In the past few years week there has been a flurry of back and forth blog postings, newspaper articles, and comments about the issue of racial stereotyping in opera productions.
Many of these postings were prompted by a New York Times announcement of South African soprano Angel Blue withdrawing from a production of AIDA in protest over another production of Verdi’s opus elsewhere, featuring Russian soprano Anna Netrebko doing the title role in Aunt Jemima black face. This was naturally followed by much brouhaha in recent postings in www. Parterre.com and in Greg Sandow’s blog.
Other similar incidents have occurred, another involving a German production of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers.
Angelo Anelli, that opera’s librettist was a better political activist and Law professor than he was a lyric poet. But at age 21 Rossini could not have his pick of the best, and he had to, like it or not, work with Anelli for the three weeks it took them to whip up into shape L’Italiana in Algeri.
Note also that this was Rossini’s eleventh opera, a work by a still-immature composer. Just a year later Rossini tackled Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) and by then he was working with librettist Felice Romani, a much better lyric poet than Anelli, and someone who could and did deliver a still comical but nicer picture of foreigners from the Muslim world than Anelli had, the year before.
After those two works, Rossini wrote at lightning speed twenty-seven more operas, several of them dealing with stories set in Asian and African countries and all of them seen through the squinting eyes of 19th century Europeans.
In Armida , for instance the title character is both Princess of Damascus and a sorceress bent on turning all the lily-white visiting Crusaders into sexual trophies. The Crusades is again the background in Rossini’s next opera, Riccardo e Zoraide, one in which dark-skinned citizens of “ancient Nubia” are less than fairly portrayed. In Semiramide and in The Siege of Corinth the non-Caucasian exotics fare no better morally and ethically than in other Rossini operas.
Some of the oldest among us may have seen the Jean Pierre Ponelle production of L’italiana in Algeri in the early 1970’s, with Marilyn Horne in the role of Isabella having fun at the expense of a lot of Moslems. At the time nobody was too preoccupied, let-alone straight-jacketed by the kind of political correctness that influences much of what we say and do these days.
But, for its time, Ponelle’s ham-fisted approach to Rossini’s comic opera was tolerated by some and ignored by many. Few judged it wrong. Many of us thought it was silly and only intermittently funny.
Last time I checked this is 2022 and more than fifty years have passed. We look at stage works these days through a different prism.
If we are going to take on the challenge of staging some of the great operas in the canon we should be mindful of the implicit intentions of the composer and the librettist and strive to set the great operas of Rossini, Wagner, Verdi and Mozart in the time and place intended by their creators. With that approach, issues of political correctness would become irrelevant. They would be admitted as imperfect but invaluable stage works of and for their time, still viable and stage-worthy today.
We do not have to approach theatrical works of art with reverence. We should simply take them at their own worth, respecting the intentions of librettist and composer, endeavoring to convey with conviction their meaning to a contemporary audience.
Some years ago I saw an Aida set in a modern-day Cairo, as it was in a hapless production of Francesca Zambello at the Glimmerglass Opera. The stage was chock-full of gun-toting thugs bullying the enemy and a finale in which they water-boarded Radames.
Directors – Ms. Zambello unexcepted – often misdirect and render productions incomprehensible, no matter how many densely written program notes or supertitles they throw at us unsuspecting patrons who have bought high-priced tickets hoping for a nice evening in the opera house.
There are many other similar or worse instances of directorial hubris or just plain stupidity to which I have been subjected in over sixty years of theatre and operagoing.
There was a Santa Fe Opera production of Beethoven’s Fidelio directed by the well-respected Stephen Wadsworth, in which, in the finale of the second act the liberating army hung the Union Jack as part of the final tableau.
And I thought that opera was meant to be set in Spain.
Operatic libretti, from Monteverdi to Verdi contain wrong-headed and at times xenophobic utterances by their characters. And that – characters – is just the point. These are characters speaking or singing. They are not nor should they be the mouthpieces of their authors.
It would be foolhardy to claim that Wagner was an Anti-Semite, unless we had evidence to back up the claim. Well, we do, and his tract, Jewry in Music amply proves it. Hans Sachs address to the townspeople at the end of the third act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a suspiciously nationalistic harangue, proving that Hans Sachs, the character, not Richard Wagner, the composer is a take-no-prisoners German white supremacist.
In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Monostatos, the Moor is depicted as a despicable creep whose soul is, in the words of the “noble” Sarastro, “as black as your skin.”
How are both of those for political incorrectness?
In The Abduction from the Seraglio,the Turks are portrayed as sexist, cruel and not-too-bright, notwithstanding Pasha Selim’s letting go of Constanza and his forgiving of Belmonte.
Political correctness is not what should measure the worth of works that were written centuries ago.
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a problematic play more Elizabethan than Italian in its story-telling and in its treatment of “Shylock, the Jew” has long given stage directors flop sweat. But, if you are going to stage the play, for Bill’s sake don’t white-wash it.
The Bard did no better by the title character in Othello, if you think about it, portraying the noble Moorish General at the service of the Republic of Venice as a pathological nut-case wife-killer. Aaron, the Moor (another one) in Titus Andronicus is is as nasty a sociopath as they come. But they are what they are, both late 16th century portrayals of “savage” foreigners.
No producer in his or her right mind would permit a stage director to stage Oklahoma in Kevin Stitt’s Oklahoma City, portraying Judd as a modern-day low-level drug dealer. The Estate of Rodgers and Hammerstein would slap them with a cease-and-desist court order and or take them to court. An infamous production of R & H’s South Pacific, directed by Anne Bogart set on a battleship in WWII is still talked about.
Then you have the countless excesses in Regietheater, perpetrated by any number of Eurotrash stage directors.
Under Peter Gelb’s management the MET has treated its audience to a Rat Pack Rigoletto, a La Sonnambula set in a rehearsal room, a Jack-in-the-Box Peter Grimes, a doped-up Lucia, a Daliesque La Traviata with no girls in sight among Violetta’s guests, and now a Tristan und Isolde set inside a battle ship.
In trotting out these pretentious exercises opera companies are not breaking any theatrical ground but merely imposing directorial idiocy on audiences who should know better and never again buy tickets at that venue.
All of which brings us back to the original point. Political correctness is yet one more layer that should not be imposed on classics. Otherwise, stick to contemporary operas, with living composers and librettists still around to safeguard their intellectual property. That is something that the long-dead Mozart and Verdi and Wagner cannot do.
Rafael de Acha