Race and casting: looking the other way

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

In recent years, opera companies have had no problem with singers of colour taking the roles of people of colour. In 2008, for example, the Opéra de Montréal welcomed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura to the stage as the geisha Cio-Cio San. A few years later, in 2013, in a production by the Opéra de Québec, the Korean-born soprano Yunah Lee was chosen to play the character.

Some might fear that these artists are confined to a certain type of role and have few other options. They can remember the career of the great Leontyne Price. As early as the 1960s, she had furnished proof that a Black singer was not doomed to play Aida, an Ethiopian princess, indefinitely, on the great stages in the world. Her talent and aura led to her fame in many other Verdian roles, which, at the time, were still equated with white singers. Of course, the obstacles persist, but attitudes continue to evolve in the right direction. As proof, in 2019, the Paris Opera trusted the young South African Pretty Yende to sing Violetta Valéry in a production of La Traviata. 

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Opera houses are adopting new practices today. For many of them, skin color is no longer a determining factor in the choice of cast, a practice known as colour-blind casting. In other words, race is no longer part of the equation. This does not mean, however, that non-white singers abound in characteristically “white” roles, that is, role free of any form of exoticism or Orientalism. Nevertheless, their presence among the cohort of candidates who are destined for an operatic career is more evident. 

In order to rectify decades of unfairness and unequal contracts, it is high time that people of colour had equal rights to all opera repertoire and roles. In an article in the New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini recounts his experience at the 2012 Glimmerglass Festival. On the program that year, there was, among other things, a production of Aida in which a black singer played the title role and – unusually– a black singer played Radames. Thus, for once, the racial difference of the leads did not play a role in accentuating the insurmountable oppositions that run through the opera. For Tommasini, this reading of Aida referred much more to the incessant conflicts that plague the Middle East and that inflict themselves, more often than one might suppose, on different currents of one and the same religion (“Colorblind Casting Widens Opera’s Options” New York Times, 12/21/2012).

 However, the differentiation of opera singers by skin color has its limits. If the choice of an Asian artist to play Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème is welcome, what if today a white artist plays the role of Cio-Cio San? Could the Opéra de Montréal, as it did in 2015, call on American soprano Melody Moore, dressed in a kimono and made up in white? Be careful, slippery ground! 

Today, certain operas in the repertoire, which have long been the pillars of the repertoire, are threatened with exclusion because they approach too closely the racial question or, more broadly, the question of the outsider. To the list of those we have already mentioned we can add Turandot by Puccini, set in Imperial China, Otello by Verdi, whose main character is a Moor, or Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute. Although it is regrettable that an Asian artist appears too often in a role like Madame Butterfly, we can understand the argument that she is the only one who should. Likewise, in this age of blackface denunciations, one cannot accept that a white singer wears black makeup on his face to look like Otello.

 For opera houses, the idea is therefore not to completely disregard the racial issue in the way singers are hired, but rather to be aware of the issues surrounding racism in the opera world. and in the operas themselves. Not colour-blind casting, but colour-conscious casting. This entails a rereading of the works and encouraging staging more sensitive to questions of cultural appropriation. In his television adaptation of The Magic Flute (1975), Ingmar Bergman did not hesitate to withdraw the racist remarks surrounding the character of Monostatos who, because he is Black, is evil incarnate. What about operas such as The Abduction from the Seraglio, which were very popular at the time of their creation because they were so imbued with the Orient? Since then, the craze has died down. Many people think that ostentatious exoticism no longer has any place on the stage. Even if it does not please everyone, this awareness of issues of race and culture perhaps creates an opportunity to bring up to date a certain number of works from the standard repertoire that are still considered untouchable.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Justin Bernard est détenteur d’un doctorat en musique de l’Université de Montréal. Ses recherches portent sur la médiation musicale, notamment par le biais des nouveaux outils numériques, ainsi que sur la relation entre opéra et cinéma. Membre de l’Observatoire interdisciplinaire de création et de recherche en musique (OICRM), il a réalisé une série de capsules vidéo éducatives pour l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Justin Bernard est également l’auteur de notes de programme pour le compte de la salle Bourgie du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal et chargé de cours à l’Université de Sherbrooke. Par ailleurs, il anime une émission d’opéra et une chronique musicale à Radio VM (91,3 FM).

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