Met Opera breaks blackface tradition in 'Otello'

GMT 16:53 2015 Wednesday ,23 September

Arab Today, arab today Met Opera breaks blackface tradition in 'Otello'

The Metropolitan Opera shows Aleksandrs Antonenko in the 2015
New York - AFP

New York's Metropolitan Opera has broken more than a century of tradition in Verdi's "Otello" with a production whose title character, in a reflection of modern racial sensibilities, does not perform in blackface.

The 326th performance of the opera, which opened the New York-based opera's 2015-16 season on Monday, stars Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko.

White singers like Antonenko at major opera houses have customarily worn makeup to darken their complexion for "Otello," based on the Shakespeare tragedy about the "Moor of Venice."

Race-altering makeup has long been taboo in the United States, in which blackface recalls 19th-century minstrel shows and other racist performances, but the practice has persevered in opera.

This latest production of "Otello" -- conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, a prominent Canadian musician who leads the Philadelphia Orchestra -- is set not in Shakespeare's intended time but in the 19th century, when Verdi wrote it.

Somber and powerful, the production is directed by Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony Award for a Broadway version of "The King and I."

- Met breaks own tradition -

The performance is the first Met "Otello" without dark makeup, a Met spokesman said.

Several "Otello" productions elsewhere have avoided blackface, including a recent version at the English National Opera directed by David Alden, an American known for his modern takes.

"Otello" revolves around a tragic hero who, wracked by jealousy after being tricked by the evil Iago, kills his wife Desdemona and then himself.

Black opera singers have often been cast in the role, though this has raised concerns that they are pigeonholed by their race.

Critics say that the role is not clear-cut racially and that someone called a Moor at the time of the opera, while darker than the average Venetian, would not necessarily have had African ancestry.

Met general manager Peter Gelb said that the opera recently decided against blackface.

"I realize it's a sensitive issue. We feel that it's the appropriate direction for this production and we're happy with that decision," he told National Public Radio.

- Start of new season -

The Met first performed "Otello" in 1891, four years after its premiere at La Scala in Milan.

Great singers who have played "Otello" at the Met include the Spaniard Placido Domingo, the Italian Giovanni Martinelli and the American James McCracken -- who considered it a signature role and performed 59 times.

The Canadian Jon Vickers, who also played the role at the Met, died on July 10 and the latest premiere was dedicated to him.

Shakespeare's play has inspired numerous other works of art, included an earlier opera written by Rossini.

The 2015-16 Met season features six new productions including of Alban Berg's "Lulu," a once controversial opera about a young woman's lethal sexual allure.

For the first time in nearly a century, the Met will stage Georges Bizet's early opera "Les Pecheurs de Perles" ("The Pearl Fishers"), a tale of a priestess in ancient Sri Lanka.

The season also marks an expansion of the Met's live broadcasts into cinemas. Launched a decade ago, the initiative at first alarmed purists, but the Met says it now can bring in a global audience of 250,000 per performance, a far greater number than at Lincoln Center.


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