Beyond Black and Yellow: How Opera Can Fight Prejudice | Opera

MAdama Butterfly, an unpleasant story about the seduction of an American naval officer and the subsequent abandonment of a 15-year-old Japanese geisha, is a problem for opera houses today, despite its immense and enduring popularity. Puccini, in his work premiered in 1904, did what the best opera composers do: create the most powerful dramatic situations and collisions to wring the maximum emotion from an audience, while writing music of a unbearable emotion and dramatic effect.

But in 2022, operas are afraid to schedule the work and some are even canceling productions. There seems to be a concern that the depiction of bad behavior might be seen as condoning it (a fallacy that particularly affects opera today). More importantly, Butterfly’s racial dimension is just too hot to handle. Yet many other operas contain disturbing content for modern sensibilities, for example Così Fan Tutte and its overt misogyny, Ring Cycle incest, and Tosca’s disturbing portrayal of sexual assault. Whatever their subject, these operas are masterpieces. Instead of canceling them, we should find creative ways to live with them – their indestructible openness to interpretation being the key to their future.

What to do with his manifest misogyny? Sabina Puertolas (Despina) with Johannes Martin Kranzle (Don Alfonso) in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at the Royal Opera House in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Until recent decades, opera’s historical center of gravity has always been Western Europe, and its most popular works were written exclusively by white men. Most were also written in a period of European imperialism and present attitudes towards women (inferior) and the white race (superior) that we find objectionable today. He was a rare artist who had no views we would find odious: Wagner’s anti-Semitism being only one of the most notorious examples; Verdi’s flippant racism (he called his opera Othello “the chocolate project”) or Handel’s investments in the slave trade are perhaps less well known. Predictably, non-white characters or societies were invariably stereotyped, demonized, or ridiculed in the opera. Meanwhile, male composers fetishize the suffering of women, whose helplessness is signaled by their inevitable death by murder, suicide or excruciating disease.

From a modern point of view, and despite its prescient denunciation of American colonialism, Madama Butterfly seems to embody these concerns. An Italian writing about a country he’s never seen, while incorporating Japanese (and even Chinese) musical motifs into his score is considered cultural appropriation – nothing less than an effort to support attempts to West to politically dominate Asia.

The physical theft and destruction of cultural artifacts by the West by force is a fact of 19th and early 20th century history. So does the supposedly concomitant racial superiority and its corollary: at best inaccurate and at worst obnoxiously caricatured portrayals of non-white characters. These attitudes persisted in popular culture well into the 20th century: see for example the grotesque yellow-faced imitation of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And in opera, the darkening or “yellowing” also persisted until very recently in productions of Otello, Madama Butterfly or the Beijing Turandot. With its offensive echoes of The Black and White Minstrel Show and “super-villain” Fu Manchu, the opera had to move on. At least in the UK or the US, no responsible opera house – including Covent Garden – would now dream of attempting to change ethnicity with make-up.

Equally important, the case for greater representation in the arts has never been stronger. Art thrives when creativity democratizes – witness the revival of British pop music and cinema in the 1960s, led by the working class. And while artists of color have been strongly represented in Covent Garden since the 1950s, few can dispute the legacy of structural exclusion from the so-called high arts.

Jane Dutton as Amneris and Claire Rutter as Aida at the London Coliseum in 2007.
Jane Dutton as Amneris and Claire Rutter as Aida in Verdi’s Aida at the London Coliseum in 2007. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Our revisiting of works in the canon that have traditionally paid little attention to the voices of those they seek to represent should also be uncontroversial. For our current cover of Madama Butterfly, a production originally created in 2003, we spent a year interviewing the production in detail, consulting with Asian colleagues and practitioners, and inviting Japanese experts in movement, costume and makeup to review the staging and make discreet changes on behalf of a greater authenticity. This resulted in a production that feels and sounds more real and respectful – and emotionally heavy as a result.

Casting is more complicated, not least because opera has a more limited pool of talent than, for example, that available for film or theatre. Should we approach the casting at face value? Butterfly cast only with Japanese or Asian singers, Turandot with Chinese singers, Otello cast only with a black singer in the lead role? And if so, how about operas or oratorios with entirely Jewish casts (Jephta, Violin on the Roof, Samson and Delilah…)? The classification risks are obvious, but better than a blanket approach, it is better to assess each case with sensitivity and an open mind: to be color aware, not color blind. For example, after the rapid change in attitudes over the past two or three years, performing Otello with a white singer would be bizarre to say the least, especially in London. That’s why the historic first performances of Otello in Covent Garden by a black singer this summer seem to be an important moment in our history.

A historic first… Russell Thomas.
A historic first… Russell Thomas. Photo: Fay Fox

But playing Madama Butterfly with an all-Japanese or all-Asian cast and chorus — even a majority cast and chorus — is a totally unrealistic goal. And would it even be desirable? Asian singers are candid about their reluctance to be cast in Asian roles. It is far more preferable to increase representation in every opera we play. For example, the Royal Opera’s recent production of Samson and Delilah was the first in which white lead singers were in the minority on stage, with South Korean tenor SeokJong Baek playing – triumphantly – one of Judaism’s heroes. Vigorous diversification across the board, rather than ghettoizing particular singers into particular totemic operas, seems to be by far the best way forward for the art form.

And finally, a point that isn’t heard enough in the context of social media’s feverish culture wars (often concocted for clicks). Theater has always been home to progressive attitudes, but it should also be a space for fantasy and imagination. Insisting on “lived experience” for all roles can only lead to artistic impoverishment. Theater is an imaginary contract between the audience and the performers: that someone on stage is not who they say they are. And this contract must also be based on talent. It is the uncompromising recognition and protection of talent – be it historical composition or contemporary singers of any skin color – combined with a modern and sensitive approach to performance that will allow the form to art of navigating one’s future with confidence – and without undoing.

Madama Butterfly is performing at the Royal Opera House from June 14 to July 6 and from September 12 to October 1. Oliver Mears is the Opera Director of the Royal Opera.

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