people to come?
KELLOGG That’s a tough question. We always talk about building an audience. And I don’t know how you work on diversity in the audience-building of opera. I don’t know, I just don’t know how to do it.
HOWARD One of the ways to do it is to go out into these communities that don’t get it usually. When I was a young artist [at WNO] we do the opera look-ins [at schools]. I have dozens of friends, colleagues that teach at schools in the DC area who would not even know that WNO was having a look-in. The invitation wasn’t sent to certain counties or certain areas. So just getting out and making sure that everyone is aware of what’s going on in the community. “Well, we put it in the paper,” but, yeah, most of the time, they don’t look at that particular section, because [even] if they looked every year for ten years, they’re tired of doing it, because every time they look there’ s no incentive for them to want to come, because there’s no representation. So it’s still an effort that we have to make, especially when you’re trying to go about this change, the diversity thing that we’re talking about now. You have to go and let people know that things aren’t what they once were, things are changing.
THOMAS: Part of the fix is training and hiring administrators of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, when our white colleagues decide they don’t want to sing any more, they are welcomed [into opera administration] with open arms. This doesn’t happen for our black colleagues. Some administrator needs to step up and start a training program for minority administrators.
[We also need] more community outreach and development, not just bringing in black singers during February to sing at black schools or when there is a specific grant to fund them. Most importantly, 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. The stage is there for the people and should be representative of the community. Many say minorities don’t buy tickets or donate, but why would they if they don’t see themselves represented in the casting? The administrators need to answer these questions as to why they don’t hire black singers, or why they hire them disproportionately to whites or other races. I’d be interested in knowing their answers to that.