Metropolitan Opera Etches Out Use of Blackface Otello

Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith
Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith / Photo Courtesy: Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy

New York – September 22, 2015 — (UPI) — The Metropolitan Opera is doing away with darkening the character Otello’s skin every time the production of the same name graces the stage.

Instead of continuing the theater tradition of — when Otello’s character is played by a light-complexioned tenor — painting its main character in blackface, the Lincoln Center and show director Bartlett Sher has decidedly left their antihero’s skin alone. Opera singer Aleksandrs Antonenko was not given a darker complexion to play Otello, marking the first time in the center’s history.

Mario Lanza as 'Otello' / Photo Courtesy:
Mario Lanza as ‘Otello’ / Photo Courtesy:

Verdi’s Otello opened the season at the Metropolitan Opera Monday, Sept. 21 and was helmed by Tony Award-winning director Sher, who also directs the Center’s The King and I production.

Although the story of Otello follows a “Moorish,” or North African, man entering Venetian high society and experiencing what it’s like to be considered an outsider despite his great feats for the state, Sher’s version lets the opera itself note Otello’s difference instead of his appearance.

“Our cultural history in America is profoundly marked by our struggles with race and the questions of race,” Sher said to NPR ahead of the debut. “And it seems to me, as an artist growing up in America, that there’d be no way on Earth I could possibly figure out how to do it with that kind of makeup and that it just seemed like an obvious choice.”

Photo Courtesy:
Photo Courtesy:

According to the outlet, the Met’s Opera General Manager Peter Gelb was “relieved” when Sher shared with him his blackface-less vision for Otello. Shakespeare’s dramaOthello traditionally plays up its main character’s racial difference while Verdi’s version takes a lighter — although still visible — notice of it.

New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini, however, said when compared to the production’s dramatic plot and “drive,” Latvian Antonenko’s lack of darkening makeup “seemed irrelevant.” What mattered, Tommasini said, was his voice.


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