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operas examined

Can the role of Otello be sung by a singer who is not black? Is Wagner still frequentable? Should we erase the misogyny from Mozart’s operas?


Like other artistic disciplines, opera is seriously affected by the wave of revisionism that tends to eliminate or correct values ​​and realities that are difficult to reconcile with our century. This art, which has roots firmly rooted in the 18th centuryme and XIXme centuries, gives a thousand and one reasons for the guardians of political correctness to intervene.

Get ready, the phenomenon of “offensive operas” is just beginning. He took over the biggest opera houses. One can imagine that it will be increasingly rare to hear and see works in their original version. Worse yet, some risk being blacklisted outright.

The latest flagrant example of this broad movement is England’s prestigious Glyndebourne Festival, which announced just before the Christmas season that it would “rethink the way offensive opera is delivered to audiences.” The company acknowledges that some works contain “historical and social” points of view that may impact current audiences.

“Where the exoticism and orientalism of the representation of non-European cultures was once acceptable, we recognize through our lens that what was wrong then is still wrong today,” read a press release.

removal of black face within aida

This festival joins Madrid’s Teatro Real, which announced last fall that it was eliminating all black face in his production ofaida. Earlier, in 2022, the Arena Di Verona had the misfortune to resort to this old practice (in the same opera) and provoked the ire of certain spectators and artists (the American soprano Angel Blue withdrew from the production).

I must say that I completely agree with this vision. It’s even amazing to see that this hasn’t been resolved yet. Opera lovers have always accepted that a 17-year-old character is played by a 43-year-old interpreter. So can they be imaginative for the rest?

On the one hand, we fight against transformations, and on the other, we seek authenticity. The German tenor Jonas Kaufman has tested the effects of this mixture of affirmations. While he held the leading role ofothello, by Verdi, in November 2021, at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, received some boos. Audiences didn’t accept Kaufman, who is white, playing this character, who is black.

This brings us back to the theme of inclusion in opera. Great strides have been made in recent years, but much remains to be done. If there were enough black singers to play Othello, the problem would not arise.

Speaking ofothelloThe renowned choreographer John Neumeir got the surprise of his life when he learned that the work he had done around this ballet had been canceled by the director of the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen due to the “racist stereotypes” it conveyed.

The representation of an African dance was the trigger for this controversy launched by the dancers. The scene, barely two minutes long, showed a white dancer painted blue performing an African dance. The 83-year-old choreographer defended himself by saying that this dance was “coded and documented.” This failed to convince the management, which shelved this ballet last November.

mozart’s misogyny

Some opera houses now require more careful preparation work before staging an opera. This was the case at the Royal Opera House in London during the production of madame butterfly last summer. For a year, specialists accompanied the director to ensure respect for Japanese culture in his performance (scenography, costumes, makeup, etc.).

These are things that can be more easily rethought. But opera is an extremely complex world that offers all kinds of pitfalls and challenges to directors.

What are we going to do with certain “inconvenient” elements that are at the heart of the stories imagined by the librettists? Should we eliminate the misogyny found in Così Fan Tutteof Mozart, or the examples of incest in the RingWagner’s?

How to face the fate reserved for certain female characters like Tosca, Carmen, Desdemona or Pamina? Assaulted, kidnapped or kidnapped, women don’t always have the best role in opera.

And then there is Wagner’s anti-Semitism or Verdi’s racism.

How many stones in the shoes of those who establish the programming! Mostly male and white a few years ago, they now rub shoulders with women and people of minorities who care not to offend the public.

Currently there is a cold climate. The directors of the opera houses observe what the others do. We constantly live in fear that a controversy will break out. We protect ourselves the best we can. The New York Metropolitan Opera even placed a warning on its website for those who wish to view a performance through its online service.

It says: “Some shows available in the catalog Met Opera On Demand include offensive racial and cultural portrayals and stereotypes. The topics are varied: from offensive production practices in the past, such as make-up black face, brownface Y yellow face to racist cultural representations in the texts of the operas themselves. »

A revolution in staging

Where will all this lead us? To a revolution in staging, in my opinion. Imaginative and daring directors have many years ahead of them. Opera directors will increasingly turn to them to find “solutions”.

But unsurprisingly, this wave is creating another problem: opponents of progressivism in opera. More and more artists deplore the distortion of classical works. In May 2022, the tenor Roberto Alagna and the soprano Aleksandra Kurzak retired from conducting rough currently offered at the Liceu de Barcelona.

To highlight the Church as a tool of political oppression and moral domination, director Rafael R. Villalobos incorporated elements from the film Saló or the 120 days of Sodom, by Pasolini, who portrays the last days of the fascist regime in abjection and sadism.

After seeing video images, the two interpreters were shocked to discover a universe where sadomasochism, nudity and pedophilia are intertwined. When Aleksandra Kurzak saw that Scarpia’s character was wearing a BDSM-type collar, it was too much. The two singers have abandoned ship.

The world of opera has great challenges ahead. And without a doubt many controversies, crises and hard debates. As for the war between purists and progressives, it will undoubtedly be epic and entertaining.

But since this art form is capable of anything, including allowing a character to sing a six-minute aria with a knife in their stomach, I’m sure it will be able to plunge into the 21st century as well.me century.


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