As it heads into the 2015-2016 season, the Metropolitan Opera has announced that it will no longer use makeup to darken the face of the lead in its productions of “Otello.”
“Otello,” an opera based on Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice” which tells the story of a black general who falls to the treachery of a jealous soldier, debuted at The Met in 1891. It currently stars Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role, and he is the very first to not wear blackface.
The change came after promotional photos of Antonenko in dark makeup prompted “a thousand” angry emails. In an interview with arts website Hyperallergenic.com, The Met’s general manager Peter Gelb said:
We recently came to the conclusion that it would make sense, that this production should not employ any [dark] makeup. I realize it’s a sensitive issue. We feel that it’s the appropriate direction for this production and we’re happy with that decision. Quite frankly, [director Bartlett Sher] and I have talked about this for some time, how [Otello] should look in this production, so it’s a decision that has evolved over time.
The official statement addressed the opera’s casting:
Although the central character in “Otello” is a Moor from North Africa, the Met is committed to color-blind casting, which allows the best singers possible to perform any role, regardless of their racial background. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is among a small handful of international dramatic tenors who can meet the considerable musical challenges of the role of Otello, one of the most demanding in the entire operatic canon, when sung without amplification on the stage of the world’s largest opera house. In recent seasons, Antonenko has sung the role to acclaim at the Royal Opera in London, at the Paris Opera, and with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and we look forward to his first performances of the role at the Met in Bartlett Sher’s season-opening new production. Antonenko will not wear dark makeup in the Met’s production.
HuffPost Live talked to history professor Yohuru Williams about the importance of The Met’s decision:
“Especially today in 21st century America where we find ourselves in the midst of this Black Lives Matter movement…it is, for me, problematic to divorce conversations from race away from this play,” said Williams, who is a professor at Fairfield University. “So it’s a huge step for The Met…but at the same time, if we divorce conversations from race, that history, from this play, we lose a great deal in the process.”
Watch the full video below.