Otello is an opera by Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito based on Shakespeare’s play Othello. Both the play and the opera’s libretto explicitly say that Otello (Othello) is a black man. The title character requires a dramatic tenor of extraordinary vocal power and stamina. Since the opera’s premiere in 1887 the only tenors able to assume the leading role, as far as I know, have been white. The usual practice over this span has been for the singer portraying Otello to darken his skin and to wear a wig to give himself the appearance of a black man. The current new production of Verdi’s opera at the Met has eschewed this practice.
The production has also moved the time of the action to the end of the 19th century when there was no Venetian empire or any Turkish threat to Cyprus. The British Empire controlled Cyprus at this time. All the articles I have seen about Otello’s change in appearance have been supportive of this change. They have also been covered with self congratulatory praise for their enlightened view of what they see as the elimination of racism from Verdi’s opera. The argument goes something like this. The use of blackface by 20th century American entertainers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor was racist and has no place in the 21st century. Opera has been for some time color blind – black singers routinely play white characters and no one notices or cares. In general, this is true – blackface is seen as racist and opera is mostly color blind. Aida and Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida are Ethiopians and are typically in blackface when these parts are not played by black singers. But nothing would be lost if they were Parthians and portrayed as white regardless of the singer’s skin color.
But Othello and Otello are about racism. Taking race out of works that are about race is incoherent. Othello’s susceptibility to Iago’s manipulation is much more complex in Shakespeare’s play than in Verdi’s opera. In Othello the play’s protagonist is an outsider, in part, because he is a black man in a white polity. Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, objects to her liaison with Othello for no discernible reason other than that he is black. Othello also has a number of personal insecurities. These characteristics are mainly delineated in the play’s first act set in Venice. Verdi and Boito eliminated this act because it would make the opera unwieldy and too long. They assumed that knowledgeable opera goers would be aware, as were they, of the events in the removed Venetian act. They did move Othello’s speech in the Venetian act about his past life and why Desdemona loved him to the opera’s first act in Cyprus. It is the basis for the great love duet that concludes this act.
Otello’s blackness is essential in understanding why he so rapidly moves from devoted husband to homicidal rage. It is the mark of his delicate status in Venetian governance and society. Removing his race and setting the opera in a time and place wholly in conflict with the libretto’s content eliminates most of the dramatic intensity that Verdi and Boito put into their great opera.
Some critics have said that skin color is only superficial so it can easily be disregarded in Otello. One could say the samething about the sets and costumes, especially in an opera removed from its assigned locale. Why not just do a concert version?
Finally, opera is color blind except when it isn’t. How would the self congratulatory critics of opera’s color blindness react if the Met mounted a production of Porgy and Bess with a white Porgy and a black Bess? Or to a production in which the entire cast were white? Such productions have been staged in Europe, but not recently. If an opera about Martin Luther King or Barack Obama were written, would a white man be allowed to play either?
Life and art are complicated and full of nuance. Saying that opera is color blind without consideration of nuance and complicating exceptions is foolish regardless of how many times it’s repeated. As I mentioned above, so far there have been no black tenors of sufficient vocal heft to sing Otello, likely because this vocal type is rare. Suppose such a black tenor appeared. He would be bombarded by every major opera house in the world with offers to sing Otello who would once again become a black man.
There have been many black actors with the skill to do Othello. So it is now usual to have black actors do the role. Race seems to matter in the spoken theater. But should a talented white actor who wants to add Othello to his repertoire be denied the opportunity to do so? And if he’s given the role, how should he portray it? As as a white man, or as a white man made up to appear black? If he does the former the whole play collapses.