A thoroughly divided opera world, great.Op-Ed
Something depressing occurred to me over the weekend. It happened while I was reading star soprano Angel Blue’s now-viral announcement on social media that she would be pulling out of Arena di Verona’s upcoming production of La traviata, because of how the company handled (or didn’t handle at all) Anna Netrebko’s latest foray into actual blackface.
Blue wrote: “Let me be perfectly clear: the use of blackface under any circumstances, artistic or otherwise, is a deeply misguided practice based on archaic theatrical traditions which have no place in modern society. It is offensive, humiliating and outright racist.”
(Note: As of my writing this, Angel Blue’s accounts on Instagram and Facebook aren’t currently available, which makes sense considering the flurry of media coverage her statement rightfully earned. I hope she’s doing OK and not simply drowning in hateful DMs…)
The Arena di Verona put out a statement in response to Blue’s cancellation:
“The 2022 première of ‘Aida’ took place on 18th June. This production’s characteristics were well known when Angel Blue knowingly committed herself to sing at the Arena. Every country has different roots, and their cultural and social structures developed along different historical and cultural paths. Sensibilities and approaches on the same subject might widely vary in different parts of the world.”
I mean, it’s definitely a non-answer that suggests that blackface has been a part of at least an Italian opera culture for a while, and one can’t expect it to go away just like that. I mean, it’s just a matter of the Arena not breaking out the darkened makeup, or at the very least, a singer refusing to wear it, but who am I to butt in?
The division is the first step. The next step is losing fans.
Yeah, so in 2022, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko forged boldly ahead – and I mean, boldly – with her blackface-covered iteration of Verdi’s Aida. Now, I’m not saying that someone who rails against COVID-19 safety restrictions or takes wayyy too long to denounce Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is always going to be pro-blackface, but that appears to be what is going on with opera’s so-called biggest star.
WHAT YEAR IS IT.
And I made the mistake of heading over to Anna’s Instagram, just to see how her comment sections were looking. Sure enough, there were the odd frustrated commenter, bringing up the craziness of Anna and her castmates all painted up like it’s the 1920s.
There’s certainly plenty of love for Anna on her Instagram account, as you’d expect there to be; and plenty of those Anna fans were quick to defend blackface, suggesting that sensitive Americans just didn’t get the point of opera in Italy. When Anna herself did reply, it was to say that the choice to sport blackface wasn’t hers (are we to imagine her being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the makeup chair against her will?), and that the singers who were crying outrage were just jealous of her success. Sigh.
So, back to the depressing thing that occurred to me: the opera world has become split in two, like some horrible microcosm of the rest of the globe. And it seems to stem from the actions of opera people who suck: those who continue to hire big-name singers even though they faced accusations of sexual harassment and assault by dozens of women over their entire career; those who use their serious social media following to tell people to do things that are ignorant and a public safety hazard; those who refuse to acknowledge that painting your face black in 2022 will piss some people off and that even singing Verdi’s “greatest opera” doesn’t give you the right to be an aggressive racist.
It starts to require too many mental gymnastics, too much compartmentalization to say, “I adore the artform but I abhor the industry.”
Yeah, if you head back over to Netrebko’s Instagram, you’ll see a slew of people who love the bejeezus out of the famed soprano, who think she can do no wrong and who nod their virtual heads along with the weird idea that sopranos who don’t think blackface is nice are clearly jealous of Anna Netrebko’s professional life. Come on.
It’s the kind of non-sensical non-argument that we’ve all seen in the last decade of media insanity. One group of people points out that there’s a social problem in our midst, and to solve it we must change our behaviour; an opposing group says hell no to changing our behaviour, and decides to dig in their heels and be part of the problem harder. Abortion rights, racial bias in police departments, gun laws, apparently blackface in opera: for every movement that speaks up for equality and kindness and public health, there’s a hate group for that.
Today, the opera world seems firmly divided in two: those who are with Angel Blue, and those who are with Anna Netrebko. These two sopranos have become the current faces of the current issue in the opera industry, and I’ve already started making gross generalizations about people who choose one side or the other. (I’m pro-Blue, in case you’re wondering.)
What an utter shame, and what a waste of a platform.
The division is the first step. The next step is losing fans. Because really, when an opera company – and its star singer – defends blackface in the name of tradition, deference to Verdi, and some other made-up shit that only matters to opera snobs, it becomes really difficult to call oneself an opera fan. It starts to require too many mental gymnastics, too much compartmentalization to say, “I adore the artform but I abhor the industry.”
So, Anna, for this current media cycle, I’m going to direct this to you: Shame on you for helping to divide our little community. You’re a multilingual international traveler with more access to the world than most ever get (especially the average working artist!) and yet you still insist on a tiny, xenophobic, self-centred viewpoint of the world. What an utter shame, and what a waste of a platform.
Some big questions are about to be tested: is Anna an anomaly, or among the norm? How many companies will refuse her stardom in the name of social progress? How many other singers will follow Angel Blue and sacrifice their own income for their convictions? I’m not sure I want to find out…