Metropolitan Opera Says Its ‘Otello’ Tenor Will Not Wear Blackface

Aleksandrs Antonenko in bronze makeup and standing in shadows for a publicity photo for Verdi's "Otello" at the Metropolitan Opera.Credit Kristian Schuller/Metropolitan Opera

Aleksandrs Antonenko in bronze makeup and standing in shadows for a publicity photo for Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera.Credit Kristian Schuller/Metropolitan Opera

Michael Cooper writes:

The Confederate battle flag is not the only symbol of a racist past being phased out in many places: The Metropolitan Opera said on Tuesday that the new production of Verdi’s “Otello” that will open its season next month will not use blackface makeup on the white tenor singing the title role, breaking with a performance tradition of more than a century.

“That was a tradition that needed to be changed,” Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said in a telephone interview.

The opera is based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.” But long after most theater companies stopped using dark makeup for their Othellos — seeing it as an uncomfortable vestige of minstrelsy — leading opera companies around the world continued to use it for their Otellos. A Met publicity photograph taken last winter, before all the details of the new production by Bartlett Sher were final, showed the tenor singing the title role, Aleksandrs Antonenko, in bronze makeup and standing in shadows. The decision not to use makeup in the actual production was first reported on the website Hyperallergic.

Mr. Gelb said that there had never been any thought of having Mr. Antonenko wear the kind of blackface that was often used in the past, and that after discussing whether to use some makeup to suggest Otello’s North African roots, the production team decided not to.

“It was always understood that the old-fashioned, out-of-pace-with-the times approach of Otello in blackface was not going to be part of this production,” Mr. Gelb said, adding that the new production would be focused on questions of position and power.

The Met is not the first to break with the tradition. In 2014 the English National Opera presented a new production of “Otello” byDavid Alden in which an un-made-up Stuart Skelton portrayed the character, who was envisioned as a Muslim who had converted to Christianity.

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