Otello “in blackface” – a dying trend?

Lauritz Melchior as Otello

Star tenor Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) as Otello

This past fall, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello”. This production was much more widely publicized in the mass media than most operatic performances because of the announcement by the company’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, that the Met would be abandoning the usual practice of “blackening up” the face of the white tenor performing the title role.

In both the Verdi opera and the original William Shakespeare play upon which it is based, Otello is presented as a dark-skinned “Moorish” general in a largely white European society. His racial “difference” – and visible contrast with his white blond haired wife Desdemona – is frequently commented upon by other characters, particularly his mortal enemy Iago. As a result, for several centuries the dominant practice in both the theatre and the opera house was to place “blackface” makeup on the skin of any “non-black” actor or singer portraying Otello. A characteristic image of the operatic Otello in blackface is in this photo of Lauritz Melchior in the early 1930’s.

In the theatrical world, this practice ended quite some time ago but it persisted in most opera houses until recently. This difference has been especially noticeable in the opera world as virtually all the prominent tenors associated with this role have been white – for example, in recent decades such artists as Jon Vickers, James McCracken, Placido Domingo, and today’s leading interpreter (and star of the Met production) Aleksandr Antonenko. However, there have been several significant black interpreters of the Shakespeare role beginning with Paul Roebson in the 1930s and – since then- James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne among many others. Even white actors performing this role today almost never utilize blackface – which helps to explain the surprise many felt that this was still happening in opera. Given the strong influence of the Met on the operatic world and the widespread discussion surrounding this production – as well as an observation of performance practice abroad – it appears quite likely that the long practice of “blackening up ” Verdi’s Otello is finally coming to an end.

 

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