Yesterday, an acquaintance mentioned having seen the Met production of Handel’s “Armida”, starring Renée Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee, and commented on the interracial nature of the onstage pair (not really knowing any better, he tried to attribute it to Obama.) This got me to wondering if opera is finally loosening up about this. Do those of you in the business have any stories to tell as far as casting and race? I would be interested to hear them and will try to use them in a future post. You may use comments, or else e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From what I saw in my youth, white male-black female couples were OK first, and were seen onstage as far back as Leontyne Price (but not as far back as Marian Anderson.) But for all the usual reasons given, opera audiences were somehow “not ready” for a black man and a white woman onstage together, unless it was Othello. Then the Perry brothers came along and stuck their feet somewhat in the door with “Don Giovanni”, but remember, both Giovanni and Othello are bad guys. The audience wouldn’t feel pushed to accept him as a lover because he’s already doomed to screw it up.
There are not many opera singers of color in the German speaking opera world, and while it may well be a form of racism, it’s not the same kind. There were no slaves nor Klan, and someone dark-skinned is certainly exotic but not automatically (to some) second class. (People of Turkish background get that honor.) What I think happens (and I’m just guessing here) is that a lot of intendants here want, ideally, cookie-cutter singers who can fill a multitude of roles in many productions. Someone who stands out, be it in skin color, weight, height, or any other physical attribute which is different from other singers, is going to have trouble playing various roles and not be seen by the (admittedly narrow-minded) audiences as the dark one, the fat one, the tall one. More like Hollywood film casting, where type matters.
Asians are breaking through this. It seems they’ve been on the verge of breaking through for a while, but slowly they are getting there. This is a whole other ball of wax that I will leave for another discussion, mainly because Asians — those who grew up and trained in Asian countries — have a somewhat harder time with European expectations of things like facial expressions, due to their own cultural upbringing. I see especially Koreans (men and women) and Japanese (mainly women) in opera productions here. But my limited experience with dark-skinned colleagues makes me wish I knew more of how it works for them. As said above, your comments/experiences regarding this are welcome.