Every year upwards of 400,000 music lovers travel to the shores of Lake Constance in Bregenz, Austria, to witness opera performances on the world’s largest floating stage at the Bregenz Festival. This weekend will mark the closing performance of Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto, produced by Philipp Stölzl.
The stage construction is a singular feat of modern engineering involving no less than 46 European technology firms and taking ten months to complete. The creativity and technology at play are staggering. The 140-tonne centerpiece is a crane-mounted 13.5 meter high head of Verdi’s central character. The crane and various mechanics maneuver the head in parallel with the plot twists of the opera, at times dreamy and innocent, at other times distressed and submerged, and ultimately (spoiler alert) destroyed. Alongside the brand new €2.5 million sound system, modern technology is at the heart of one of the world’s most respected and unique opera experiences. Leading industry publication Operawire was moved to call this production of Rigoletto a “masterpiece.”
It is difficult to imagine the Bregenz Festival being criticized for its modern approach. However, other modern sensibilities are finding a hostile reception elsewhere amongst the opera community, as Richard Tucker Award-winning soprano Tamara Wilson recently found out.
In contrast to the resolutely 21st Century production of Rigoletto in Bregenz, a scandal was brewing a mere 250km away across the Italian border, in the biggest open air opera house in the world.
Wilson was due to perform the title role in Verdi’s “Aïda” in the Arena di Verona, but refused to wear the blackface makeup which had been a tradition of the production for 106 years. News of her decision caused a sensation. Social media channels and opera news websites were quickly aflame with heated debate on both sides of the issue.
Comments on Norman Lebrecht’s piece on cultural website SlippedDisk act as a microcosm of the discussion. The headline refers to “blackface” but the article refers to “traditional dark makeup,” the comments veer from furious declarations of “political correctness gone mad” to more empathetic viewpoints highlighting the role of blackface in the history of racism. The flurry of responses to Wilson’s Instagram posts on the matter reveal a similar divergence of opinions.
Wilson shares her thoughts on what has been a dramatic few weeks, even by the standards of high drama inherent in her world. “Classical music and opera have been immersed in tradition for a very long time. Audiences still want to be transported and connect with music that touches their souls, but sometimes our industry clings to these traditions to a fault. Many people in our industry and audience view the original intent of the composer and librettist as paramount, which leaves no room for modern alterations or interpretations. But there are others, including myself, who believe that our art-form should reflect the times we live in.”
Wilson reflects that many popular operas performed today were written by European men 90-150 years ago when it was fashionable to set the stories in exotic lands and distant times. “Operas like Aïda and Turandot were written for and performed by white European singers in, what was at that time acceptable, theatrical makeup to make them appear African or Asian. In theatre history, the terms blackface and yellowface would be applied, but today, especially in the U.S., these terms also have historic racist connotations. It is more and more difficult for opera to navigate this line between depicting race versus negative stereotype because they are viewed differently depending on where you are in the world and the individuals in the audience.”
Wilson comments that opera singers themselves exist in very different times to those when the operas were created. “Opera singers today travel the world and meet people of all backgrounds with their own views of how they are and should be depicted on stage. It makes it more difficult to argue that we should maintain historic opera traditions when the people being depicted in the audience may hold different views.”
The entertainment options in which opera audiences exist has also changed profoundly, she adds. “Between television, movies, streaming services, musical theater, and live music venues now is the time for opera to become more competitive.”
Her concerns are as profound as the survival of the art-form. “A big concern in opera has been how do we build a larger audience and appeal to new generations. We must keep in mind that they have grown up with diversity as commonplace on stage and screen. When you see how successful the show Hamilton has been with colorblind casting it is clear that audiences are ready for something new and different from the status quo. Opera is also employing colorblind casting more and more, but that does not solve all of our issues. On top of the characterization, we have to employ the voices to sing the repertoire. As an industry, we must recognize that those voices will come in bodies of many different ethnicities and shapes. I think it’s important to have productions that are traditional and depict the history of opera itself, but I also believe we need to have forward-thinking productions to launch the art-form into the new century.”
Opera For The New Century
One company who are on a mission to represent opera in the new century is Primephonic, one of the leading streaming platforms for classical music. Primephonic CEO Thomas Steffens sees Wilson’s decision as indicative of an urgent need for modernization. “This event is part of a broader phenomenon of the classical music genre often lagging behind in adjusting to the reality of the 21st century. Opera struggles with portraying sexist and racist characters created centuries ago in a way that is acceptable in modern society. In distribution, we see that classical music has not yet embraced streaming technology to its full potential. Major streaming services do not offer an adequate classical streaming experience, as a result the genre still depends too much upon CDs and downloads, which have both shown to be on the decline. As a result, the genre is losing relevance to the next ‘streaming only’ generation. Unconventional solutions are needed.”
“Classical music has a long history of challenging societal norms with progressive ideas. Sadly, this is not always the case, and some archaic traditions need challenging and changing, such as the tradition of singers using makeup to change their skin color. The conversation around this needs to progress significantly as there is absolutely no reason traditionally or artistically that would excuse this practice.”
Taylor continues, “It’s incredibly worrying to see an opera company not only be so adamant about enforcing singers using makeup to change their skin color, but doing so against a singer’s wishes. Forcing an employee to change their skin color for a performance with makeup against their will is unacceptable. It would be great to see classical music return to its roots of progressive ideas, and challenging societal norms that make it such an incredible art-form and abolish this practice immediately.”
Wilson is due to perform the lead role in Aïda again next January in Houston, Texas. It will be informative to see if the debate has evolved. Is opera’s “long-standing love affair with ethnic exoticism” ready to move into the 21st century?
“Blackface Scandal Divides The World Of Opera” was originally published in Forbes.
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