Diversity in Opera: Providing a Stage for All Voices
By Anh Le
Like the rest of the entertainment world, the opera industry has historically been challenged to provide ample opportunities for artists of color. This issue was highlighted last August when The New York Times published an article about the Metropolitan Opera’s historic use of skin-darkening makeup for the title character in Otello. The public responded with a range of opinions, sparking a firestorm in both the opera media and industry. In September, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players canceled its run of The Mikado, following a wave of protest about an all-white cast.
In October, Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette added to the dialogue with an article titled “The rarity of black faces, not Otello in blackface, should be the issue in opera,” for which she interviewed a number of African-American opera singers. Soprano Alyson Cambridge, who sang Mimì in Opera Theatre’s last La bohème (2009), said, “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 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?”
From Opera Theatre’s first years, the company has made a special point to engage singers and artists of color in key roles, and not just through “color-blind” casting in traditional repertory. From Minoru Miki’s Jōruri (1985) to Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (2000) to Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s Shalimar the Clown (2016), OTSL puts a wide range of voices and cultural experiences on our stage. In 2018, the New Works, Bold Voices series will continue with An American Soldier, which tells the true story of Private Danny Chen and confronts the stereotypes and realities of the Asian-American experience. With each commission, Opera Theatre expands the range of opportunities available to singers from every walk of life — because opera can, and should, speak to every aspect of the human experience.
“Diversity in opera is about casting, commissioning work, filling leadership positions, but also about deciding whose stories get told, whose identities and perspectives give vibrancy to the work,” wrote The Daily Good, praising a new production of The Magic Flute at Glimmerglass Festival. In addition to a highly diverse cast, the director’s interpretation was also inspired by the experience and legacy of Native Americans. In short, opportunity is not just about the casting of traditional roles, but is also created through new stories that speak to today’s diverse communities and experiences.
Opera Theatre invited a few of this season’s singers of differing backgrounds to share their personal stories. Participants included soprano Lauren Michelle (Musetta in La bohème), tenor Geoffrey Agpalo (Gopinath Razdan in Shalimar the Clown), and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock (Bulbul Fakh in Shalimar the Clown).
What are your thoughts, as a singer of color, on the question of casting for roles like Otello? Do you find it problematic for artists to be dressed to represent a different race, or do you believe that it is an inescapable necessity for theater?
AA: As a singer of color, I do not think it is controversial to paint a singer to look like the Moorish character Shakespeare created. Changing the color of a singer’s/actor’s skin for a role — or rather, painting them — is merely just a cosmetic issue to transform the artist into the role in which they have been cast. But if companies would like to remain true to a story without that kind of makeup, they should simply hire a singer of color to portray the character.
GA: I admit there have been instances when I have been personally offended by yellowface, and it’s no wonder considering the long history of the offensive use of blackface/yellowface/redface in theater. Its original intent was to make a mockery of disenfranchised ethnic groups. There may be productions where the intent of the artists is not intentionally malicious, but the unfortunate fact is that the history of theater is too steeped in negative representations to disregard it. I disagree with the traditionalist idea that things like blackface are necessary in modern practice to conserve the story. If race is as integral to the plot as we say then the necessity is not makeup, but diverse casting and perhaps audience re-education.
LM: Hiding behind the term “color-blind casting” isn’t forward-thinking if you can’t start by considering everyone equally in the first place. I believe men of color could be found for Otello.
In your career thus far, how has your ethnic heritage influenced the roles that you have been offered, have turned down, or have been most excited to pursue?
AA: Coming from a Guyanese heritage, I am often mistaken for many other ethnic heritages. I usually get the question: “What are you?” Since my look is more exotic, I can easily fit into many different types of characters. So I have not really been cast just for my coloring alone, not that it hasn’t been a deciding factor in certain roles.
GA: The only Asian character I have portrayed is Prince Sou-Chong in Lehar’s The Land of Smiles and I was very excited about the opportunity. Although the music is incredible, the storytelling is filled with cultural stereotypes of cold and stony Asian men. I would be excited to experience takes on traditional pieces like Pearl Fishers, Turandot, or The Land of Smiles that would experiment with addressing the sensitive issue of the historical representation of Asians in these operas.
LM: Honestly, I just want everyone to be heard the same and be on equal grounding. Unfortunately, we’ve regressed from the 80s when people were able to be heard.
[insert photo: Geoffrey Agpalo as Hooker in Emmeline (2015). Photo © Ken Howard.]
In your opinion, is there an important distinction between (or needed prioritization for) color-blind casting in traditional repertory vs. the creation of new operas based on culturally-specific stories?
AA: In my opinion, I see more new works being cast with a specific cultural look in mind. You will definitely see this in Shalimar the Clown’s very diverse cast. And I see nothing wrong with this. The creators and directors of these operas have a specific idea of what they want, for any opera old or new, and there is a huge pool of talent out there that can fit into any of these ideas.
GA: I always appreciate color-blind casting. Unless Hooker [from last season’s Emmeline] was actually Filipino-American, how else would you explain a “colored” foreman in early 19th century New England? I think the creation of new culturally-specific works goes hand-in-hand with this. Until there is an abundance of these operas I would be out of work if I were cast strictly based on my ethnicity.
LM: When Mozart set The Marriage of Figaro to music, it was highly political. The original play was even banned in France when it first came out! And when Verdi was composing a lot of his works, entire scenes were omitted or he had to alter things because of his political messages. Are we even coming close to doing that today? What would the equivalent opera be today that would make the United States government want to omit a scene?
At the time of its premiere, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess created opportunities for African-American singers who might otherwise have struggled to be cast. Today, however, many African-American singers feel frustrated when they constantly field offers to do the same role (e.g. Porgy) over and over again. Do you ever worry that modern companies are creating works that might pigeonhole future generations of opera singers?
AA: I have heard this “pigeonholed” term for years and years throughout my training. It was always simply more of a worry for my teachers rather than myself. In productions of Porgy and Bess specifically, it mostly boasts a cast of African-American opera singers that most people have never seen or heard. It has created many opportunities for African-American singers and created many stars we still listen to today. I’m not worried whatsoever about companies creating works that may pigeonhole a singer, any singer. The fact of the matter is your gift and talent will always make a way for you. In this field, many singers, aside from the huge stars, don’t get to choose who hires them or for which role they are hired. We are lucky to simply be hired.
LM: The sad truth is that Porgy and Bess still does create opportunities for singers of color who are not getting hired in other roles. I wish this wasn’t the climate that we all work in. Race-specific operas should be made, because it helps open up the conversation that we desperately need to have in our industry. As for being pigeonholed, the problem is not the work, it’s the casting across the entire operatic repertoire.
GA: As an Asian-American opera singer, I feel my perspective on Porgy and Bess is unusual. To my knowledge there are no operas in the repertory performed with as much proliferation that specifically call for a cast of Asians, or for that matter Native Americans or Middle Eastern/Western Asians or Latinos. That does not mean that African-American singers should be beholden to Porgy and Bess. The feelings of frustration are real and legitimate. Representation in opera is limited to a few roles. It’s the same reason all minorities should be frustrated. But we shouldn’t feel threatened that new works might place labels on us. On the contrary, I think the only way we can be pigeonholed is if we are content with what we have and stifle new works.
If you were able to commission an opera for yourself, what is the one story (or even individual) that you would want to portray onstage?
GA: The 1960s farm labor movement would be a great story to tell. Many are familiar with Cesar Chavez’s influence, but Filipino- American farmers played a huge role in the birth of the National Farm Workers Association. It would create opportunities for Latino as well as Asian-American performers.
LM: Frida Kahlo. (Actually, I think she’d be more of a mezzo, but let’s not talk about that…)
What, in your opinion, are the greatest barriers today for a singer of color? And what can opera companies do to help remove those barriers?
LM: We should open up the discussion, as the rest of the United States is currently doing. If companies aren’t sure where to start, the corporate world has already taken these steps. They have already addressed hiring practices for both women and people of color. We should do the same for both artists and staff... It’s not mysterious.
AA: In my opinion, the greatest barrier for a singer of color would be opportunity in this field. This also includes finances, such as grants from opera companies that want to support us, and winning competitions. The world is not short on talented opera singers of color, but the singers of color are given fewer opportunities in roles in which they are able to shine. What opera companies can do is to think more outside of the box when it comes to hiring singers and programming operas. Companies like OTSL and even Washington National Opera are true examples of companies where you will see the finest singers of color on their stages. OTSL has given me many opportunities when no other company would give a young African-American male a second glance. THIS is what it takes!
GA: I once did an outreach production of The Barber of Seville where I sang Count Almaviva, the romantic lead of the opera. At the end of the performance one of the children asked why Rosina didn’t end up with Figaro, who happened to be played by a Caucasian baritone. I admit that the singer playing Figaro was criminally attractive, so it may have had nothing to do with my race, but one of the most difficult obstacles for me is believing I can portray a character convincingly. As an actor there are many things I can do to convince the audience I am a hero or romantic lead, but my skin color is the one thing I have little to no control over. I think if opera companies continue to educate and train audiences to be more color-blind through diverse casting it will remove one of the toughest barriers we have as performers.