Does anything go? Have times changed?

My last post reflected on seeing a small company’s intrepid presentation of “The Pearl Fishers” this past Saturday, and a meditation on the presentation of race in new productions of historically difficult works that wear the imprint of racist pasts. On Sunday I went to see the big player in the DC theater scene present Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, similar problems resounded in voluminous echos throughout this piece and I was reminded that the issue is not something entirely unique to opera.

In contrast, this is a company with tremendous resources, and much mind and (wo)man power dedicated to thinking about the programming and presentation of the works on their season. Despite all that, I found the result shockingly offensive, and perhaps even more offensive knowing the care which went into trying to “correct” the piece’s problematic book, and that this was the best result possible.

“Anything Goes” originally has two Chinese characters (named Luke and John after the Evangelists, once they have been saved from lives of drink and gambling), who are extremely small parts and who speak with heavily stereotypical Chinese accents in English. The resolution of the plot rests on them being thrown into a cell on the ship, the clothes being exchanged for the lead characters who then pretend to be Asian until revealing their true identity and spoiling a wedding. The solution here was to have the roles played by Asian actors, and to (marginally) expand the roles to portray John and Luke as very white-washed/”Americanized” guys who put on the accent in order to deceive people (unclear why), and they were then included in more dance and vocal sections then they would be otherwise.

I hadn’t seen the show in over a decade and didn’t really remember the plot, and I didn’t read the notes until after the performance. So when I watched the show I assumed what I was watching was the original version. It was offensive, no problem in the narrative was fixed by this solution, and when I read the copious notes following the performance dedicated to the care taken to correct this flaw in the work, I was shocked that they believed this to be a solution.

I want to be clear that the production was of a fairly high level, and the performances were earnest and fun. I also think the team producing the piece is earnest in the attention they’ve given to this issue, I applaud them having the conversation even if I find the solution woefully discomforting.

I’ve been trying to explore my feeling on this. First I wanted to try and understand why I felt offended. I attended the performance with my husband who is Singaporean by birth. The theater was full of what I’m sure were lovely people laughing at the “hilarity” of these put on accents. I wanted to know how that made him feel. We went to the show because it contains some of his favorite music, it was a gift for him and something to which he had been looking forward. He told me poignantly that he suddenly felt as if he was not included, as if he was “othered” and singled out from a group to which up until then he felt he had belonged. I think this must be exaggerated at this theater since the entire audience is so visible, it was a sea of white faces laughing at a painful racial stereotype (and even in the end when it is white characters appropriating an exaggerated accent..that doesn’t make it better).

Would it be worse if these were white actors playing Asians? Maybe, probably, but that clearly such care went into deciding to use Asian actors Asian roles, but not into thinking about the real problem of offensive source material makes it perhaps more repugnant. Its also inconsistent in a production whose notes proclaim this company’s use of “cross-cultural” (colorblind?) casting. Holding that policy, and yet so clearly having insisted on Asian casting for those two role shows an understanding of the racial problems, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with them seriously, and an inconsistency in the policy itself. Part of my hesitancy with that approach to casting is that we know as an audience that relationships between African American singers and white stock brokers or English dandies would have been laden with problems, and pretending that the racial politics of the first half of the 20th century didn’t exist is also rather offensive. This show was written in 1934, do we really as an audience just forget the mass internment of Asian Americans less than a decade later? Really?

I have to say, finally, maybe this work just doesn’t need to be performed, but definitely not in this version. How difficult would if have been to change the script to not have John and Luke be Asian at all? Is there any reason they should have been? Not really, and with that tweak I would applaud two Asians giving dynamite performances in the roles, and would have seen no inconsistency in the company’s casting policy.

The appropriateness of including certain repertoire, and the way in which it is included, is relative to the times and contemporary body politic. Why does music make us yearn to be wilful against what we so obviously know? At this time no one would ever think of staging David Belasco’s play “Madame Butterfly” with its hideous approximation of Asian accents in English. And yet we continue to try and find ways to produce Puccini’s opera with fidelity to script and score, and only cosmetic changes to put lipstick on that pig. And at this time “Anything Goes” should not be performed in anything close to its original version (and this was not far enough from it). It was bad lipstick on a very unattractive pig. And more it was, albeit through negligence and not malice, mean and hurtful.

These are big issues, and I don’t have any answers. In fact, I often feel like I only have more and more questions. Please let me know your thoughts and experiences.

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Appropriate This!

Just back from seeing a local company do a production of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles”. They did a very fine job with small resources. The casting was impressive and the music making was excellent. It spoke well for the company, it’s artistic director, and for the value and integrity of small scale production.

And yet….

I love this opera. I know I’m not in the majority on this, and that its the sort of work people snicker about and think reflects all that is ridiculous and laughable or cliched about opera. I disagree. Yes, the work overtly has heart in a way that can be embarrassing. It has nothing in it that is ironic or cynical. I love that. I love that I work in an art form where that is allowed – it makes the opera stage a sacred place which is all too needed and precious in the times we live. The piece is problematic dramatically, but it always moves me, and even tonight I found myself in tears.

Its problems, however, are not merely dramatic. It is usually, and it was tonight, offensive to see it performed. When it is performed “traditionally”, it is sickening to be honest to see a Western cast play at being Sri Lankan natives, even in some remote time. It is especially so when it is done sloppily, without authenticity (whatever that is) in the setting, the costumes, the details. Here images of Hindu gods and statues of the Buddha were interchanged with a disregard for religious accuracy, as were rituals of liturgy or greeting. Here a staff of Roman Caesar was used by the Hindu priest Nourabad, and villagers (albeit it here only four fearless women) were given sticks and inevitably treated as “savages”.

And yet…

I wouldn’t have such a visceral reaction to seeing any number of early Venetian or Handelian operas set in Egypt or Persia. I wouldn’t have any problem seeing an African cast perform “Le Nozze di Figaro”. I don’t mind seeing any woman portray the Roma “Carmen”. Yet “The Pearl Fishers” is one of another set of works that definitely cause the stomach to turn (“Butterfly”, “Otello”, etc) with the wrong casting and approach. Watching a beautiful (and wonderful singer) Caucasian soprano play Leila in a traditional production is tough and felt wrong. Why?

This is an issue much on my mind, and it evolves and changes. I think a few things tonight. I feel that at the core of it is that later 19th century pieces like “The Pearl Fishers” evolve out of a tradition of colonialism. Orientalism is perhaps always a fetishization, but it isn’t always malignant necessarily. Here, though, the imprint of Europe’s colonizing foot is felt in the very DNA of the piece. Its similar for “Butterfly”, though partially redeemed by the presence of a clearly caddish American. What is horrible in Butterfly is not the depiction of its lead character who, against the fulcrum of Pinkerton’s actions, is presented with respect. I can imagine not minding who plays Cio-Cio San nearly as much as the presentation of the family of Butterfly, which is horrendous. And even that doesn’t approach the horror which is “Turandot” with its Ping, Pang, and Pong. I don’t feel this (and I mean everything I say as personal exploration and not discovered truth) with Handel’s Egypt, but I do feel it with Ramaeu’s Americas in “Les Indes Galantes” or Purcell’s “Indian Queen”. I don’t feel it either in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”. That fact seems particularly strange to me, but I imagine that is because this didn’t result from a colonizer’s fetish of Turkey, but more from a fear of an invading army. The Turks were strong and fearsome, but not orientalised in the same way.

For me there is something inherently racially tone-deaf in producing “Butterfly”, “Turandot”, “The Pearl Fishers”, and others in traditional productions. This was a major topic at the Opera America this Spring, and I actually heard someone say that the only way to avoid the racial issues with Butterfly, would be to do it traditionally. I image this was said because white geisha makeup would disguise a white cast in a culturally authentic way that black face doesn’t? I reject this – ethnically appropriate casting sometimes solves a problem, but not usually. Sometimes its the piece (a black Monostatos is perhaps even more problematic, as would perhaps Asian Ping, Pang, and Pongs), and sometimes with the critical details (perhaps “Pearl Fishers” falls here), but the bottom line is that a lot more thought has to go into these issues. I think about them all the time and search for a rule which I’m sure doesn’t exist. I’m sure they actually need to be taken on a case by case basis, and the devil is most certainly in the details.

Traditional productions are almost always offensive to me. I hate the nostalgia of it for a time that probably never existed, the perverted and careless adoration of style over content. With pieces like this, however, its reckless and tone-deaf. We are doing “Butterfly” next year (you heard it here first). I want our feet held to the fire. I want my feet held to the fire. It is inconceivable that this piece should just not be performed. But how do we dig past its issues? The technical definition of cultural appropriation, which I intend to talk a lot about in the next years, falls short of explaining the problem and its simplistic approach is equally as offensive. I reject that it even exists to be honest.

And yet…

I feel the shadow of something being called cultural appropriation by folks without even care to be bothered to actually think about the issue and how we solve it in opera. It is something that is a mix of style, content, and history – and it is ever evolving as it connects to the body politic of our own day.

Lets talk about it. I’d love to hear thoughts, please share them with me. I’m throwing down a gauntlet to say, we have a responsibility to redeem our cannon and to produce it with care and humble respect if we are going to present it at all.

Operetta Wonderland – You Learn Something Everyday

One of the things I love about being an artist is the was not only allowed, but even encouraged to learn all the time. I’m proud that we are producing a show celebrating the music and influence of Victor Herbert, whom I knew nothing about up until this time. I’m lucky, however, to have a great team surrounding me, not the least of whom is Brian J. Shaw our artistic associate. He is serving as director of this production, and he patiently and enthusiastically led us all in learning more about Herbert’s immeasurable contribution to American music and musical. On this past Tuesday he led a community conversation on the subject at our regular Director’s Salon, and this weeks podcast focuses on that! Listen to it now, and subscribe for regular updates and podcasts from your In Series.

The Sound of Silence

Well, I must admit slight delinquency…I’ve failed to be a regular blog poster in the past couple weeks, but don’t let that make you think things are quiet here at the In Series. Quite the opposite in fact. We closed “Figaro in Four Quartets” to a full and enthusiastic audience, and I couldn’t have been prouder of the cast, the company, the entire team. The opera, albeit in its original form, maybe center on an fictitious marriage, but the closing performance also ushered in a real marriage, my own (so you can imagine why I’ve been a little preoccupied). Not only that, but I went straight from that production into working on a new double-bill production of Purcell’s “Dido & Aeneas” and an act of my own “Fairy Queen” for Peabody Conservatory, which means going up in the afternoons to Baltimore for 6 hours of rehearsal. They are long days, but its such a joy to be in a city where I partially grew up, and at a school which shaped me as an artist. On faculty there is the brilliant soprano Ah Hong, as well as Tony Arnold who I was lucky enough to hear in recital just last week – it was a thoughtful probing concert in a series of acts looking at the effect of violence on our common psyche (and tracing vocal music through the 20th century and beyond). A lot to think about in there.

Here at In Series director Brian Shaw and pianist Carlos Rodriguez are busy building a holiday celebration of the music of Victor Herbert. I caught a bit of rehearsal and it is funny, smart, joyful and bubbles with wit – just what we could all use this season. I’m going to make a podcast on this tomorrow so I’ll save my thoughts for then.

In the meantime, we’re planning a host of new outreach events with the Springs productions (walking tours, youth education, art exhibits, concerts and parties) and starting to nail down next year’s season which is going to be something very special.

So in lieu of an apology for the silence I’ll say…stay tuned!

Bewitched and Bewildered…

But not bothered AT ALL!

We had a wonderful event last evening at the Adams Morgan Brazilian Bistro The Grill from Ipanema. Artists from our recent production of “Figaro in Four Quartets”, and members of the In Series family of artists – Cara Gonzalez, Teresa Ferrara, and Jim Williams accompanied by Frank Conlon at the piano – performed music themes for this scary season. We had my favorite arias from Handel’s “Alcina” and Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”. It was a thrilling evening and a great way to unwind after the last two productions.

There is no rest for the weary though, tonight rehearsals begin for “Operetta Wonderland”, our holiday celebration of the music of America’s great operetta composer Victor Herbert. Its been a real learning process for me personally digging into this repertoire, and I feel so lucky to have production director Brian Shaw at the helm and by my side to introduce me to this music. I’ll be recording a podcast in the coming days to talk about what I’ve learned!

From my walk home last night, the universe sent me this: