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Diversity Efforts in Opera Fall Flat

"Nixon in China" performers at the Scottish Opera

Manuel Brug

BERLIN - Now, in the opera, there are Black people portraying Germanic gods, Russians appearing as Chinese people, and Don Giovanni may even be played by a trans woman. If ethnically correct casts are required to be politically correct, this would mean the end for many classics and several would become unemployed.

Trinidadian-born soprano Jeanine De Bique just starred as a forester's daughter at the 200th anniversary performance of "Der Freischütz" ("The Freeshooter") at the Berlin Konzerthaus, just as South African Golda Schultz did earlier this year in a similarly touching and powerful way. She will sing again soon at the Munich Opera Festival. Two people of color sang in "new German," the soprano was remarked as "so German and genuine" that Richard Wagner would probably have praised.

Fortunately, something like this is not an issue in the German opera industry, which, with over 80 opera houses, is responsible for well over a third of all musical theater performances worldwide in non-pandemic times. Neither the companies nor the fans care: The audience got used to it long ago, even before it was chic and important to do-gooders for operas to welcome many skin colors, religions and gender expressions.

"This was not seen as blackface, but simply as theater"

Don Giovanni played by a trans woman and Donna Elvira by a genderfluid mezzo, women singing as little boys and countertenors playing old nannies — they all have been there for a long time. In 1961, there had already been a Black "Tannhäuser" Venus on the Green Hill at the Bayreuth Festival - the grandiose Grace Bumbry. At that time, of course, she was still called "Negro mezzo-soprano" in the media, as the term was seen as not carrying as much weight in Germany.

Every singer of the "Zauberflöten" ("Magic Flute"), Monostatos and Verdi's "Othello" put on black makeup because there were not enough tenors of color in the country, or because the people of color auditioning were not deemed good enough, just as a German, Russian or a Chinese person may sometimes not meet vocal requirements.

That was not seen as blackface, but simply as theater: the art of transformation, merging with a role, the pleasure of playing, disguise and changing identity. It is a game that has defined us humans for thousands of years. And now it is to be swept away or severely damaged by the worldwide growing storm of gender justice, the anger from minorities and the discriminated, as well as the offended professionals.


Golda Schultz performs at the Salzburg FestivalImago via ZUMA Press


A Scottish opera choir performing John Adams' "Nixon in China" perfectly embodies Chinese people on a stage in in their native country. They have previously slipped into the identity of girls from Nagasaki ("Madama Butterfly"), Germanic fantasy warriors in "Götterdämmerung" and Spanish gypsies, proud and free in "Carmen."

If the annoyed ones got their way, the troupe from Glasgow would be more or less out of a job. After a strict interpretation of all discrimination rules, that would leave only the Scottish refugees from Verdi's "Macbeth" or the Highlanders in skirts from Rossini's Walter Scott adaptation "La donna del lago" ... at least some of them would then have to ask themselves whether they belong to the cult of the Druids. And fortunately Handel had a small choir at his disposal for his "Ariodante," also set in the High Moor, which was rather unusual in the baroque period. These aren't exactly rosy work prospects.

Scots only as Scots in operas: This is not just a thought experiment, but could soon be a bitter reality. Because the Scottish Opera has just rejected a proudly posted nomination of their "Nixon in China"" choir for an opera award among 1,000 stooges and apologetically vowed improvement for their professional misconduct. Why all this backtracking? Because a British association dedicated to "humanizing the portrayal of British East and Southeast Asians' had circulated the tweet of an Asian singer with 343 followers accusing the opera of yellowface. But the important opera "Nixon in China" will probably have a hard time in English-speaking countries from now on. Because nowhere outside Asia will it be possible to assemble a largely Asian cast.

The woke clamor about opera roles not being skin-color correct is getting louder and louder.

This is already the case with George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which for decades the rights holders have only released for authentic casts including people of color, thus in Europe, it often happens solely with guest performers. And this, of all things, with a work that was written by a Russian Jew and a member of Charleston's white upper class and, typical of the time, features quite a lot of racist stereotypes: more, for example, than Puccini's "Turandot."

That one, in turn, is still beloved in Franco Zeffirelli's kitsch Chinese cinemascope production at New York's Metropolitan Opera. How much longer? At least at the Berlin Staatsoper, Russian Anna Netrebko, her screaming Azerbaijani husband Yusif Eyvazov, Tartar Aida Garifullina, Englishman Graham Clark and Saxon René Pape have been announced for the leading roles in a spectacular premiere in the summer of 2022. The Bavarian Philipp Stölzl directs, the Indian Zubin Mehta conducts. Apart from two or three choir members, there is no one from East Asia. Let's see what else is brewing.


Nixon in China 2020 | Trailerwww.youtube.com


The woke clamor about opera roles not being skin-color correct is getting louder and louder. But that it now also defames choirs is new. In the opera nation of Germany, this segregation with a reversed sign is fortunately progressing only quietly and slowly. But the signs are unmistakable. The Komische Oper in Berlin is only putting on one more "Gypsy" baron. In many places, one no longer dares to put make up on Othello. Even in older productions, Monostatos' identity as a Black man has been driven out. Just now, in the 53-year-old Otto Schenk production of "Rosenkavalier," the "little Negro" whom Hugo von Hofmannsthal had assigned to the Marschallin appeared on the cast sheet as (on stage) a radiantly white-skinned "Little Mohammed."

The U.S. President Richard Nixon was, of course, embodied by a Black baritone at the much praised Scottish Opera. Nobody took offense at this — and rightly so. And by the way, the singer is allowed to do so. After all, he is by birth a discriminated person, a racially threatened person. This is the twisted logic of the self-appointed guardians of racism.

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