Verdi's opera is based on Shakespeare's play about a North African general who becomes a war hero and tries to fit into Venetian high society. Bartlett Sher directs the current Met production, which features Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role. Sher says he never even considered using blackface.Share
"Our cultural history in America is profoundly marked by our struggles with race and the questions of race," Sher says. "And it seems to me, as an artist growing up in America, that there'd be no way on Earth I could possibly figure out how to do it with that kind of makeup and that it just seemed like an obvious choice."
Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb says he was relieved when Sher told him there would be no darkening makeup in Otello. The Met did, however, darken Antonenko's skin for the photograph on the cover of this season's brochure. Nevertheless, Gelb points out that the Met — like many opera companies — has had a colorblind casting policy for more than half a century.
"The Met has historically featured some of the greatest black artists of all time here, from Marian Anderson to Leontyne Price to Jessye Norman to Kathleen Battle," Gelb says.
Black women have had an easier time landing top opera roles than have black men, and there's a reason, André says: "Seeing a black male singer onstage with a white female heroine — there would be anxiety a lot of people could feel in the days of segregation, even in post-segregation times but where racial tensions are still very much around."
Much of the drama in Shakespeare's Othello is precipitated by a black man marrying a white woman. And while the libretto of Verdi's opera downplays the racial element, it's still in there.
African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who's performed with just about every major opera company in the world, says times have changed and more roles traditionally played by white men have gone to black singers. Still, when asked what he thinks about the tradition of Otello being performed in blackface, Brownlee says he understands the dramatic concerns and the history. (Read more.)