Monday, November 28, 2016

Ethiopian Lives Matter

Let me be the first to admit it. I'm conflicted. On one hand, conservatives rail against political correctness; on the other hand liberals are increasingly outraged by acts of cultural appropriation. Both factions are irate about what they perceive as extreme wrongdoing on the cultural battlefield. But where opera is concerned, the arguments get especially confusing.

With Asian American groups hot under the collar about Hollywood's preference for casting Caucasian actors to play Asian characters in yellowface -- and chastising small opera companies for scheduling productions of Gilbert & Sullivan's 1885 comic opera, The Mikado -- it's important to remember that in the opera world, voice trumps skin color. If you can't sing the music the way the conductor wants it to be heard, you don't get the job.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Opera announced that, for the first time since the company presented Otello in 1891, the tenor singing the title role would not use blackface in its new production of Verdi's opera. The Met's statement read as follows:
"Although the central character in Otello is a Moor from North Africa, the Met is committed to color-blind casting which allows the best singers possible 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 considerable musical challenges of the role of Otello, one of the most demanding in the entire operatic canon, when sung without amplification on the stage of the world's largest opera house. 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. Antonenko will not wear dark makeup in the Met's production."

On November 6, 2016, the Los Angeles Opera's opening night performance of Akhnaten starred countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (who had recently enjoyed a tremendous artistic success in the English National Opera's production of Philip Glass's 1984 opera about the pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt). Originally named Amenhotep IV, Akhnaten's main claim to fame was moving away from polytheism toward a religion whose sun god stood above the other ancient Egyptian gods. Although Akhnaten was occasionally depicted as a somewhat androgynous figure, his royal wife was Queen Nefertiti. He is presumed to be the father of King Tutankhamun.

A bust of Akhnaten

On opening night, about 25 protesters carrying signs that read “Our Black History Matters” and "Akhenaton Was a Black Pharaoh” demonstrated in front of the Los Angeles Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. As Catherine Womack reported in the Los Angeles Times, the protest had been organized by Legrand H. Clegg II, the West Coast President of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations which organized the “Black History Matters” demonstration in collaboration with the Black American Political Association of California. Citing Akhnaten’s significance as a black historical figure, Clegg likened the portrayal of the pharaoh by a white singer in Akhnaten to any production that would cast a white man as Martin Luther King Jr.
"We’re here to very peacefully inform people about our great history. The American public is unaware of the greatness of people of African descent because the academic, scientific and media establishments, through conspiracy, have suppressed, distorted or ignored the contributions of black people. 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.”

As is often the case, none of the protesters had given much thought to how many countertenors are available who are capable of singing Glass's score. A statement subsequently released by the Los Angeles Opera read:
"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 L.A. 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 of 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."

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When asked for an example of grand opera, most people will immediately point to Verdi's Aida. Famed for its exotic setting (ancient Egypt), Aida's world premiere took place at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on December 24, 1871. Long associated with the spectacle of its Triumphal March, the opera has been staged in front of the pyramids of Giza and has often been performed in some of Italy's outdoor arenas (the Verona Arena, the Baths of Caracalla, etc.).

A horse-drawn chariot in the Triumphal Scene from Aida

A camel is led across the stage during a performance of Aida

In a recent post on Parterre Box entitled The Elephant in the Room, columnist "Dawn Fatale" wrote:
"At the election-eve Jenufa at the Met, Trumpism made an unexpected, if timely appearance.  Before the show, a patron was holding court in the Lounge, bemoaning how Peter Gelb had ruined Aida by removing the elephants from the Triumphal Scene. This was, he said, waving his hands for emphasis, an unconscionable thing to do to a 'great Zeffirelli production.' His companions tried to convince him there were never any elephants, but he was adamant that his cherished production had been violated. They never fact-checked his assertion that Zeffirelli directed the Met’s current production."
Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith made his Act II entrance astride Kamba
the Elephant in Opera Birmingham's 2005 production of Aida

Previous stagings of Aida have used horses, donkeys, and goats in the Triumphal Scene. In October 1991, the Connecticut Opera staged a mammoth production in the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum starring Natalia Rom and Bruno Beccaria. In his review for the Hartford Courant, Steve Metcalf noted that:
"In the triumphal sequence, the animals comported themselves like veterans of the operatic stage, the amateur extras showed an almost Rockette-like precision, the dancing was strenuous, bordering on the lewd. The biggest burst of applause, however, was accorded the half-dozen belly dancers, each of whom gamely worked holding a large live snake above her head. The tableau was so grand that it seemed entirely forgivable that one of the young choristers could be seen sporting a point-and-shoot 35mm camera on a cord around her arm."
Tiki the Elephant appeared during the Triumphal Scene
in the Portland Opera's 1999 production of Aida

During a half century of operagoing, I've witnessed some pretty cockamamie productions. Two performances of Aida are forever etched in my memory. In the late 1960s, when I saw Marguerite Ruffino’s tiny opera company perform a stripped-down version of Aida on an op-art set for The Boys in the Band at Matunuck, Rhode Island’s 200-seat Theatre-By-The-Sea, I thought I had had my rock-bottom operatic experience. I didn’t imagine that anything could be worse than the sight of Amonasro clad in a leopard-skin bathrobe while attempting to hide behind a plastic palm in Michael’s bedroom.

But I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong!

In 1988, while in London, I caught a performance of Pocket Opera of Nurnberg’s execrable interpretation of Aida. With Manfred Blosser’s unit set (a mockup of a computer's circuit board) and Andrea Riedel’s outrageous costumes, the company hawked its dramatic concept as a war between the rival systems of modern, digital sound and old, analog recordings. Instead of ancient Egypt, the production reflected the struggle between the numbers 1 and 0 (which form the basis of digital computing).

Thus, the Ethiopians were costumed to represent fiercely nostalgic followers of the 33-1/3 rpm cult while the more sophisticated Egyptians represented the kingdom of the shiny compact disc.
  • Aida’s slave necklace was connected to a circular disc nearly four feet in diameter onto which numerous vinyl LPs had been glued. 
  • Amonasro’s cape was covered with old LPs that were smashed to bits during a bizarre confrontation with Amneris following the shattered musical remnants of Verdi’s Triumphal Scene as the Egyptian princess wielded her royal sceptre (a piece of military equipment resembling a giant phonograph arm).  
  • Amneris’s jewelry included earrings made of compact discs. 
  • The Egyptian princess dutifully doffed her royal headdress whenever the need for a female chorus arose. 
  • Meanwhile, a man dressed in black tights, a codpiece that he could never have hoped to fill, and a Darth Vader helmet (he was supposed to double as Ramfis and the male chorus) kept sashaying back and forth across an elevated plank while performing mock Egyptian poses. 
Neither the singers nor the composer were helped much by the fact that Pocket Opera of Nurnberg's backstage orchestra consisted of a piano, synthesizer, celeste, harp, and vibraphone. Although I pitied the leads for having to participate in such pretentious bullshit, I left the performance feeling that, with some kind of perversely divine justice, God oppresses those who oppress themselves.

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There can be no denying the ugly fact that the 2016 election results represented a vociferous pushback against political correctness. However, when push comes to shove, Aida is essentially a story about forbidden love between a military hero and someone who clearly represents "the other."
  • Radames is a light-skinned Egyptian warrior in love with a dark-skinned woman.
  • Although by birth she is an Ethiopian princess, ever since her capture Aida has been a servant to Amneris, the daughter of Egypt's ruling Pharaoh.
While nobody ever questioned the tradition of Caucasian opera singers donning blackface to sing the role of Aida, Leontyne Price startled the opera world when she began to portray Aida in major opera houses. On several occasions, the makeup artists simply did not know what kind of makeup to use on her skin. As she explained:
"Let's start with the obvious, or what seems like the obvious. Aida is a black woman and, in the world of opera, black artists don't have many opportunities to play black characters. That's it on a very simplistic level. But it goes far beyond that. I was always totally at ease when I sang the immortal phrases composed by that great master, Giuseppe Verdi, for his enslaved princess."
"I used to joke that when a theatre cast me as Aida they could always expect to save on makeup. (It's not that I didn't wear any makeup as Aida; every artist wears makeup on stage. But, as Aida, I can assure you, I could get away with less than just about any of my colleagues!) It was a joke, but there was a serious statement lurking behind my attempt at humor: When I performed Aida, the color of my skin became my costume and that gave me an incredible freedom no other role could provide. My skin was my costume -- all I had to do was drape something over it."
The San Francisco Opera recently unveiled a new look for Aida when it debuted a co-production with the Seattle Opera, the Minnesota Opera, and the Washington National Opera. The director, Francesca Zambello, was inspired by the work of Los Angeles-based graffiti artist, RETNA (whose hieroglypic-like symbols feature strongly in Michael Yeargan's sets). The poster art for the new production held great promise.

Poster art for the San Francisco Opera's new production of Aida

However, on the night I attended, one person sitting near me would occasionally let out whoops of laughter at some of the more ridiculous pieces of stage business (which roundly deserve to be shitcanned). While I felt that much of the production looked cheap and tacky (Amneris must have found her wardrobe at the Cairo branch of WalMart), I was genuinely shocked to witness a thorough whitewashing of Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto which effectively eliminated "the other" from Aida. Other than choristers C. Michael Belle and Alexander Taite, those were the whitest goddamn Ethiopians I'd ever seen!

Leah Crocetto as Aida (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

In most productions, the characters of Aida, Amonasro, and the chorus of captured Ethiopians wear a combination of makeup, body paint, and bodystockings to darken the color of their skin. I don't think the cost of such items has soared as dramatically as the price of an Epipen (or that they would represent a major line item in the budget for the production). In fact, many years ago when he was the General Director of the Tulsa Opera, Ed Purrington told me how he had once been forced to explain to a board member why doing a concert version of Aida (as a means of saving on production costs) would not go over well with their audience.

I have no doubt that Zambello (who is the General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, and has a long history with the San Francisco Opera) is well aware of the Black Lives Matter movement, the increase in racial tensions within the United States, and the lack of diversity within the opera world. When queried by The New York Times about the Met's decision regarding its 2015 production of Otello, Zambello (who had cast the African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens as Macbeth for the Glimmerglass Festival) suggested that a white tenor cast as Otello could deliver a compelling and “true” performance onstage.
“If I were casting ‘Otello’ I would work hard to find a black man who is vocally and dramatically appropriate for the role. But if I could not, I certainly would not present another singer ‘blacked up.’ The great stories and characters fascinate us because we recognize something of ourselves -- for better or for worse -- in them, and not because of the color of their skin.”
I beg to differ. As one watches these clips from Zambello's interview about her new production of Aida, it doesn't sound as if the racial component of the story was much of a consideration.

As people reacted to the shock of 2016's election results, many started to wonder how pollsters and pundits could have been so painfully off the mark in predicting who would become the 45th President of the United States. Their astonishment reminded me of numerous stage productions I've seen that were so misguided that one couldn't help but ask "Didn't anyone have the guts to tell them it wasn't working?"

Part of the problem is that sometimes an artistic vision looks great on paper, receives the kind of buy-in from the the creative team that borders on unconditional love for the visionary artist and yet, when put on stage, doesn't live up to its promise. Some may remember a 1989 production of Il Trovatore that was shared by the Seattle Opera and Houston Grand Opera. One of John Conklin's sets featured a huge wall whose textured surface was achieved by stapling crumpled-up, dark plastic garbage bags onto flats. Close, but no cigar.

Some of the design choices for San Francisco Opera's new Aida were mind-boggling.
  • Michael Yeargan's drab setting for the opening scene and the Judgment Scene looked like a decrepit, abandoned train station that had been taken over by military troops. 
  • I found RETNA's much-touted graffiti art surprisingly underwhelming. Because of its steep vertical orientation, it added a strangely Asian influence to the production design that was further enhanced by the King's bright red throne in the Triumphal Scene. 
  • The final drop for the Tomb Scene looked incredibly tacky and could easily be used for numerous operas. 
  • For me, the most effective scenic element was Yeargan's backdrop for the Nile Scene.

Anita Yavich's costumes ranged from the unfortunate to the bizarre.
  • Dressed in uniforms resembling those worn by Soviet-era military, the Egyptian soldiers in Act I looked as if like they had been left behind by a bus-and-truck touring production of Carmen
  • The floral caftans worn by the women in Amneris's chamber looked like someone had raided Peggy Lee's end-of-career wardrobe. 
  • The design for the priest outfits in the Judgment Scene (which consisted of starched see-through black peignoirs draped over the male chorus's military uniforms) was downright laughable. 
  • Unless one was close enough to the stage to see the military stripes on Amonasro's shirt, the captured King of Ethiopia looked like a garage mechanic. There was no sense at all that the Egyptians belonged to a richer and more sophisticated society than the primitive Ethiopians.
With all the glory of ancient Egypt available to the creative team, the modernization and increased militarization of the costume design had an unexpected side effect by tilting the dramatic power away from the women (Aida, Amneris) and handing it over to the men. Some of this was also due to the casting.
  • While Leah Crocetto is a local favorite with a young and powerful voice that shows great potential, she is far from what anyone would call a stage animal. Left alone center stage for the set change between Amneris's chambers and the Triumphal Scene, she looked less like a terrified servant than a promising young artist unsure of her exit cue.
  • Although Ekaterina Semenchuk's portrayal of Amneris showed vocal fire during the Judgement Scene, her authority as a favored princess was undercut by costumes that looked ridiculously cheap and stage direction that diminished her sense of power and privilege.

The men, however, gave magnificent, fully committed performances. Making his role debut as Radames, Brian Jagde offered a splendid vocal and layered dramatic portrait of the conflicted military hero. As Amonasro, George Gagnidze sang with thrilling conviction. Raymond Aceto's Ramfis and Anthony Reed's King of Egypt had greater resonance and were more richly sung than one usually hears.

Whereas the choreography in most productions of Aida is focused primarily on the women, Jessica Lang's questionable contributions gave most of the dancing to the men. In Act I, Scene II, young boys and teenagers were seen showing off in military costumes before their proud mothers. The Triumphal Scene featured what can best be described as a rowdy and ridiculous rape ballet in which various soldiers mimed the brutalization and submission of a woman after which she merrily jumped up and (as if to thank them for violating her) paid ardent tribute to their aggression.

Brian Jagde as Radames in Aida (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Even more than theatre, opera is a peculiar art form because, in spite of any one production's massive artistic failure, the music will survive intact. Although Zambello has done some marvelous work over the years, I thought her staging of the Judgment Scene was simply ludicrous.

Just as political consultants are quick to warn their clients about the necessity of considering the optics of any moment, that advice is equally applicable to opera. Which is the better choice? To put the chorus and two principals in dark makeup? Or to leave the audience wondering if the aim of this production was to see how well ethnic cleansing works on Ethiopians?

Image courtesy of Parterre Box

Credit is due to Mark McCullough for his lighting design. I was extremely grateful to maestro Nicola Luisotti and chorus director Ian Robertson for keeping all of the luster and passion in Verdi's music despite what was happening onstage. Here's the company's trailer for the production.

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