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Subject: Race in Opera
From: Howard Hood <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:[log in to unmask]
Date:Thu, 31 May 2001 20:11:15 EDT
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In a message dated 05/31/2001 6:21:55 PM Central Daylight Time,
[log in to unmask] writes:

<< It's been my long held belief that African-Americans have a
 culturally bound (and women in particular) advantage to succeed
 in opera, despite the presence of racism within the operatic
 establishment. I think there would be even more great African
 American singers performing otherwise -- and it's really our
 loss that there aren't. >>

I think the problem is that opera is foreign to American culture generally
and largely invisible in African American culture.  Very few Americans
interested in music would ever consider the possiblity of opera.  L. Price
was helped and encouraged by a white patron, I believe.

The problem for African American opera singers IMO, stems from the fact that
opera stories are usually set in European settings with characters who are
supposed to be Caucasian Brits, French, Spaniards, et al.  Otello and Aida
and Amonosro are the exceptional opera characters who are African or
quasi-African.  Under these circumstances it may be awkward to have a Black
Queen Elizabeth or King Philip, particularly if the Black singer refuses to
use light make-up.  A Black father, as in Rigoletto, with a white daughter
might prove off-putting to some audience members.

>From what I have read, some Black male singers believe that opera managers
didn't want to cast them as a romantic partner to the white soprano.  Opera
is so stylized and abstract that romantic relationships often do not involve
much physical contact (e.g., the Robert Wilson Lohengrin).   But some
audience members might be uncomfortable with inter-racial casting of romantic
couples or family members.

One of the things which makes opera unique among the performing arts is the
emphasis on the extraordinary voice over all other characteristics of a
performer.  Thus a person whose lack of acting ability or unattractive
appearance would block a career in leading movie or theatre roles, is
welcomed in opera because of their special voices.  A 350 pound Romeo in the
movies or on the dramatic stage is unthinkable, but we are delighted to have
the rotund Mr. P as a romantic poet or warrior.  The demand for really great
opera singers is so great that racial bias or casting incongruities are
ignored.

The more common racial issue these days probably involves the casting of
persons of Asian background in these Caucasian music dramas.  Many Asians or
Asian Americans are coming to the fore in opera.  I would guess that they
outnumber the African American singers, or soon will.  But I suppose that a
Chinese Duke of Mantua or Azucena can be accepted more easily than a Nigerian
Druid princess.

I am strongly opposed to legally enforced racial discrimination, whether of
the Jim Crow or the "affirmative action" variety,  and believe that beauty of
voice and quality of singing must come first in casting operas.  Physical
appearance (height, weight, build, beauty of face) can certainly be a
secondary factor to be weighed.  But race should be irrelevant in opera.  I
am waiting for the emergence of a Black Corelli or Bastianini.

Loca Telli

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