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Hackney Empire cancels opera amid “yellowface” casting claims

Scene from The Golden Dragon at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. Photo: Clive Barda

London’s Hackney Empire has cancelled an opera production after the company behind it was accused of “racist” casting.

Contemporary opera company Music Theatre Wales’ The Golden Dragon [1], which is set in a Chinese takeaway, was due to show at the venue on October 31.

The production attracted criticism for featuring an all-white cast playing a variety of roles, which included Asian characters. Industry figures spoke out against the casting, with Kumiko Mendl of Yellow Earth Theatre arguing it is a case of “yellowface” casting, while others said it was “racist”.

including Kumiko Mendl of Yellow Earth Theatre spoke out against the “yellowface” casting [2], arguing that it was “racist”.

Hackney Empire released a statement on its website, which said: “Hackney Empire sits at the forefront of the debate on diversity in the arts and, along with many other theatres, is totally committed to reflecting the diverse population of the UK on its stage.

“The debate aroused by the non-Asian casting in The Golden Dragon compromises the Empire’s commitment and position as a champion of diversity and accessibility across the theatre industry and, therefore, the decision has been taken to withdraw the forthcoming performance on 31 October.”

The statement added that MTW was renting the theatre for the production, and that Hackney Empire had not been involved in the production or casting process.

Everyone who has booked to see the show will be contacted and given a refund.

Hackney Empire also added that it would welcome the opportunity to work with MTW in the coming months to increase diversity within opera.

Following the cancellation, MTW released a statement acknowledging that it had “made mistakes”.

The statement said: “Having chosen to stage this work – an operatic adaptation of a German play, partly set in a pan-Asian restaurant – we now recognise that we did not discharge in a sensitive way our responsibility to the communities it depicts.

“Featuring Caucasian singers as performers playing multiple roles, some of whom are specified as Asian characters, has caused offence. This practice is still widespread within the opera world, and we acknowledge that it is problematic, and realise that we should have reflected more deeply on the implications it had for the kind of production we made.”

MTW said that it took full responsibility for the “errors of judgment” and that the performers were not to blame.

It added: “This is a transformative experience for the company and one from which we are determined to learn.

“We are already in the process of meeting with a number of professionals and practitioners who wrote to us to raise their concerns, and we will be listening to them as we engage in a thorough review of our approach to equal opportunities and diversity: in our programming, in our casting, and across all our activities as a company.”

The Golden Dragon opened at the Sherman Theatre in Wales on September 22 and has also visited the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Future dates at the Basingstoke Anvil, the Pontio in Bangor, and the Snape Maltings in Suffolk are still on sale. Hackney Empire was the last date of its tour.