Metropolitan Opera Drops Use of Blackface for Otello Productions

News   Metropolitan Opera Drops Use of Blackface for Otello Productions Tradition changes slowly at the venerable Metropolitan Opera in New York, but one long-overdue shift will occur this fall: Otello will no longer be performed with its leading character in blackface, according to the website Hyperallergic.com and NPR.com.

Otello, which is based on William Shakespeare's Othello, premiered at the Met in 1891, and has been performed in blackface ever since. The Met's upcoming production starring white singer Aleksandrs Antonenko, will be the first performed without it.

Here is the Met's statement in full:

"The Met has never intended to use blackface in the company’s new production of Otello. The decision to have no makeup at all was made during the process of planning of the production, which hasn’t yet started rehearsals. The Met’s promotional photos were shot in January before the creative team had conceived the look of the production. Although the central character of Otello is a Moor from North Africa, the Met is committed to color-blind casting, which allows the best possible singers to perform any role, regardless of their racial background. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is among a small handful of international dramatic tenors who can meet the extraordinary musical challenges of the role of Otello, one of the most demanding in the entire operatic canon. In recent seasons, Antonenko has sung the role to acclaim at the Royal Opera in London, at the Paris Opera, and with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and we look forward to his first performances of the role at the Met in Bartlett Sher’s season-opening new production."

Blackface (as well as other ethnic stereotypes) were a common staple on Broadway in the 19th and early 20th century, notably in minstrel shows, which had their peak popularity in those same years. The "black" characters in these shows were almost always white actors who "blacked up" with burnt cork to look black--or a cruel parody of black. Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor were among performers who made blackface an important part of their acts. In the few instances where black performers were permitted to perform in minstrel shows, they too were forced to "black up," to create a cartoonish caricature of themselves.

Minstrelsy began dying out in the first decade of the 20th century, and was rarely seen after 1950. The 2010 musical The Scottsboro Boys was lambasted for using minstrel show traditions to tell its story of racism in the 1930s South. The black actors in that show did not black up however. The controversy may have led to the show running only 49 performances. A successful production is currently on stage in London.

In 1937 Walter Huston was the last white actor to play the title role of Othello on Broadway. Starting with Paul Robeson in 1943, black actors have been cast in the role, most recently James Earl Jones in 1982.

Blackface performances still crop up from time to time, however. In 2012, playwright Bruce Norris retracted the rights to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park from a German company that used blackface for the black characters.

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