Opera's Old-Fashioned Race Problem

If the art form wants to stay alive today, it might do well to get rid of centuries-old ethnic stereotypes.
The Mikado is one of the classic operas whose contemporary audiences are asking to be spared the oudated racial stereotypes. (Francisco Bonilla/Reuters)

For the last two weekends, 38 white amateur performers in Seattle cinched up their obis and daubed on facepaint to perform The Mikado—standard fare for an operetta set on the fictional Japanese island Titipu where characters are given ridiculous names like Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum.

Decking out white actors in kimono kitsch to spoof British politics was considered witty in Victorian London. Critics in 2014 Seattle, however, have another word for it.

“It’s yellowface, in your face,” wrote The Seattle Times’ Sharon Pian Chan, referring to the Asian-stereotype variation of the “blackface” tradition where white actors dressed up as crude caricatures of African-Americans to raise laughs from other whites. Chan further condemns the production for its lack of any Asian-American performers.

The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society performs The Mikado. (Ann Hoang/Tumblr)
And thus, The Seattle Times set off a media firestorm debating whether The Mikado is racist and should continue to be performed. The funny thing is, many more serious operas—Madame Butterfly and Turandot come to mind—do exactly the same thing. And it’s always been done that way.

This is peculiar behavior for an industry said to be “dying.” When directors preserve cultural cliches simply because they were exotic a century ago, there’s an opportunity cost to those choices: the chance to move audiences anew. The tighter they cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, they more they rob the world’s most powerful art form of its relevance.

The Mikado: Satire or Stereotype?

Actors from the Dagoll Dagom company perform The Mikado in El Ejido, southeast Spain, in 2006. (Francisco Bonilla/Reuters)

When The Mikado debuted in London in 1885, the sendup of British politics was an instant classic, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s longest-running hit. The Titipu setting was key—outfitting white singers out in Meiji-era geisha-gear brought British cultural foibles into sharper focus than if the actors wore cravats and crinolines.

It’s only been in the last few decades that performances across the U.S. have sparked protests among Asian-Americans (Japan banned the operetta until a decade or so ago). While these protests, have typically been focused on the ethnic parodies, as Eric Saylor, music history professor at Drake University, points out, The Mikado’s over-the-top japonaiserie is used to spoof only Brits, and not Japanese people.

But it’s the exoticism in these performances that is still a problem, says W. Anthony Sheppard, a music professor at Williams College. Even in productions set in, say, an English hotel in the 1930s (and starring British comedian Eric Idle), the verbal and musical Japanese flourishes remain, he says. And this points to the real source of offense: the condescension inherent when someone uses the aesthetics of another culture as ornament.

The Mikado lampooned the Brits as much as the Japanese, but that is exactly how exoticism often works in operas, movies, and literature—using an exotic setting to play out domestic desires, fears, or political problems,” Sheppard told Quartz. Opera and musical theater “have long served to teach audiences about exotic peoples and places, often providing a very persuasive and powerful form of miseducation.”

Opera’s Long-Standing Love Affair With Ethnic Exoticism

Like The Mikado, many musical theater pieces written in the heyday of opera that ran from the late 1700s to the early 1900s reflect the ethnic clichés of the age. In fact, many of the best-loved operas used mysterious foreign characters or settings to tease new meaning from well-worn themes. Take for example Aida, Verdi’s Ethiopian princess heroine, or Bizet’s Sri Lankan pearl fishers, seen here below:

Freddie Tong, who portrays Nourabad (3rd from left), Quinn Kelsey, who portrays Zurga (4th from left), Hanan Alattar, who portrays Leila (2nd from right), and Alfie Boe, who portrays Nadir (right), perform during a dress rehearsal for the new production of Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” at the English National Opera in London in 2010. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Puccini, by comparison, was more ambitious, setting entire operas in foreign cultures. The result was seldom a masterpiece of ethnic sensitivity. Turandot, for instance, offers up a violent vision of imperial China ruled by the eponymous man-hating dragon lady of a princess (whose advisers are named Ping, Pang, and Pong).

While Puccini more kindly exoticizes Japanese culture in Madame Butterfly, his child-bride protagonist is still a cartoon of submissive Asian femininity.

This, in spite of the fact that he rigorously researched his subjects, says Naomi André, professor at University of Michigan and author and editor of Blackness in Opera.

“Puccini is interesting in that he’s an Italian inheriting this big Italian opera tradition and yet he’s looking abroad for ideas,” André told Quartz. “When he’s looking at Madame Butterfly in Nagasaki and Turandot in ancient Peking, he was trying to get it right.”

Even with the best of intentions, these works transmitted the prejudices of their time. For instance, a main character’s heritage can function as an important part of the drama, as it does with, say, Aida. But often exotic looks are also shorthand for clichés of temperament—the way Madame Butterflys Asian-ness signals her self-sacrificing devotion, and Otellos blackness his rage.

Otellos throughout the ages: note that none of these men is black. (Clockwise from upper left: Johan Botha at the Metropolitan Opera (2012); Johan Botha in Austria (2006); Placido Doming (backstage with, yes, Michael Douglas) at the Met (1987); and Vladimir Atlanyov in Alexandria (1996). (Clockwise from upper left: Mary Altaffer/AP Photo; Lilli Strauss/AP Photo; Steven Sherman/AP Photo; Mohamed El-Dakhakhny/AP Photo)

As you can see in the images of Otello performances above, opera still treads close to the “blackface” line. However, Verdi’s Otello is a complex and ultimately sympathetic antihero. But Asian female leading roles come almost exclusively in two dimensions—a flimsiness with a liberal slather of facepaint.

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Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

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