Disbelief Suspended? Met Opera Abandons 'Blackface' Makeup in 'Otello'

When Laurence Olivier played Othello in 1964, he would spend two hours a night coating his body with black grease, dying his tongue red and using drops to whiten his eyes. Such transformations have long since been banished from television and theater as racially insensitive, but some variations on this have doggedly continued in opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, up until this week.

The Met has said that for its season-opening new production of Verdi's Otello the lead tenor, Aleksandrs Antoneko (from Latvia and white), will not wear dark-colored makeup. The company says it is "old-fashioned" and a "tradition that needed to be changed." Many would agree that at a time in which other symbols of racism are being discarded, that kind of makeup must go too. But some critics of the decision have argued that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Moor is problematic too. Some say the real issue involves the lack of African-American tenors currently who can sing Otello.

In this podcast, we get three views on this. Lawrence Brownlee, who is one of today's most in-demand tenors, and who frequently appears at the Met and other companies, says he doesn't personally have a problem with a colleague wearing blackening makeup if it serves the characterization. However, if a singer "feels they're being humiliated or they cannot accurately or appropriately portray that character with makeup on – and it takes them out of their zone when performing – then I don’t think they should be forced to do it."

But Naomi André, co-editor of the book Blackness in Opera and a professor at the University of Michigan, suggests that if blackening makeup is used, companies should include a disclaimer in a program note.

"Have it discussed," she said. "Say that 'we realize that this has a very difficult history and for these reasons we've decided to use it or for these reasons we've decided not to use it.'"

She adds: "What I think is most damaging is when there's no discussion about it, and then you get a situation where the cover of an artistic brochure shows somebody in blackface and then the rest of us are thinking, 'what's going on?'" (The Met's decision came after an outcry from some subscribers who took issue with a photo in its season brochure.)     

Vinson Cole, a tenor who has sung with many of the world's leading opera companies and orchestras over three decades, believes that the issue can be overstated. He says the use of makeup can be done subtly and without the connotations of racist minstrelsy. "When somebody's singing Otello or Aida, you don’t have to use a great deal of makeup to make it so very heavily black," he noted. "You want to give the illusion" of a black or ethnic character. 

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