The November 6 opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s Akhnaten was greeted with peaceful protests over the casting of a white actor as the titular Egyptian pharaoh, according to the L.A. Times.
Protesters from a group titled Black History Matters held signs that read, “Akhnaten was a black pharaoh” and “Our black history matters.”
Starring as Akhnaten is Anthony Roth Costanzo, a counter-tenor who starred in a London mounting of the opera earlier this year. Costanzo’s co-star is African American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who plays the role of Nefertiti.
Appropriate depictions of race on stage continue to be a hot-button issue for many opera companies whose casting policies have traditionally favored a performer’s technical abilities over ethnic background or physical appearance.
L.A. Opera stated that Constanzo’s casting was part of its color-blind casting policy, while protesters saw it as whitewashing the historical significance of people of color.
Legrand Clegg, the West Coast president of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, the organization behind the protests, told the L.A. Times, “Akhnaten and Nefertiti are icons in our community, and our children deserve to have heroes. It’s an insult. We are tired of it and we are demanding that the truth be told.”
In a statement released by L.A. Opera, the company acknowledged that there was a history of marginalizing the cultural and historic contributions made by people of color.
While we strive for overall diversity in our casting, we have a long-standing policy of ignoring age, race and other physical characteristics when it comes to casting particular roles. Part of this is due to the complexity of casting for opera. In addition to acting ability, vocal beauty, tone and type, opera performers sing unamplified over a full symphony orchestra—an Olympian-level feat that is a combination of rare talent and years of dedication and training.
The title role of Akhnaten is particularly difficult to cast, especially in this production. It requires a very rare voice type, called a countertenor, in addition to outstanding stamina and agility—vocally and physically. Anthony Roth Costanzo was one of only two singers we found to have the skills and ability to perform the role of Akhnaten in this case, plus he comes to LA Opera having recently learned and performed it for English National Opera. Ethnicity was not a factor in our decision. While we do not cast roles according to race, we have a number people of color in Akhnaten, including in the role of Nefertiti, the queen, and another singer of Egyptian descent, among others.
We fully agree that the historical contributions of people of color have long been distorted or ignored. Not only do we wholeheartedly support all peaceful efforts to right these wrongs, we hope that in our own way we can be part of the solution. We are working toward a world where people of all backgrounds experience, as artists and audience members, the transformative power of opera.