In the introduction to her new book, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, scholar Naomi André recalls a stressful experience with a colleague from South Africa. It was 2012, and the pair had gone to a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Otello. Tenor Johan Botha, an Afrikaner, starred in the production—wearing blackface makeup. André, an African American, writes, “I sat in the darkened movie theater watching the screen and watching my collaborator… I wanted to apologize, even though that was not the most productive thing to do.”
Black Opera is André’s constructive response to that moment, and the beginnings of much-needed critique of how blackness is portrayed on the opera stage. The book offers background on the history of black opera in the United States and detailed analyses of major works, including Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bizet’s Carmen in their various incarnations. Perhaps more importantly, Black Opera gives American readers a glimpse of a surprisingly vibrant, parallel scene for black opera in South Africa. During a recent interview, André explained what she sees as a transatlantic opera movement that began with Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Why did you decide to write this book?
NAOMI ANDRÉ: I fell in love with opera when I was a student in the 1980s. I trained as an historical musicologist. I wrote a dissertation on Verdi. But as we moved into the era of DVDs and the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts, I started to notice people performing with dark makeup. As an African American viewer, it wasn’t as if I started to see it all of a sudden – I think I had been seeing it – but the look of opera started to have a different importance. The stakes felt higher for me. And I had to talk about it because I didn’t know how I felt about it.
I’d be looking at coffee table books with some of my favorite operas and it started to jump out at me. Like when I’d see photos of Placido Domingo in Otello, which was a breakthrough role for him: I saw one picture where he had on this incredible blackface makeup with crazy hair. I thought, Is this real? It would never happen on the TV screen or in the movies, on Broadway in musical theater, or in plays. Opera seems to be the only space left where people are putting on blackface to portray these characters, and nobody is talking about it. I’m not saying that it should never be done, but we’ve got to at least have a conversation about this.
Opera seems to be the only space left where people are putting on blackface to portray these characters, and nobody is talking about it.
In the book, you point out that practical issues often determine who is playing these roles and how they are presented on the stage.
The role of Otello is a very good example. It’s Verdi’s penultimate opera from 1887, and it’s demanding. You need a big heavy voice that can soar over a late-Verdi orchestra. There are very few voices on the planet that can sing Otello. Does that mean there are no black people who can sing this? That’s absolutely wrong, though for a variety of reasons they may not be in the pipeline, getting the training, coming to the attention of the casting offices when they do have the training. I came to this book project not only because of what I noticed on the stage with this makeup, but then also what I didn’t see there: singers of color.
I would never want to say that there should only be true-to-color casting. When you have Mozart operas with characters like Susanna or the Queen of the Night, we want the best voices in those roles. We don’t want to assume that black people or Asian singers or Latino singers couldn’t sing them. There’s no one correct answer.
It’s amazing to me that the conventions are normalized to such an extent that that most audiences don’t even question representations of race on the opera stage. Why do you think that is?
There’s a sense that opera is a classical music form. The opera stories aren’t real. We’re being entertained by the spectacle. We’re being entertained by the singing. We just want the sound of the voice and we’ll use our opera glasses to look, but we’re far away from the singers.
But is there also frankly an assumption that African Americans aren’t watching opera, that they’re not consuming this genre?
I think you’re absolutely right about that, and those audiences need to be better tapped. In my research both here in the U.S., as well as in South Africa, I’ve found that operatic singing and opera repertory have been popular in black communities. Even though stages were segregated and black people were not allowed to be onstage or in the audiences, there’s this incredibly rich history of black people loving opera – through churches, civic groups, and black opera companies – and wanting to go to the opera. We’re conditioned to think of one kind of opera audience, but there’s huge potential for a more diverse audience that goes back to the 19th Century.
People always wonder how I got into opera. Who are you, this black woman talking about a tradition that’s so elitist? You couldn’t have grown up with it. Well, actually, I did grow up with it. My mother went to Juilliard. She didn’t graduate, but she trained as a coloratura. She didn’t sing opera when I was younger, but she sang in churches. So I remember hearing her voice, and it was a big part of my sonic world. As an adult who lives in Ann Arbor, I go to the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit regularly. There’s still a primarily white audience, but you see black people there in greater numbers than what I’ve noticed in physically larger opera houses.
As you probably know, the Metropolitan Opera, as part of Lincoln Center, has a complicated relationship to audiences of color given that the project of building the campus in the 1960s displaced San Juan Hill, a neighborhood of black tenements.
Given the fact that it used to be a different neighborhood before ‘66 and people were displaced, you’d think that there would be a deeper engagement in doing programs that worked to bring in people of color. I’ve been on some orchestra boards. Everybody’s interested in having people of color. I’d like to see opera companies and other arts organizations doing a better job. There are absolutely ways to do this, but we need to do new things. You get a variety of people of color on boards or as consultants, not just one or two. You go into schools. You work with librarians to do community education. You go to churches. You go to community centers. You can work with the professors in the area who are teaching this.
Aside from the problematic issues around race in casting, you’ve also used examples in the book where race has added additional layers of meaning to how we experience singers as characters.
As I was writing the book I was trying to open up how race affects my personal reactions as a black opera scholar and lover of opera. I call this an “engaged musicology,” where the person writing about the work matters. For example, Leontyne Price singing Aida means something to me that goes beyond the exquisite glory of her voice. I see her as a woman who was born during the Jim Crow south. She’s from Laurel, Mississippi. When she sings “O patria mia” – “Oh my country, how much you have cost me” – these words are truth. We cannot not see her race. The drama on the stage and an offstage reality crash together.
How did you find your way into what seems like a very vibrant opera scene in South Africa?
I edited a collection called Blackness in Opera, where I was interested in thinking through how we begin to talk about race and particularly blackness on the opera stage. Do we just look at black composers? Do we look at black singers? Do we look at non-black composers setting black subjects? The answer ended up being all of the above.
I found out about a film called U-Carmen eKhayelitshafrom 2005; Khayelitsha is a Cape Town township and the film is a retelling of the Carmen story in post-apartheid South Africa. It has Bizet’s music from the 1875 opera plus some other music added to it, like South African work songs when the women are rolling cigarettes in the factory. It’s translated into Xhosa. It’s incredible. I watched it the first time and I thought, Is this a fluke, or is this part of something bigger? Is there opera in the townships in South Africa?
South Africa is one of the few countries on the African continent that has had a rather continuous connection with opera, but it had been all white until the dismantling of apartheid in 1994. At the time this film was made, [tenor] Johan Botha was a big singer. I was very fortunate in that my university, the University of Michigan, had some interest and initiatives in working with universities in South Africa. So I was able to go to Cape Town, which turns out to be the heart of an opera movement. Black people are singing opera and they’re singing it really well. As an African American, I found this so inspiring and exciting.
[Soprano] Pumeza Matshikiza has been at the Stuttgart opera, also singing at Covent Garden. Perhaps better known to Americans is [soprano] Pretty Yende, who is now singing regularly at the Metropolitan Opera and just had a Lucia with wonderful reviews. These are two of the best known names. There are several other male and female singers who are singing across Europe and here in the United States.
So why is South African opera an effective counterpoint to American opera when it comes to exploring issues around blackness?
I was very nervous about doing this project, because I didn’t want to equate the two scenes or imply that what happened under apartheid in South Africa was equivalent to what happened in the United States with Jim Crow and Civil Rights. But I found these really interesting, rich interconnections, so it made sense to put these scenes in conversation with each other.
Anthony Davis’s opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X from 1986 marks the beginning of a movement on both sides of the Atlantic where the opera house – this unlikely, elitist space – becomes a new place to stage black stories, for writing black people into history. And these new stories mean so much because we have the specter of minstrelsy in the past. That was an American invention in the 1820s, but it also went to South Africa as early as the 1860s. So in both the U.S. and South Africa, there’s a history of white people and black people using blackface onstage to perform these incredibly derogatory stereotypes of blackness: the urban dandy, the buck, the mammy, the jezebel. Now these stereotypes are being subverted. In the Richard Danielpour opera Margaret Garner, Toni Morrison wrote the libretto around the historical character, the slave woman who inspired her novel Beloved. Bongangi Ndodana-Breen’s Winnie: The Opera, about Winnie Madikizela Mandela, renders her as a complex and controversial figure.
Could you say a bit more about the opera scene in Cape Town? Although it has a long history, it simultaneously appears to be a young and creative scene.
Something vital in happening there, and it’s important for us to know about it here in the United States, because they’re adding to an international language of opera. I am an outsider writing about this, and I so want to empower the voices of the people who are living this tradition. I’ve been working with some South African collaborators: Dr. Brenda Mhlambi, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (who publishes under the name Innocentia Jabulisile Mhlambi); Dr. Donato Somma, also a professor at Wits; and Dr. Thomas Pooley, a professor at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Cape Town is at the core and there’s activity around the university which has people like Angelo Gobbato, a singer, administrator, and director who’s written a history of opera in Cape Town; and conductor Kamal Khan, who heads the opera school. Then, outside the university, there are productions at the Baxter Theatre and the Artscape Theater.
There are also scenes in Johannesburg, where my research team is based, in Durbin, as well as what’s happening in the townships, like the Isango Ensemble that did U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, with music director Pauline Malfane and director Mark Dornford-May. They have an incredibly important opera company that focuses on people who have grown up singing, but might not have a full high school education, or might not read music notation—though others do. There’s a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
Reading the book was the first time I realized that opera is in fact an indigenized tradition in South Africa through the township choirs. I was so impressed by an anecdote where you mentioned you were lecturing to students at the University of Cape Town about Verdi’s Nabucco and they started singing one of the choruses.
Oh, my goodness! It was totally shocking. I don’t know how many American classrooms would break into “Va, pensiero.” It’s one of his early operas and it still gets performed, but not that often. That led me to think there’s a deep story going on here. Even though these singers have not been able to sing in opera programs and on opera stages – remember, this is new since 1994 – they have been getting these arias in their choirs. They have been passed down, albeit in fragmented form, but they’ve got it. They’re close to this. When you hear them, you can tell that they haven’t just been learning this in the past few years.
Nearly as long as they’ve been connected to Christian hymnody?
The missionaries came in the 19th century. And so African choral music is heavily influenced by Western harmonies and four-part writing. That’s part of the foundation there, but also the musical traditions of their different clans—it’s a term some people prefer to tribes, which has an apartheid history. There’s traditional music that is still alive. For example, my opera colleague Brenda Mhlambi is Zulu and Swazi, so she’s also able to navigate European cultures and these different African cultures. She’s a linguist, so she does it beautifully. This is all part of their world. Opera is just one of the traditions they know in an incredibly rich musical landscape.
So then, to bring our conversation full circle, how do we go about creating more spaces for dialogue that are inclusive of people of color and make blackness visible within the opera tradition?
If we want new stories, we need new operas that address different experiences. For example, Glimmerglass has a new forum and podcast series called Breaking Glass to discuss issues of diversity and inclusion. They’ll premier an opera next year by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson titled Blue, about issues around law enforcement. Even though I focus on blackness, I was thrilled to see Washington National Opera do An American Soldier, an important real life story about an Asian American army private in Afghanistan who goes through such taunting it leads to his suicide.
I find that I often encounter a defensive posture in opera circles that it is a historical form and therefore it must be done in a certain way. Is there anything that we can do about that kind of policing?
I hear what you’re saying, and the idea that opera is a form that can only be performed one way is not helpful. Opera needs to be performed in many ways: from big bombastic traditional productions to strange, modernist, abstract, strange productions. What would happen if Carmen, or Marriage of Figaro, or any of these productions where you don’t tend to think of race at the outset, could be presented in such a way to highlight difference? Could you cast a black Tosca? While there could be a production that doesn’t make a big deal about her race, alternatively, you could find a way to highlight it—that she’s an outsider could be one interpretation. I think there are singers who are ready to do this. We need to let new voices emerge that don’t have a stranglehold on a tradition we’ve outgrown.
Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement is out now through University of Illinois Press.
Lara Pellegrinelli is an arts journalist and scholar. She’s contributed to National Public Radio, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Village Voice. She teaches at The New School.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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