One temporary bright spot for arts lovers during the pandemic has been the disgorging of archival videos online as free streams. While hardly a substitute for the live experience, productions previously only available to paying patrons in specific areas have suddenly become accessible more affordably and without the need for travel.
While some would suggest that this is a win-win for companies and patrons in particularly challenging times –and for the most part it is – a few recent examples have showed the downside of unthinkingly placing past material online.
The first exhibit would be the Metropolitan Opera’s recent stream of its 2015 Otello. While the company got a great deal of attention for producing Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play without its typical blackface, the fact remains that they failed to cast a black singer in the title role.
While it’s possible this pandemic gift was planned in advance of the powerful protests that emerged in the wake of the George Floyd killing, did no one among the powers that be stop to realise how particularly ill-timed it was to promote a prime example of opera’s failure to foster a place for artists of colour?
In a moment when the world is changing rapidly, this is, at best, an oversight, and very possibly an obtuseness born of hewing to exclusionary tradition. With a subscription to its on-demand service, aficionados can easily find past Met Otellos with the title role played in full blackface.
At two smaller companies, the Princeton Festival and Opera in the Rock, Madama Butterfly – replete with yellowface – was on offer. While the focus right now is primarily on racism against the black community –especially in regard to police tactics – that shouldn’t distract from racist practice elsewhere.
In these two cases, efforts by the dedicated members of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists succeeded in having the works withdrawn over their propagation of stereotypes.
It’s worrying to think that these companies couldn’t see for themselves their clueless participation in widely disparaged practices when a fundamental change regarding racism is inescapably underway. In New York this past weekend, there was an aptly timed protest by Asian Americans for Black Lives Matter, demonstrating the solidarity between the communities.
The Metropolitan Opera has never performed a work by a black composer, and while it has committed to a New York debut for Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, no date was set and any plans were further upended by the coronavirus shutdown. Works like Madama Butterfly and The Mikado continue to be produced with various forms of yellowface, since non-Asian performers playing Asian roles in Asian costumes – even without make-up – still merits the term.
Hopefully when live performances return recent events will put an end once and for all to Otellos who are non-black, indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) and to yellowface Butterflys, let alone such absurdities as a white Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop from a few years back.
In the meantime, organisations opening their archives must pay attention to the work they elect to showcase from even their recent history, because it may serve to illuminate their past failings when it comes to genuine racial equity, belying statements that try to say just the right thing.