If you didn’t grow up with opera, like I did, you need an entry point. A singer, character, or performance that gets you hooked. For me, it was hearing Leontyne Price sing “O Patria Mia” from Aida. Her interpretation, the power in her voice, and beauty of the melody stuck in my brain, it burrowed into a spot I couldn’t forget. When the Metropolitan Opera streamed her farewell performance in 1985 of Aida, the role she is most defined for, I knew I had to watch that performance. She did not disappoint, but the Metropolitan’s performance was another story. As I’m watching, I start to ask myself the question I never want to ask: Is that blackface?
This is the finale to Act II, in this same scene during the “Triumphal March” there is a wrestling match between a dancer in blackface–representing an Ethopian slave–and an Egyptian. My head was filled with so many questions.
First question, this is 1985, should the Metropolitan Opera know better by 1985 to use blackface in a production? For some background on blackface and minstrelsy, the first civil rights campaign to protest blackface happened in 1915, the recently formed NAACP organized nationwide marches to protest the film, A Birth of a Nation. The Met integrated it’s stage in 1955 when Marian Anderson made her debut. Yes, they should have known better than to use blackface in 1985.
Second question, this production takes place in New York City. Were there no black dancers in New York City to play the part of the Ethiopians? The Dance Theatre of Harlem was found in 1969, the Alvin Ailey dance company was found in 1958. New York City has a long history of black dancers who had the skill and the ability to perform on the Met’s stage. So that’s not an excuse. Why did they use blackface? Because blackface is a common practice in opera. It is part of the tradition.
Once again, I’m late to discovering opera, I didn’t grow up with it, and have only started researching it within the last few years. So as a novice, I’m shocked that the opera stage still practices blackface. I’m even more surprised that it was until 2015 that the Metropolitan Opera decided to retire the use of blackface. 2015! They should have known better! Why didn’t they?
Opera remains entertainment for the elite class. It relies on the charity of millionaires and billionaires. For opera lovers who cling to their tradition, seeing blackface on the stage isn’t racist, it’s just a reflection of Verdi’s time and they should represent the work as Verdi intended. Wearing stage makeup is a part of that transformation. Recently, opera singers are starting to push back on these traditions. In 2019, Tamara Wilson made headlines when she refused to perform in blackface when she performed the part of Aida for the Arena de Verona.
The problem that remains is who is the audience for opera? If these companies want to keep using racist traditions to please their aging white audience, then they forfeit the opportunity to reach a wider, more diverse audience. With opera companies streaming their operas on YouTube or in movie theaters, opera has the ability to reach a new, younger audience. And using blackface is much more difficult to explain when the audience is sitting in a theater, a thousand miles away, seeing white performers in closeup with terrible makeup. Case in point, in 1988, the great film/opera director Franco Zeffirelli directed the film Young Toscanini, with Elizabeth Taylor as it’s aging opera star. The film flopped. Why? Does anyone want to see Elizabeth Taylor lip-syncing “O Patria Mia” in blackface right after she makes a plea to abolish slavery? It’s awkward and uncomfortable to watch, so much so Zeffirelli refuses to use the closeup of her face, creating even more distance between the performer and the audience.
Now, this is a blog about saxophone in the opera, what does this have to do about the saxophone? Part 2 will be about how minstrelsy is directly tied to opera performance in Germany, and how the use of blackface caused a riot. And yes, the saxophone is directly involved.