In part 1, I show how blackface is a still a tradition used in modern opera productions. Part 2 covers the minstrel roots of Jonny Spielt Auf. Part 3 covers the Nazi reaction to Jonny Spielt Auf and how it became the face of Entartete Musik (degenerate music). With this problematic background, how modern opera companies approach this opera can signal to the audience their views on race. Opera companies can update the opera for a new and more diverse audience that embraces diversity and humanizes Jonny, or they can embrace a reactionary past that celebrates minstrelsy and caricatured representations of blackness.
First up is the Salzburger Landestheater 2013 production. This production casts American baritone Nathan De’Shon Myers as Jonny. The video below shows how this production adopted the subversive history of the opera through the use of Entartete Musik posters, celebrating the opera that Nazis couldn’t stop. The use of Jonny as a stand in for Barack Obama in the famous “Hope” posters from his 2008 campaign suggests a larger significance of what Black Americans can achieve. Casting a Black American in the title role expands the opera in new directions in ways that relate to a new, younger, and more diverse audience.
What happens if an opera company is unable to cast Jonny as a black man? In the production below by Theater Hagen from 2016, Jonny’s character is portrayed as a white American band leader. Jonny’s gold glitter suit screams a young Elvis Presley. He’s still a loud, gaudy American who plays black music. The opera still works.
Part 2 covers a Teatro Colon performance from 2006. That one is pure minstrelsy. It’s the ugliest version of this opera and has no business being performed in the 21st century. It’s a great example of what operas companies need to avoid. But this keeps happening. Which leads us to the most cringe inducing production.
In 2019, the National Theater of Prague caused a scandal when they released this poster for their production of Jonny Spielt Auf. It features a black man wearing a matching set of a scarf, hat, gloves, and a banjo. That’s it. The poster really highlights one of the original problems with the story, the virile black man who is having affairs with white women. Now, this is what they were selling to the audience, and the below clip is what they actually delivered. (The blackface is so bad but for some reason I also find the garden gnomes incredibly disturbing)
The review of this opera, by Frank Kuznik, highlights many of the problems apparent in the clip above. “Jonny in particular should dominate the opera as a beguiling blend of rascal, libertine and exotic harbinger of a new era. Instead he looks and acts like a refugee from a 1970s disco band, jitterbugging across the stage, clowning his way through arias, lightweight and ephemeral as the occasional jazz lick in the score. Worse, the National Theatre committed the unpardonable faux pas of casting a white singer, Jiří Rajniš, and having him perform the role in blackface. A versatile black singer may have been difficult to come by in late ʼ20s Germany, but thatʼs no excuse now.”
Opera has the opportunity to represent modern times. Jonny Spielt Auf a kicked off the genre of Zeitopern which translates into “opera of the times.” So why do these productions try to hard to be the opera of yesterday? Using blackface in modern productions of Jonny Spielt Auf is modern day minstrelsy. It represents an ugly past, where black men and women were denied their humanity. Opera companies can cling to their racist past, or re-imagine a better future.