‘Otello’ production still struggles with race

Joseph Myers, Theater Books Editor

The Metropolitan Opera opened their season with Verdi’s “Otello,” based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.” For the first time since its inception, the opera did not feature an actor in blackface. The title character in the opera is a Venetian of Moorish descent, and has traditionally been performed in the opera by a white man in blackface to represent a Western representation of North African features.

While theatrical productions of “Othello” have slowly veered away from this practice in the past few decades, the opera has honored this tradition as recently as the Met’s 2013 production. This practice is highly problematic for obvious reasons  while there are many supporters who claim styling Otello in this manner respects the image of the original opera, the idea of blackface is not acceptable. The entire practice is steeped in racism, appropriating and parodying features of another race, not to mention that the most common association with blackface is that of post-Civil War era minstrel shows.

In the current running Met production of “Otello,” a Caucasian tenor, Aleksandrs Antonenko, is playing the role of Otello. One major change from the Met’s last production of “Otello” is that Antonenko will not be adorning blackface or brownface. Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, boasted about the supposedly progressive nature of this decision in a recent interview with The New York Times. While this may be a step in the right direction, their casting choices are still highly questionable.

While this production decided to skip the racist tradition of portraying Otello in blackface, they still chose a white performer to tell the story of a character who is of Moorish descent. Not only is this appropriative, but it silences the stories of people of color being heard, both in regard to the opera itself, as well as in the performing arts industry in general.

While color-blind casting is a technique that would normally be viewed as a positive practice of performing art, it doesn’t work in “Otello.” Race is a very present subject in this opera, and the character of Otello experiences adversity as a cause of racism; that’s why casting a person of color is so important. It is difficult to communicate the same sentiments when a Caucasian actor plays the role.

Furthermore, there are so few opportunities for performers within the performing arts community, and in opera particular. It is a shame that the Met did not cast a person of color as Otello or take advantage of the limited opportunities for a performer of color. The Met could just as easily have cast a person of color in the title role, and tell a richer story, while simultaneously providing more leading roles for people of color.

Though this production does signify improvement, the fact that the Met still neglected to cast a person of color is unbelievable. Recently, it has become common for productions of “Otello” to cast people of color to portray Otello, and the opera world needs to follow their lead. 

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, October 22 print edition. Email Joseph Myers at [email protected]