The University of Bristol, in England, has a musical-theater society. Students in the society voted to put on Aida — not the opera by Verdi but a musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, which is based on the opera. More specifically, it is based on a children’s book, telling the story of Aida. That book was written by Leontyne Price, the great American soprano, who is one of the outstanding Aidas of all time.
Aida is about an Ethiopian princess — the title character — who is a slave in Egypt. She is in love with an Egyptian officer, who loves her back. Much trouble ensues.
Bristol’s Aida never got off the ground, because of student protests. The protesters figured that white students would be cast in the musical. And that would be an injustice to Egyptians and Ethiopians. It would be “whitewashing.” So, the musical-theater society canceled the show. “We would not want to cause offense in any way,” they said.
This is the kind of thing — identity politics, capitulation in the face of ignorance and zealotry — that would kill art. And, by the way, if you’re looking for a fight, tell an Egyptian he isn’t white. Really, go ahead. I’ll just stand here and watch.
In 1983, there was an American mini-series about Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt. Sadat’s mother was part Sudanese (a very touchy issue in Egypt). In the mini-series, he was played by Lou Gossett Jr., the black American actor. Egyptian authorities banned the mini-series. For good measure, they banned all products coming from its distributor, Columbia Pictures.
Back to the Ethiopian princess. Aida is one of the few black characters in all of opera. Leontyne Price used to joke that opera companies, when they hired her, could save on makeup. (Price herself is black.) In her career, Price sang dozens of roles — including Tosca, Tatiana (from Eugene Onegin), and Cio-Cio-San, a.k.a. Madama Butterfly.
Now, Cio-Cio-San is a 15-year-old Japanese girl. But Puccini requires a powerful soprano for her music. Therefore, Cio-Cio-San is often portrayed by a battle-axe. An audience member simply suspends disbelief, as he does in most operas. A different Italian composer, Rossini, said that three things were required in a singer: voice, voice, and voice.
How about another Puccini heroine, Mimì, from La Bohème? She is dying from consumption. Her sometime lover, Rodolfo, tends to her. In an interview a couple of years ago, Ann Murray, the Irish mezzo-soprano, told me about a particular production of La Bohème: The Mimì was quite stout, and the Rodolfo carried her to bed. When he got her there, the audience applauded.
Yet another Puccini heroine, Turandot, is a Chinese princess, and an icy beauty. I can just picture her. But she, too, must be sung by a very rugged soprano. Chinese princesses need not apply. There is another character, another soprano role, in that opera: Liù. The first Liù I ever saw was Leona Mitchell, a black American.
Simon Estes is a black American bass-baritone, and he sang Amonasro, Aida’s father, alongside Price. But most of the time he was someone else — such as Wagner’s Dutchman (of The Flying Dutchman). He also took part in L’Africaine, the Meyerbeer opera. But he was not an africain. He was Don Pedro, a Portuguese villain. So what? Voce, voce, voce, said Rossini.
Denyce Graves is one of the leading Carmens of recent years. She is not a Gypsy girl from Spain. She is a black mezzo from Washington, D.C. A few nights ago, I saw a William Tell at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (The overture is familiar.) The hero’s son, Jemmy, was portrayed by Janai Brugger, a black soprano from Chicago.
A Swiss boy is a girl? And not just a girl but a black girl? (Jemmy is a “trouser role,” i.e., a male role taken by a female singer.) That is opera. Could the kids at the University of Bristol understand?
Sophie, in Der Rosenkavalier, is not a trouser role; she is a lissome young woman from Vienna. The libretto emphasizes how white she is: a tasty shade of pale. In Salzburg two summers ago, Sophie was portrayed by Golda Schultz, a soprano from South Africa. She is “black,” as Americans would say. (I’m not sure what South Africans would say, with their several gradations.) The libretto did not rule casting. Baron Ochs in that same production was played by Günther Groissböck, an Austrian bass. Groissböck is as fit as a fiddle. Ochs is described, in the libretto, as fat. That was overlooked.
I doubt you would want a fit Falstaff. That character must be Falstaffian. So, stuff a pillow under the guy’s shirt. Should Otello — Verdi’s Othello — be dark-skinned? Last year, the Met announced that no longer would an Otello on its stage wear dark makeup. This was too much like the despised blackface. And yet the Moor’s skin color plays a part in the story, does it not? These questions can get tricky.
Let me walk down Memory Lane a bit. When I was a boy, I was taken to see Purlie, a musical set in the Jim Crow South. The cast was all-black — and that included the white oppressors. Which confused me. But over the years, you get used to “non-traditional casting,” though sometimes a production may go out of its way to break traditions, and defy sense.
A great controversy occurred in 1990. The musical Miss Saigon was set to travel from London to Broadway. (This musical is based on Madama Butterfly.) Jonathan Pryce was cast in the role of a Eurasian pimp. The actors’ union in America said, “No way.” Pryce was Welsh, and that was intolerable, because the character had to be played by an Asian — never mind that the character was a Eurasian: half French and half Vietnamese. Besides which, doesn’t acting include acting?
One of the union’s points was that there were relatively few opportunities for Asian actors, making it imperative that Asian roles — even half-Asian ones — be doled out to this segment. That is a point, I think, but not a winning one.
Miss Saigon’s producer, Cameron Mackintosh, refused to take the show to New York without Pryce. The union relented. Pryce went on to win a Tony.
More recently, there have been cries in America against “cultural appropriation.” What does that mean? For an answer, I turn, as usual, to Wikipedia: “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.” Formerly, that was thought of as good: open-minded, world-embracing, liberal.
Last summer, Justin Timberlake, the pop star, was watching the BET Awards. (“BET” stands for “Black Entertainment Television.”) He liked a speech that was given, and he said so in a tweet. Someone responded, “Does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture?” Timberlake wrote back, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.” Thus did the pop star stand for something like a common American culture.
But then he was criticized. So, in the way of these things, he apologized.
As far as I’m concerned, American music belongs to you, me, and everyone else who likes it, wherever he lives. Do you know ragtime, and Scott Joplin in particular? You can thank two Jewish Americans, frankly.
In the early 1970s, Joshua Rifkin recorded Joplin rags for the Nonesuch label. Suddenly, Joplin, who died in 1917, was rediscovered. Then Marvin Hamlisch put his music at the center of a movie, The Sting. That cemented Americans’ love of Scott Joplin and ragtime.
André Watts, the American pianist, is the son of a Hungarian woman and a black American GI. What would the University of Bristol think? Should he play some combination of Liszt and Joplin, and steer clear of other music?
Black opera singers popularized spirituals — slave songs — all over the world. Some white singers won’t sing them, out of racial deference, or perhaps fear of being called an appropriator. But other singers won’t be denied. Long ago, in 1963, George London recorded an album of spirituals. This was in Munich. London was a bass-baritone who, as George Burstein, was born to Russian Jews in Montreal. He knew that spirituals belonged to him, as they touch every human heart, or at least every heart that is touchable. He would no more have denied himself these songs than he would have denied himself Schubert Lieder or Fauré chansons.
In the 2014–15 season, Jamie Barton gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. She is a mezzo from Rome — Georgia, not Italy — and she is white. She is also irrepressible. When it came time for encores, she busted out with “Ride On, King Jesus.”
Art is in conflict with identity politics, for the one is pretty much universal and the other is particular. One is generous, inclusive — come one, come all — and the other is meanly, crabbedly exclusive. Today, unfortunately, people are taught to worship race and ethnicity like gods.
Hey, now that I’ve brought up the subject: There are plenty of gods in opera. Handel’s Semele, for example, includes Jupiter, Apollo, and Juno. Should mortals be allowed to play them? Good luck finding gods in Bristol, or anywhere else.
Last month, a friend of mine sent me an article from the website of Opera Philadelphia. Its headline was “Turandot: Time to call it quits on Orientalist opera?” The writer’s answer was yes. Turandot and similar works were guilty of “outdated gender roles,” “problematic racial stereotypes,” and all the rest of it.
The article sent a shiver down my spine. It was — I’m going to reach for this overused and abused word — Orwellian. To repeat what I said earlier, certain people will kill art, and civilization along with it, if we let them.
End on an American opera — the American opera, Porgy and Bess. The Gershwin estate has a peculiar stipulation: In English-speaking countries, the opera must be performed by all-black casts. George Gershwin and his partners had their reasons, and they are honorable ones. Gershwin et al. did not want blackface. They wanted authenticity. They also wanted to give opportunities to black singers and actors. Nevertheless . . .
About 15 years ago, Simon Estes — the grandson of a onetime slave — said, “Music knows no color. This may sound extreme, but I think it’s almost unconstitutional for Porgy and Bess to be performed only by black artists.” There is an American. And an artist. And a man.