Immigration, Assimilation, Ethnicity and All That Jazz

Does Opera Have to Be “Realistically Cast”?

Posted by chinesecanuck on June 24, 2008

Fatemeh’s article on Verdi’s Aida in Racialicious today was very interesting.  She claimed that the recent Portland production was nothing but a Eurocentric/white-washed view of Egypt, because of costumes, choreography, etc.  She also mentioned that much of the cast was white, not black, even though the opera takes place in Egypt.  Well, this isn’t Porgy and Bess.  There’s no rule saying that the entire cast has to be black (the Gershwin estate has a clause where Porgy and Bess needs to be cast with black singers, which is why, for a long time, P&G wasn’t produced often).  In any case, does opera and even live theatre doesn’t always need to be played out “realistically,” IMHO.  There are some cases when it’s necessary, but I don’t think Aida falls into that category.  I’ve seen tons of Shakespearean plays where the characters’ costumes vary from “traditional” Renaissance era pieces or costumes that reflected the play’s setting (e.g. Roman costume for Julius Caesar) to later periods.  Should the production of Julius Caesar that featured Denzel Washington from a few years back be criticized because it takes in the twenty-first century (the characters were wearing suits and had cell phones)?  What about the Disney/Elton John version of Aida, where the Egyptians were all played by white (and perhaps one or two Asian) actors while Aida and the other slaves were black (on another note:  The Egyptians’ costumes in the Broadway production were really boring/plain, while the slaves’ costumes were very colourful…music contrasted too)? And unlike the Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer fiasco when just prior to Miss Saigon‘s Broadway debut in ’91, FEW PEOPLE SAID ANYTHING ABOUT THE PREDOMINANTLY WHITE “EGYPTIAN” CAST.  And why should people care?

Opera doesn’t have to be as realistic as even live theatre.  If it was, many singers would be extremely limited in terms of what they can audition for, even for a chorus role.  For example, someone who looked like me would basically be limited to basically Madama Butterfly and Turandot.  I saw a production of La Boheme a few years ago where the Mimi was Asian.  I guess Fatemeh wouldn’t like that, would she?  Nor would she have liked the fact that it took place in the 1950s rather than the 1830s (A production that takes place in the 1950s?  Might as well fast forward another 30-something years and call the production Rent, right?)

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6 Responses to “Does Opera Have to Be “Realistically Cast”?”

  1. Fatemeh said

    Fatemeh here.
    Perhaps I didn’t get my point across well enough with the racial casting: I didn’t mind that the cast was mostly white; what bothered me was the fact that all of the actors of color were cast in the “Ethiopian” side, while the vast majority of the Egyptians were white. Did you read the part about the Ethiopians being portrayed with spears and loincloths (as “Spearchuckers” essentially)? Did you read the part about white actors on the Ethiopian side wearing “bronzeface”? My problem is that, despite the similarity of Egyptian and Ethiopian ethnicites & cultures, there was a whitewashed racialization of the Egyptians and a savage otherization of the Ethiopians.

  2. Fatemeh,

    They were probably influenced by the Disney/Elton John musical on Broadway, where the Egyptians were mostly played by white singers (with one or two Asians and “light brown” actors) while the Nubians were all black. As I pointed out in my original post regarding the Broadway musical, this was likely done to contrast the differences. If they had two black or two white leads, it’ll just be another “inappropriate couple” story, kind of like Romeo and Juliet.

  3. Lyonside said

    See, I saw (or thought I saw) the original cast in NYC of the Disney/Elton John Aida, and there were Asian “slaves” in the ensemble as well. That’s also what I recall the last time I looked at the playbill (I collect like everything, but can never find it when I need it). Now, it’s ensemble, so in reality, understudies for various roles are often ensemble regulars, and the cast is dynamic according to need and scheduling. And as far as the show goes, they didn’t seem to differentiate between Nubian slaves and other slaves – the slave scenes had everyone in the ensemble in them.

  4. I saw the show around the summer of 2000 and didn’t recall any Asians in the Nubian chorus. There was an Asian actress who understudied Amneris, however (played by Sheri-Renee Scott).

  5. Hi all, I don’t really think that every single production of an opera has to be “realistically cast” but honestly would it hurt the theater experience if it was? What would a production of Aida look like if everyone was a brown person? To me that doesn’t sound like abad thing and in fact could be very positive.

  6. But how easy would it be to find cast all-“brown” singers without an international search? They’d all have to be professionally trained in western classical music, and trained for years, at that. Casting an all-brown Aida is probably harder than casting a black Othello at a Canadian private school.

    On the other hand, musical theatre is a completely different story. You don’t need to be trained for that. You just need a voice.

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