The Fairy Princess had a lot on her mind the last week or so- and the initial announcement of the casting of Australian Tenor, Stuart Skelon as Otello, a part that is designated as a person of color, a Moor,
at the English National Opera (ENO) was enough to make her want to
However, The Fairy Princess is a bit different than others who have written, quite excellently, on the subject of Mr. Skelton’s casting, because The Fairy Princess was a Classical Voice Major – and having been one, for these reasons – 1. she has several friends who are actively singing on the World Stages and 2. her sibling worked for Herbert Breslin, who was a famed Opera Manager who represented Luciano Pavarotti for much of his career, she thought she could write a bit on the subject.
The Fairy Princess ‘knows’ from opera. She is by no means an expert, but she has been a delighted observer, listener, and audience member for classical music since she was in sixth grade – which was when she was first shown La Boheme, performed in English, by her fellow classmates – which was a unique tradition installed by the Music teacher of the school. In fact, later that year, she auditioned for and was chosen for the 6th grade performance of The Pirates of Penzance, which started her love affair with all things Gilbert & Sullivan.
Which started her down this road in the first place.
What this means, ultimately, is that when she has a question about Classical Music, she knows who to ask. She has, both in her Family and in her friendships, some erudite and supremely knowledgeable people who work in Classical music the world over.
The world over. That is an important distinction, and here is why:
When the ENO announced their casting of Otello, The Fairy Princess assumed that this was a similar situation to The Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of The Orphan of Zhao – that this was a ‘white-washing’ of highest order, made only more offensive because the ethnic population of London is exceedingly mixed, and the idea that a white man was going to portray a black man (or an ethnic man) on a stage where a large majority of the population is not white, and use public money to pay for it, struck her as offensive.
The Fairy Princess assumed that, with a bit of research, and well placed questions, she would be able to throw several names of world class, first rate, Black Dramatic Tenors to highlight that the ENO had missed the boat on this casting.
Now, being a Classical Voice Major, one is aware of several distinctions within the Operatic Vocal Descriptions – it is not that every Soprano is simply a Soprano, nor is every Tenor simply a Tenor, likewise with Mezzos, Baritones, and Basses. The timbre (pronounced tam-ber) of the voice in every singer is different, and to those distinctions, opera has it’s own descriptives that tell people what they need to know about the singers vocal capabilities, they denote a voice’s ‘color’ and range.
For Tenors, there are four acknowledged types: Counter Tenor, Lyric, Spinto (also referred to as Heroic), and Dramatic (also called Heldentenor).
No one sings everything – because Composers from different eras and different countries wrote for their own tastes at the time. Preference, in Opera, is everything. Some people only do Art Songs, some only do French Operas, some only sing in German – the reason they do, is because their type of voice tends to work particularly well with one specific type of role. Singers do not jump fach. A Soprano does not sing the roles of a Bass.
Are there instances when maturity changes the voice and requires a changing of repertoire? Yes. But that generally occurs rather early in one’s twenties, and usually singers have figured out their fach by the time they are in their late 20’s. Usually. There are always exceptions. However if one is a professional singer on the level of the ENO, one knows one’s own vocal abilities.
So what, The Fairy Princess asked, are the requirements of performing OTELLO?
OTELLO requires a Dramatic Tenor.
There are arguably (because Opera fanatics love to argue) 10 great Otellos since the piece was written. Some, will knock off a name or two – they will argue over the recording, they will argue over when it was recorded in the singer’s career, they will argue over just about anything.
But here are the names of the (always and consistently in debate because classical music people are relentless), 10 generally agreed upon ‘great’ Otellos: Vladimir Altlantov, Enrico Caruso (who was preparing the role when he died and only made some recordings), Placido Domingo, Martinelli, James McCracken, Mario Del Monaco, Luciano Pavarotti (who only did it in concert), Francesco Tamagno (who was the first Otello, ever), John Vickers, and Ramon Vinay.
And as we have mentioned them, let’s take a look at what the role requires vocally – pulling from videos available –
Placido Domingo in 1991:
Enrico Caruso – long considered the Greatest Tenor of all time, he never performed the role, but he was preparing it when he died – keep in mind the recording quality is not what we consider now to be even passable, and given that, how much we are ‘missing’ and yet how much still comes through:
And of course, with even more scratchy scratch, is a recording of Tamagno, our first Otello ever:
As everyone can hear – it is a big role. It is one of the biggest roles, and though it is done somewhere every year, it is not part of the standard rep, because it is difficult to cast and then there is that sticky issue with ‘blacking up’.
What is ‘blacking up‘, you ask?
It has been ‘standard operating procedure’ to ‘black up’ for Otello ever since it was written, because underlying racism in the story is the jumping off point for Iago’s master plan to bring down Otello, the Moorish General who is married to a white Venetian woman of great beauty. It’s not pretty – the blacking up, I mean, not the score, the score is tremendous.
The Fairy Princess is relieved that greater scholars than she have considered these issues for this book, Blackness in Opera.
She was also delighted to read this post by the UK’s Daniel York. Mr. York’s piece definitely cut to the chase, as it were, on the mood right now, amongst those frustrated by the lack of diversity on UK Stages.
The Fairy Princess does not like the idea of ‘blacking up’, she is not, in any way for it. She has no problem with a wig, or added facial hair, but excessive makeup to make one look like another race? Nope, not for it. She does not like it when they do it to Butterfly either.
In 2005, at The Royal Opera in England, they made a decision to not do it, when a white singer was cast in a black role. To somewhat of a relief, the ENO has also announced that they will not ‘black up’ Mr. Skelton. That they announced this via Twitter is, perhaps a sign of the times and a hope that they would like this whole issue to go away as fast as possible.
However, when The Fairy Princess heard about it, she was annoyed. After all, she reasoned, there must be half a dozen Tenors who could play that part, who are People of Color. She determined to research the issue, but as one who had once had a pinky toe in the waters of Classical music. She thought that she could easily hit the internet and get names and performances that would knock everyone’s socks off.
But she was forgetting the specific requirements of playing Otello, and they are – one must be a Heldentenor.
A Dramatic Tenor. Remember – 4 kinds of Tenors out there – Counter Tenor, Lyric, Spinto, and Dramatic.
There are amazing People of Color who have been gracing the World’s Operatic Stages since the 1940’s, and it is to Opera’s credit that it embraces people of varying sizes, varying appearances, and varying skin tone, because they are concerned with just one thing – the voice. La Voce.
The Fairy Princess found some amazingly talented Tenors who are People of Color.
There is Vinson Cole
Mr. Cole is a Lyric Tenor. (Listen to the notes at the end, just gorgeous)
There is Lawrence Brownlee, here he is with Renee Flemming
Amazing. He is a great interpreter of the Bel Canto (beautiful voice) style of singing. In fact, he is one of the most ‘in demand’ tenors IN the Bel Canto style, he has won all sorts of awards, and as you can hear – is a breathtaking singer.
Not a Heldentenor.
But he is thrilling. Absolutely thrilling.
Mr. Stewart has commented publicly, as well he should, on whether or not race matters in Opera, and he would know. His journey has been remarkable and he is an acknowledged world class talent.
Mr. Stewart is a Lyric Tenor.
Eric Owens is a wonderful singer….
Mr. Owens is a Baritone.
Solomon Howard is a Bass. That is lower than a Baritone.
Is a Bass Baritone.
Here is Norman Garrett, singing one of The Fairy Princess’s favorite Schubert arias
Mr. Garrett is a Baritone.
In point of fact, The Fairy Princess posed the question of “Where is an Otello who is a Person of Color?” to several active Opera Singers, International Voice Coaches, a Former Manager of World Class Opera Talent, an Agent at a top Classical Agency, not to mention several online searches and she only came up with one name – Michael Austin.
Yes, only one. Mr. Austin has sung at The English National Opera as Joe in Carmen Jones.
But when there is only one – and Opera Scheduling being what it is – he may have been booked already.
This is not an excuse – this is a challenge and a call to action – for Conservatories and Young Artist Programs around the Globe.
WHERE ARE OUR DRAMATIC TENORS WHO ARE ALSO PEOPLE OF COLOR?
I CHALLENGE YOU TO FIND THEM.
WE NEED THEM.
Because here you have a role that requires, requires the premise of racism as a plot point, and all the research and the experts are telling me that, well, ‘I don’t know of any” or “there are none to my knowledge’ or, “He’s a tenor, but that is not his fach“. Which should be ludicrous.
Should not even the existence of this role be an inspiration to potential Dramatic Tenors? It is a bear of a role, but if you can stay the course and study and grow – there is not even a door to knock down, you can just blow softly and it will swing open.
If the uproar over this casting has shown us anything, it has shown that there is both a need and a longing for Verdi’s great music paired with a Dramatic Tenor who fits the description of Otello without hideous makeup.
Are there social issues, issues of access, education, and exposure preventing there from being Dramatic Tenors who are also People of Color within Classical Music?
A recent study showed that when People of Color ask for Mentors in University settings in the USA, they are overlooked, quite often. So, yes, undoubtedly that would hold true to some extent in Classical music.
There are also issues in Classical Music with Female Conductors. There are issues of every shape and size – there are financial considerations to buying a ticket, there are financial considerations to studying, Opera Companies are closing at an astounding rate, and there has been a trend in Opera concerning esthetics that have entered into the equation as a result of all the wonderful feature video recordings that bring the audience much closer to the singer than was ever intended.
One wonders if the Great Caruso would even be able to get an audition today, given his appearance.
But the casting of Mr. Skelton is not like The Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of The Orphan of Zhao.
In that case, there were tons of highly skilled and available British East Asian Actors who could convincingly portray people whose background was Chinese, but The RSC would not cast them because they thought that no one would accept them in a repertory season.
No, The ENO did not pull an RSC. Though, I doubt they did quite as much research as The Fairy Princess in trying to acertain that information, they knew of only one – and he has performed there prior.
Did they ask him?
We have no way of knowing.
Stuart Skelton sang Wagner at the ENO in 2012, Carmen Jones was performed there in 2007. People like to work with people that they have recently worked well with.
The Fairy Princess does not negate any feelings towards the Casting of the ENO – there should INDEED BE a Dramatic Tenor, a Heldentenor, who is a Person of Color -She does not know why she could only find one.
However, as a singer, she has to look at the role and the range requirements, and she has concluded that, aside from Mr. Austin, she was unable to find a singer who fit the bill. It is puzzling – and everyone she spoke to, emailed, texted, was equally puzzled.
It does NOT mean that he is not out there – it means he is working on it. It means, he is studying, it means he is determined, it means that there is everything for him to ‘win’ if he can stay on track.
And we must help him – whoever he is.
So, my fellow People of Color – in addition to my challenge to the Conservatories, I also charge you with one task – get yourself a recording of Otello and play it. Play it for the children, play it for the teenagers. Play it for those who sing, and for those who do not – but play it. Perhaps too, go and see it – see it for the possibilities of what could be. See it because it is one of the great Verdi Operas. See it because Opera and the love of it, is accessible to everyone.
Because exposure is the first step to curiosity. And Curiosity is the first step towards wanting something.
And this will change.
There are people to be inspired by in Classical Music, just listen to Mr. Stewart and the reaction he gets:
The Fairy Princess knows that people will become angry at this post. Because it is lovely to assume that just because one sings, one can inhabit any role – and that is, on my word as a singer, not the case. If one wants to throw names simply to show us that yes, there are People of Color in Opera, well….ok.
There are many, many talented, world class People of Color in Opera. Also on Broadway. Also, everywhere there are Singers.
But right now, I know of only one Dramatic Tenor who specializes in Otello.
People deserve to hear Verdi sung. If we can all agree, Opera World, that “Blacking Up’ is not going to happen (Well, everyone will agree except Germany, they are in love with it over there) because of changing demographics and sensibilities, then it honestly does negate the thorniest issue.
The text is problematic – yes, it does undermine the story to not have a Person of Color as Otello, but in Opera, it is more about the voice than anything else – everything falls second.
Perhaps that is equality in it’s purest form?
There are wonderful things happening in Opera right now – wonderful, inclusive and diverse things, and like anything else, your ‘vote’ is your purchasing a ticket. Whether it is to a recital, to an opera, to a Broadway show – you vote with dollars.
The Fairy Princess has great hope that the next time she does a search like this, for a Person of Color who is a Dramatic Tenor, she will come up with those half a dozen names that will light the world on fire. She hopes that they will fit the role vocally and physically (Otello is supposed to be imposing), they will be able to act their faces off, and they will, in every way, be a world class Verdi singer.
Until then, the current situation will stand.
No one is sadder than I about it.