Othello Ethics: When Political Correctness Is Unethical

OtelloposterI 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. Continue reading

“The Death of Klinghoffer” : The Metropolitan Opera Flunks Its Ethical Duty

Death of Klinghoffer

New York’s Metropolitan Opera is scheduled to present John Adams’s 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer” this fall. [Full disclosure: Adams, then an unknown, was one of my professors in college] The opera is a dramatization of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking,in which the Palestine Liberation Front murdered the wheelchair-bound Jewish-American businessman Leon Klinghoffer. The opera has always been the target of Jewish and other critics who believe that it is too sympathetic to the Palestinians, and is thus anti–Semitic. Predictably (although for some reason the Met seemed not to be prepared for it) the Anti-Defamation League and conservative pundits are condemning the new production, typified by the reliably simple-minded Michele Bachmann, who denounced the Met for sympathizing with terrorists.

This is, and I state this without moderation or equivocation, is anti-cultural, anti-art, anti-free speech political correctness bullying from the right. This is an opera, and it, like any work of art, stands for itself. Whatever the political message of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” it is secondary to the main purpose of any opera, which is music and entertainment. The Met, as an organization dedicated to music and opera, should not be held to any standard in producing it other than whether it meets the company’s standards of excellence. An arts organization like the Met is apolitical, and should never allow the political or ideological messages of the artists whose work is presented there change its programming in any way. This means telling critics like those of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” be they advocacy organizations, would-be public censors or embarrassments to Congress like Bachmann to go fly a kite when they attempt to dictate what art is or isn’t “appropriate.” Continue reading