Music

The solution to racism controversy in opera is staring us in the face

Anna Netrebko is not backing down in the row over her make-up, causing other acts to pull out of the Arena di Verona Opera Festival.

Netrebko playing the part of an Ethiopian princess. Photo: PR supplied

In the short space of time since George Floyd was murdered in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement gained broader support, education about what racism looks like has – in some quarters – made incremental progress.

There have been several public apologies for the historic use of blackface. Celebrity Juice star Keith Lemon appeared in a video to say sorry to those he’d impersonated, including presenter Trisha Goddard and Spice Girl Mel B. Lemon’s jibes at Craig David and the like in his 2002-2004 TV show Bo’ Selecta! – including make-up, unflattering masks and crass cultural stereotypes – were not in isolation.

Parodic comedy series Little Britain (2003-2007) was temporarily removed from streaming services while David Walliams’s Desiree DeVere – for which the actor darkened his skin tone – was edited out of the series, along with other problematic scenes (much must have ended up on the cutting-room floor). But remorse and reflection appear to be thin on the ground at the Arena di Verona Opera Festival, where one of the world’s starriest sopranos is continuing to defend her use of blackface.

Anna Netrebko has just sung the titular role in Verdi’s Aida, an opera about an Ethiopian princess. An Instagram photo indicates that the Italian production is using make-up to darken some singers’ skin. The Russian soprano – who has courted controversy this year by refusing to condemn Putin’s aggression in Ukraine – has sung Aida many times before with skin make-up – notably at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2018. She wrote on Instagram in 2019: “I am NOT gonna be white AIDA,” and: “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopian princess, for Verdi greatest opera! YES!”

Rather than apologise for its poor judgement, the Arena di Verona Opera Festival told OperaWire: “The point is that as long as we do a historical Aida in the Arena, it is very difficult for us to change something.”

The defence of “we’ve done it like this for ages, so this is how it must be done” is shaky at best. The amphitheatre in Verona where the festival takes place has a much longer history than Aida. But in recent years it was agreed that the open-air millennium-old gladiatorial arena would benefit from that most high-tech of additions: a roof. (Having attended a concert there during an intense summer storm I can confirm there is no escape from the elements.) Change is necessary, and often positive. (Although perhaps not for Verona’s poncho sellers.)

Despite the criticisms, Arena di Verona Opera Festival continued with its “historical Aida”. Many musicians have voiced their concerns, including US soprano Angel Blue, who was due to make her debut at the festival’s production of Verdi’s La traviata. Blue has pulled out of her scheduled appearance as Violetta, writing: “I cannot in good conscience associate myself with an institution which continues this practice”, in reference to the use of blackface.

When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End in 2016, some criticised the casting of Noma Dumezweni as the adult Hermione, claiming that the character wasn’t black in the books. Most Harry Potter fans would agree that JK Rowling never made Hermione’s race explicit – not that she needed to – and that it need not affect the casting in any case. When it comes to Aida, if directors absolutely insist on having a racial match, then here’s an idea: perhaps recruit a singer of colour for the role?

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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