In case you missed it, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has opted not to use blackface on the title character of its upcoming production of Verdi's "Otello."
Last November, when Pittsburgh Opera produced "Otello" for the first time in nearly 25 years, tenor Carl Tanner, who is white, played the title role and wore makeup. The director's notes in the program included this paragraph by stage director Kristine McIntyre about the question of race in the opera:
"One of the things that Iago is able to exploit is Othello's sense of otherness due to race, though it's not exactly clear what Shakespeare intended regarding Othello's appearance. In Elizabethan times, the term "Moor" could equally be used to describe someone of swarthy appearance (a Moroccan or North African) or someone black – or anyone in between. In the play, Iago and Desdemona's father are the only ones who even mention his appearance, and in both play and opera, the issue seems unimportant to the great majority of characters. What is important is that Othello himself acknowledges this otherness as part of a deep sense of insecurity that, combined with the difference in their ages and backgrounds, makes it all too easy for him to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Their marriage is simply too new for him to have learned through time and experience that he can trust her."
Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera's general director, said in an interview that the company attempted to present a historically accurate depiction of Otello/Othello from Shakespeare's time. Two pictures – one of a Moroccan ambassador to the Elizabethan court, another of an Islamic scholar and diplomat in North Africa – served as a model for the production. "It was just makeup that seemed slightly olive-y, more Mediterranean than anything else," he said. "We believed that was Shakespeare's original model for Otello."
Danielle Pastin as Desdemona and Carl Tanner as Otello in the Pittsburgh Opera production of Verdi's "Otello." (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
For a story like "Otello," the title character's sense of otherness is germane to the depiction of the character, Mr. Hahn said. "He feels, perhaps, that he's other because he's from somewhere else," he said. "When you're in the theater, you're trying to elucidate the complexities of the situation so our audience learns about his pain," much like the cultural differences between Pinkerton and Butterfly are germane to Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"; makeup is one of many theatrical methods to portray these differences.
It's fair to assume that it will be a while before we see another "Otello" at the Benedum, but will Pittsburgh Opera follow the Met's lead next time? We'll see. Mr. Hahn pointed out that this production was informed by the 16th-17th century worlds that Shakespeare lived in; yet another could set the story in the Verdi's era of 19th century. With opera, the directorial possibilities are limitless, and often are changing. "I suspect we would find it difficult to envisage what a lot of stuff on stage is going to look like," Mr. Hahn said. "The theater is always a surprising place."
I also spoke with Thomas W. Douglas, who wears several musical hats throughout Pittsburgh as director of opera studies at Carnegie Mellon University, artistic director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh and founder/artistic director of the Neighborhood Opera Company, which produces operas featuring African-American casts.
While he opposes the use of blackface on white Otellos, he also wished the Met would seek a wider pool of candidates to sing the role. "You should be interested, if you want to tell that story, to find a character that reflects that story more honestly," he said.
"I think in a professional situation with the multitude of talent, if you're going to do an ethnic story, then find the right ethnic people to do it," he said. "He doesn't necessarily have to be a Moor or be African-American, but that contrast, it seems vital to good storytelling," not only in "Otello," but in other operas with roles for specific ethnicities.
"The goal-setting from the beginning should be, we're going to tell this story as authentically as possible," he said.
For further reading, here is a piece by Allison Kinney that broke the news about the Met's decision and looks at the barriers black performers have faced throughout opera's history.