It was heralded as a significant moment in opera history – after more than 130 years and 234 performances at the Royal Opera House, the titular role in Verdi’s Otello was finally performed by a black man.
Taking to the Covent Garden stage this week, the American virtuosic tenor Russell Thomas powerfully depicted the tragic fall of Shakespeare’s famous Moor of Venice, largely to critics’ delight.
But for Thomas, who has performed as Otello 21 times on the world’s major stages, it was a moment as mournful as it was joyous because it took so long to happen.
“The only way opera can survive is if it looks on stage like what the world looks like today,” he said. “The cities that we’re in are much more diverse than they were 50 years ago. The people who are likely to be able to afford an opera ticket are much more diverse. So it doesn’t make sense that we would only allow one group of people and maybe have the one-off black guy on stage or one-off Asian person on stage.”
The opera, by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, is known to be one of the most punishing tenor roles, requiring a baritonal weight that few singers can sustain. Since it was first staged at the Royal Opera House in 1891, countless white tenors have been cast in the role, historically using blackface makeup to depict Otello.
But the slow evolution is hardly surprising, Thomas said, when opera purists complained about the most minimal of changes, prioritising tradition over progress.
“Opera is about the old, it’s doing an old thing over and over again. Purists complain about productions when they even change a setting in a location, they just want to see the same-old, same-old. But opera has to keep living. If not, we can just all sit at home and watch our videos from the 80s, there’s no reason to come to the theatre.”
The way to breathe life into the art form is to modernise it, he said. “So I applaud the directors, and I applaud the companies that take risks and find a modern context for some of these operas written 200 years ago. It’s important, because people have to be able to see or be able to relate to it. If not, it’s just some fantasy.”
Thomas’s turn as Otello is the latest in measures taken by the Royal Opera House to improve its representation of minorities and cultures and help provide a safer, more comfortable space for cast and crew to work in. Last month, the company staged a version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that incorporated changes to respect Japanese culture, and in January hired an intimacy coordinator for sex scenes in Theodora.
“I do think it’s a significant moment in opera history,” Thomas said, “but I’m saddened that it’s a significant moment. I’m sure there have been black men around [before me] that could have sung Otello. One black man in over 200 performances – I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of, or necessarily to applaud.”
Another important factor was the makeup of those working behind the stage, Thomas added. “We can’t have a world where every single company director is white, and very few of them are women. You’re never going to get a diverse perspective, because the people behind the scenes making decisions are not diverse.
“You hear people say, ‘black people don’t come to the opera’. But there’s never been a time in America that I’ve been on stage that there’s not been a lot of black people in the audience. And I’m sure that would be the same in London and anywhere else if you just put people on stage that were relatable.”
The 45-year-old, who has performed leading roles at some of the world’s biggest opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the English National Opera, and Deutsche Oper Berlin, bemoaned the wider business of art, which he said was “very white … even to the fact that people have gone to Africa and Asia and stolen art and brought it back to their countries, and then refuse to give it back because they say ‘you don’t know how to take care of it’”.
He also said controversies over blackface in opera did not address the fundamental issue of equity in performing arts. There was a backlash as recently as this week, when the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko posted photos of herself in character with darkened skin for her title role in Aida, in a production of the opera in Verona.
“Yes, Otello and other roles have specific challenges, but are we doing everything we can as a society, as an art form, to develop next-level talent that doesn’t all look the same? We’re moving in the right direction, but overall the answer is no.”
Last week, it was also announced that the National Theatre’s deputy artistic director, Clint Dyer, would direct its production of Othello, marking the first time a black man is directing the play at a major British theatre. Dyer told the Guardian he hoped it would be a “milestone in the way we depict Othello”.
July 15, 2022 at 05:53PM Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent