Arena di Verona Opera Festival: Solution to the racism controversy staring us in the face
In the short time since George Floyd was murdered in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement gained wider support, education about what racism looks like has – in some quarters – made gradual progress.
There have been several public apologies for the historic use of blackface. celebrity juice star Keith Lemon appeared in a video to apologize to those he impersonated, including presenter Trisha Goddard and Spice Girl Mel B. Lemon’s jokes to Craig David and others on his TV show 2002-2004 Bo’ Selecta! – including makeup, unflattering face masks and crude cultural stereotypes – were not isolated.
Parody comedy series little britain (2003-2007) was temporarily removed from streaming services while David Walliams’ Desiree DeVere – for which the actor darkened his complexion – was removed from the series, along with other problematic scenes (many had to end on the floor of the editing room). But remorse and reflection seem to be thin on the ground at the Arena di Verona Opera Festival, where one of the world’s most famous sopranos continues to defend her use of blackface.
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Anna Netrebko just sang the lead role in Verdi Aida, an opera about an Ethiopian princess. An Instagram photo indicates that the Italian production uses makeup to darken the skin of some singers. The Russian soprano – who courted controversy this year by refusing to condemn Putin’s aggression in Ukraine – sang Aida several times before with skin makeup – including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2018. She wrote on Instagram in 2019: “I will NOT be white AIDA” and: “Black face and black body for the Ethiopian princess, for the greatest Verdi opera! YES!”
Rather than apologizing for its lack of judgment, the Arena di Verona Opera Festival said Opera Wire: “The fact is that as long as we make a historical Aida in the Arena it is very difficult for us to change something.”
The “we’ve been doing this for ages, so this is the way to go” defense is flimsy at best. The Verona amphitheater where the festival takes place has a much longer history than Aida. But in recent years, it’s been agreed that the thousand-year-old open-air gladiator arena would benefit from the most high-tech addition: a roof. (Having attended a concert there during an intense summer storm, I can confirm that there is no escape from the elements.) Change is needed, and often positive. (But maybe not for Verona’s poncho vendors.)