I don’t know how I missed the fact that opera producers and directors had stopped playing Shakespeare’s Othello in Verdi’s “Otello” as a black man, but I’m glad I did for this long—it allowed me a few more fleeting days of ignorant happiness without dreading the collapse of civilization as we know it. Apparently, however, that is the trend, and now the Metropolitan Opera is caving to the nonsense as well.
It makes perfect sense that most theater companies stopped using dark makeup on light actors for their “Othellos”, because there is seldom a valid reason to cast a white actor in the role: there are plenty of African Americans up to the task. Now, if a great white actor should want to play the role as a black man—like Laurence Olivier did in the 1960s—why not? Judith Anderson played Hamlet (“Hamlet lost” announced one critic); this is why it’s called “acting.” Still, I appreciate the position that the one black tragic hero in Shakespeare’s canon should not be casually distributed to an actor who can easily be cast in any of the other great roles, while black actors have far too few opportunities to star in the classics.
Opera, however, poses a different problem: Otello is a prime tenor role and there are not great black tenors in abundance. Moreover, it is one of the great tenor role: if you are a great tenor, it doesn’t matter if you are green—people want to hear you sing the role. Thus the Met’s new production of Verdi’s “Otello” that will open its season next month will star a white tenor, but not in black makeup.
“That was a tradition that needed to be changed,” Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, told the New York Times.
The Times says that using dark makeup for the role of the tragic Moor is seen as an uncomfortable vestige of minstrelsy. Ridiculous. Seen by whom. other than those who see it that way to justify a protest. It would be hard to find a work of art form more removed from minstrel shows and blackface than “Othello” or “Otello.” Othello is a noble, dignified character, and the racial conflict between him and the white villain Iago is central to the tragedy. Turning “Othello,” or “Otello” into just another story about a flawed white guy is a travesty on Shakespeare that has to have a better justification than “using appropriate make-up will remind some silly people of blackface, Jolson and “My Mammy.” Isn’t it time to grow up? The make-up on Othello “reminds” some people of minstrel shows, so, “Ewwww!”?
“It was always understood that the old-fashioned, out-of-pace-with-the times approach of Otello in blackface was not going to be part of this production,” Gelb said. Old fashioned…you know, like casting King Lear as an old man, Hamlet as Danish, and Lady MacBeth as a woman. Othello is a Moor. Shakespeare makes it clear he is black. What is old-fashioned about playing roles the way the authors intended and not torturing the text to achieve some kind of a political point unrelated to the work? “Out-of-pace-with-the times”? This a grand opera director speaking! What could possibly be more out of pace with the times than opera?
It’s make-up, that’s all. Is it out-of-pace-with-the times to put Annie in a red wig? To let Richard the Third wear a fake hump? How about the Hunchback of Note Dame…should he be played without ugly make-up?
If it bothers a director so much to let the actor playing the part of a Moor be made up to look like a Moor, then he shouldn’t do the opera.He should do one that isn’t about a black man.
Let’s tote up what is lost by this fealty to pointless political correctness. The story is weakened, the author’s intent is defied, the text doesn’t fit the character. And one more thing: by turning the role of Otello into one that no longer requires a dark-skinned appearance, “Otello” no longer will create special opportunities for the great black tenors who do arrive on the scene. Not for the first time, political correctness fever will harm the very people it purports to shower in sensitivity.
What is gained? Why, Othello will no longer remind people of minstrel shows!
Because Othello always reminded people of minstrel shows.