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Welsh opera under fire over ‘yellowface’ casting

Scene from The Golden Dragon at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. Photo: Clive Barda Scene from The Golden Dragon at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. Photo: Clive Barda
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A Welsh opera company has been forced to defend the “racist” casting of Caucasian actors in an opera set in a Chinese restaurant.

Industry figures, including the artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre Kumiko Mendl and actor Daniel York, have slammed “yellowface” casting in the touring production of The Golden Dragon by Music Theatre Wales.

Mendl said the production was “another frankly disappointing and incomprehensible case of yellowface”. However, the Welsh contemporary opera company issued a statement in defence arguing that there is “deliberately no realism” in the show.

The opera, by Peter Eotvos, based on a play by Roland Schimmelpfennig, has a cast of five who perform multiple roles that include “Chinese mother”, “Chinese aunt”, “Old Asian” and “An Asian”.

Having been staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on October 3, The Golden Dragon is due to visit the Basingstoke Anvil, Pontio in Bangor, Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh and London’s Hackney Empire.

Mendl told The Stage: “This play is another frankly disappointing and incomprehensible case of yellowface with the same tired old excuses given for not casting East Asians in roles that are ‘not realistic’.

“Music Theatre Wales clearly states on its website: ‘Part-comedy, part-tragedy, The Golden Dragon is set in a pan-Asian restaurant and follows the story of a Chinese immigrant working illegally in the kitchen.’

“These places do exist and they are a reality for many. If the intention was for people to play against type – multiple roles, genders and nationalities, etc – why is it not being played by an ethnically mixed cast?”

She added that there was “no justification” for presenting “even a so-called non-realistic work” centred around a non-white migrant story with an all-white cast.

At the end of 2016, west London venue the Print Room at the Coronet came under fire for casting Caucasian actors in a play set in China and featuring Chinese characters. The decision sparked a protest outside the venue.

Howard Barker, who wrote the offending production In the Depths of Dead Love, defended the casting by claiming theatre “isn’t a place for literalness”.

Many have taken to Twitter to condemn The Golden Dragon, including York, playwright Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, and British East Asian theatre company Red Dragonfly Theatre‏.

Music Theatre Wales issued a statement on Facebook in response to the “online discussion” taking place around the production.

The statement said: “The Golden Dragon is a story about anyone who, through no fault of their own, find themselves dislocated in a strange country, without official status. It addresses the crucial issue of modern slavery.

“The setting is a pan-Asian restaurant and the singers play a variety of roles, genders and nationalities. Two air hostesses are played by burly men; a cricket is played by a tenor, an ant by a mezzo and a small boy by a grown woman.

“The original play, and the opera on which it is based, is post-Brechtian storytelling: the cast narrate the story and introduce the multiple characters they are about to play. Quite deliberately, there is no realism.”

Many were unsatisfied with this response, with D’souza-Lodhi and British East Asian new-writing company Papergang Theatre tweeting their disappointment.

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