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OTHELLO and OTELLO
Last Edit: Revned 10:39 pm EDT 10/17/21
Posted by: Revned 10:37 pm EDT 10/17/21
In reply to: Showing Olivier’s “Othello” in class. - kieran 12:47 pm EDT 10/16/21

Mr. Sheng’s “obliviousness” on this issue might be explained, at least partially, by the fact that, professionally, he is a part of the opera world rather than the theatre community. Though the Olivier OTHELLO, from 1965, is now viewed as a relic of a very different time in theatrical history, the practice of white singers making up to play roles of other ethnicities, rightly or wrongly, still persists in opera (as witness the Met’s current revival of the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production of TURANDOT, which opened just last week. I wonder what Sheng, a Chinese-American composer, would say about that production.) Fairly recently Anna Netrebko, a Russian soprano who is currently one of opera’s top stars, was criticized for darkening her skin as Aida, and defended herself by saying it would be “disrespectful” to the Ethiopian character to play her without doing so.

If Sheng had chosen a different film version of the Shakespeare play to show his students, it’s very possible that the same issue would have arisen when he came into class a few days later to show a video of the Verdi opera. I don’t know which one he would have picked, but the most famous film of it is Zeffirelli’s 1986 cinematic version. Though Placido Domingo, being a Spaniard, might arguably be considered better entitled than most tenors to play the Moor, he darkened his skin substantially for the film, as he also did in Met telecasts of the opera in 1979 and 1995—both still available on DVD or through Met on Demand. As recently as 2012, the late Johan Botha, a white tenor from South Africa, was similarly made up in a Met HD transmission of the opera with Renee Fleming, without occasioning the kind of uproar this would have caused in a production of the play at that time.

In 2015, when the Met unveiled its new production of OTELLO, directed by Bartlett Sher (and updated to a more recent historical period than the original Renaissance setting), the Russian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko got a fair amount of publicity as the first Met Otello to forego the dark makeup: a positive development that, even at that late date, surprised many people. In a 2018 London production (also released on DVD) the popular German tenor Jonas Kaufmann limited himself to what was described in a review as “a spritz of Mediterranean bronzing rather than the full-on Moorish blackening of yesteryear.” So things are gradually changing, even in the tradition-bound opera community.

Throughout history, casting in opera has always been more about matching the vocal requirements of the role than the physical appearance (though some feel that the rise of opera on video in recent years has shifted the focus too much to photogenic singers.) Otello is considered the heaviest and most demanding dramatic tenor role in the Italian operatic repertoire, and there are only a few singers in each generation who can really do justice to it. Until recently most of the world-famous Otellos have been white, but in recent years the excellent Black American tenor Russell Thomas has been singing the role to acclaim. I hope he will have the opportunity to sing it at the Met before too long.
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