Blackface or NOT Blackface…Tense question!

The following statement from the esteemed African-American soprano, Angel Blue (who I believe to be one of the most significant artists in the operatic world currently and a noble soul) in response to the use of “Blackface” in a production of Aida at Arena di Verona, one of Italy’s premiere opera festivals, inspired a response from the company itself and from another esteemed African-American artist, the legendary mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry (who I admire more than any other African-American operatic pioneer for her amazing talent and especially for her forthrightness).

Angel Blue’s Statement:

Dear Friends, Family, and Opera Lovers,

I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that I will not be singing La Traviata at Arena di Verona this summer as planned. As many of you know, Arena di Verona recently made the decision to utilize blackface makeup in a recent production of Aida. 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. Full stop. I was so looking forward to making my house debut at Arena di Verona singing one of my favorite operas, but I cannot in good conscience associate myself with an institution which continues this practice. Thank you for your understanding, and to all who have shown support and sensitivity to me and my fellow artists of color.

Grace Bumbry’s Response:

My dear Angel,

I read your publication and was thoroughly shocked by your point of view. For all my 50 years of opera singing I have always used white face, when necessary, and blackface when necessary, as well. Of course, my preference is to sing in blackface, but If I am to be perfectly honest, that preference goes against my artistic sense of credibility. My make-up cabinet runs the gamet (gambit) from Dark Egyptian to Chalk White for Turandot and everything between. If you do your historical studies, as one should, you get a clear picture as to the background of the characters, no matter what the opera. As an artist you may decide which roles you would prefer, but to limit yourself to only a few roles such as Aida, Selika (L’Africaine), and Bess or maybe one or two others which I can not recall at the moment, you are limiting your possibilities. Did you ever have the opportunity to see Sir Laurence Olivier, in the role of Shakespeare’s Otello? To my knowledge he was the first white person to perform in Blackface in classical theater. To be proud of your race is a noble thing, and one which should be honored all the time, but if you made the choice to perform in a medium of Opera you must first know the history, and the desire for credibility. I am sorry to have to be so stern with you, because you are one of my very favorite young singers, however, it is my job and my responsibility as a black pioneer in this profession, to correct you when you are out of line. I hope that you will take this correction with the love that I write it. I am sorry that you will not be singing the Traviata in Verona, because I heard you sing the role about three years ago and vocally you were wonderful. Is there no way that you could recall that decision? Your friend always, Grace B

Arena di Verona response (with my translation of the Italian):

Tutti i Paesi hanno radici diverse e la loro struttura culturale e sociale si è sviluppata attraverso percorsi storico-culturali differenti. Sullo stesso argomento la sensibilità e l’approccio possono essere molto diversi tra loro nei diversi angoli del mondo; spesso si arriva ad una idea condivisa solo dopo anni di dialogo e comprensione reciproca. Non abbiamo alcun motivo, né alcuna volontà, di offendere e disturbare la sensibilità di alcuno. Raggiungiamo con vive emozioni persone provenienti da diversi Paesi, da contesti religiosi differenti, ma per noi tutte le persone sono uguali. Crediamo nel dialogo, nello sforzo di comprendere il punto di vista altrui, nel rispetto degli impegni artistici presi.

Each country has specific roots and its cultural and social structure is developed through its specific historical-cultural path. Based on this same argument, sensibilities and approaches can be very diverse between countries in the different corners of the world; often we arrive at a shared idea only after years of dialogue and reciprocal understanding. We do not have neither motive nor desire to offend or disturb the sensibilities of anyone. We gather with vivid emotions people from different countries and different religious contexts, but for us all, they are all equal. We believe in dialogue, in the effort to understand the points of view of others, in the respect of the artistic responsibilities taken.

Angel, noi e il pubblico areniano ti aspettiamo fiduciosi, sarà l’occasione di dialogare in modo costruttivo e concreto partendo proprio dalle tue riflessioni. Il mondo digitale non crea la stessa empatia che solo il contatto diretto riesce a determinare: proprio come in Teatro. Le contrapposizioni, i giudizi, le categorizzazioni, la mancanza di dialogo non fanno altro che alimentare una cultura del conflitto che noi rifiutiamo totalmente. Ed auspichiamo che tutti lavorino per non alimentare divisioni.

Angel, we and the audience of the Arena di Verona await you faithfully, in the hopes of constructive and concrete dialogue, issuing specifically from your thoughts. The digital world does not create the type of empathy that only direct contact could provide; just like in the theater. Antithetical positions, judgments, categorical positions, the lack of dialogue do nothing more than to feed a culture of conflict, which we oppose totally. It is our hope that everyone works to avoid fueling division.

I have spent a lot of my life in Italy and as an African-American of a generation between these two great icons, I am attempting to find some level of understanding between these different points of views. There are great points made by all three parties that I agree with. Finding common ground in good faith is crucial here. Yet in a world bent on division I am not sure I would succeed in finding common ground. My hope is to show how incredibly complex this issue is.

First, It is important to make a distinction between Blackface and black make-up.

This picture came from this web article on the history of black face. It’s a short article and a good introduction. The fundamental aim of Blackface was to ridicule African-Americans. In a racist environment, the practice brought money and fame to actors who practiced it. The practice began in the North of the United States in cities like New York and Boston, not the South as many would have wrongly guessed.


There are hundreds of stock pictures of the celebrated tenor, Placido Domingo, in what could be considered his signature role of Verdi’s Otello. The intent was to be faithful to the character and the show, not to ridicule people of color. It was theatrical practice both for the Shakespearean play and for Opera. Whatever may be said of Domingo in light of recent sexual assault issues, the man is not a racist. The practice of caucasian actors and singers darkening their skins to play black roles and that of Black singers lightening their face to play caucasian roles was common place and considered an artistic achievement when done with success (success meaning appearing credible and not ridiculous).

Yet when an African-American sees these two pictures, do they see the same thing? Blackface? It is possible, I will grant. Can we however have the ability, in the age of internet provocation to discern the difference? Intent is crucial!

Second, let us consider Angel Blue’s argument relative to Aida!

Iconography of Ancient Egyptians.

The article that this picture is from shows that ancient Egypt was a racially diverse place. Therefore, the enslavement of Ethiopian people would be a consequence of war not of racism. In other words, the enslavement of war prisoners is well documented in history across the globe and does not derive from racial hatred. The fantasy of Aida’s Ethiopian people being enslaved because of their race by White Egyptians is not based on reality and has more to do with more modern racism as a consequence of the enslavement of African peoples throughout the caucasian world beginning quickly after the conquest of Africa by Europeans.

By Europeans! This is important. Angel Blue has a point when it comes to Aida. If the producers of Aida had done their homework (it took me 5 minutes on the internet to confirm that Ancient Egypt was racially diverse. I knew that but wanted to verify), they would have also known that dividing the Egyptians and Ethiopians by race is not only historically wrong, but derived lazily from a copying of racist films in Hollywood and elsewhere promoting the idea of White Egypt, whether in The Ten Commandments or the more recent Gods of Egypt, thereby making plausible and acceptable the practicing of Black make-up for the Ethiopians to distinguish them from the false narrative of White Egyptians. The two groups could easily be distinguished by costume. Suspension of disbelief is central to Opera. But in the case of Aida, relative to race, there’s no disbelief to suspend. Making Aida a black slave to white Egyptians is inaccurate and plainly racist. I did not know these facts when I was a young singer seeing my first Aida with the iconic Leontyne Price, with Sherrill Milnes in Black make-up as Amonasro, the Ethiopian King.

Aprile Milo and Sherrill Milnes in Black make-up.

That Ethiopians are basically homogeneously Black is inconsequential to the plot of the opera, because Egyptians are also Black, in part. Race is not an issue in the plot of this opera. War is! The most important dramatic engine is the War, which makes Aida and Radamès star-crossed lovers by being on different sides of the war.

Kammersängerin Grace Bumbry’s response comes from a place of love, as she explains. Her argument that one should be a bit more concerned about historical accuracy relative to the score has value. That La Bohème was produced In Space was the justification offered by one of the commentators on Angel Blue’s Instagram page for not being concerned with make-up relative to the character’s race. I could not think of a more stupid form of reasoning, given that the Bohème in Space project was an abject failure in terms of production values. This is where this gets complex:

The idea of blanket race-neutral casting implied (not explicit)in Angel Blue’s post, though noble in spirit can be naïve. I’m watching the broadway play, Hamilton again as I write this article to try to understand, in the current context, why this play bothered me so much when I saw it months ago on Disney Plus. The revisionist fantasy of a multi-racial America against White England is a photo-negative of the White Egypt in Aida and dangerous in its condescending placation. By contrast, the Netflix fantasy, Cursed, featuring Devon Terrell as a black King Arthur is entertaining because it does not crossover into history. It’s obviously a fantasy. Opera is often fantasy. But there are other moments when historical accuracy bears significantly upon our perception of the present.

As a native Haitian, the idea of a Black Founding Father in the American Revolutionary period is insulting. One generation later, John Quincy Adams (the son of Founding Father, John Adams) supported the French Armada that demanded by threat of violence a tax of over USD 105 Billion (in current value) from the nascent first black republic in exchange for maintaining their hard-fought emancipation from French slavery by defeating Napoleon (leading to the Louisiana Purchase and eliminating French threat in the New World). It took from 1825 until 1947 for Haiti to pay the forced debt. That’s 122 years of paying one half of its yearly national product. Generational wealth is the foundation of power. When people ask why my native country became the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, that is the answer in a nutshell. The same reason why African-Americans have been kept poor: denying generational building of wealth, through slavery, Jim Crow laws and beyond.

The Thomas Payne quote that symbolizes the play’s first act, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” is understood in an 18th century context that all men meant White Men against monarchical rule: the same men who felt that the Haitian Emancipation was too dangerous when uprisings began in Richmond, Virginia and other places. The American Government that originally supported the Haitian Revolution as an extension of its own decided to feed the Haitians to the French wolves in order not to have its slave culture threatened. Haiti was not recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States for almost 60 years.

This cute play, with its modern, Hiphop-inspired beat is actually historical revisionism, its only virtue being a hollow attempt at forging interracial peace in a country that is on the verge of racial civil war. This type of casting can lead into a whitewashing of history. How many of the young people who watch this play have been taught about American slavery and the hypocrisy of the American Declaration of Independence and its constitution? In the age of disinformation, how long will it take for the Kelly Conways of the world to declare that American slavery never happened. Books are already being outlawed in the United States under the pretext of a fantasy called Critical Race Theory.

The current generation might find Ms. Bumbry’s argument out of step with the current mainstream, but the fundamental wisdom there is the following: color-blindness is a fantasy. It is ok to live peacefully and celebrate our diversity. The goal is fairness and opportunities for all relative to casting. In my early incarnation as a baritone, I played Mozart’s Count Almaviva often. I have played the count both with the black wig that suggests I am a caucasian Spanish Count and I have played him with my natural African hair.

The thesis, relative to Ms. Bumbry’s response is this: If the production is set in the 18th century, it is worth wearing the caucasian wig. Why? I can imagine a child watching the opera, ask me afterwards: “why did you wear the wig, Dr. LaFond?” I would like to say to him or her or them that I wore the wig because in the 18th century, a man of African decent would not be allowed to hold a noble title. “Why is that?” Because people of African decent were enslaved by Europeans from the 16th century until late in the 19th century and beyond. And I would probably do my make-up the way George Shirley (another pioneer African-American in opera) helped me do it the night I sang the role in school for the first time:

Jean-Ronald LaFond, Conte di Almaviva 1989.

The fantasy of a Black European Count in the 18th century can be taken for granted in a world that more and more despises facts. Did the Jewish Holocaust happen? White Supremacists have been trying for decades to deny it. Did the enslavement of African peoples happen? White Supremacists in the United States and around the world are trying, even as i write these words, to deny it. How can there have been enslavement of an entire race of people for centuries when there was the possibility of a Black nobleman in the 18th Century? Hmmm…

Many plays do not require make up to simulate race because the dramatic engine has nothing to do with race. Aida is case and point, despite the fact that it is most often produced with race in mind. On that count Angel Blue’s actions are on point. But there are instances where historical context is important because it reminds us of our journey to the current conditions in the precarious world we live in. On that count, Ms. Bumbry’s concerns are to be considered. We are not in a post-racial world. Far from it! There is much to lose if we cannot make nuance distinctions between the intentions of Blackface as in minstrelsy and make-up that simulate race in a context where the storytelling can actually be enhanced and educate us about the very history we must not forget!

The obvious answer is: “in such situations hire a person of that race!” Then the counter-response would be: “shall we do the same if the character is caucasian?” In an art-form that was (until relatively recently) written by Caucasians for Caucasians, that would be a nasty can of worms to open, isn’t it? Hence Ms. Bumbry’s respoonse!

As for the response provided by the administration of Arena di Verona, it rings hollow on many levels. As I wrote above, it took no time at all to understand historical accuracy relative to race in the context of Egyptian society and by extension, Aida. Therefore, Angel Blue’s concerns are not limited to her cultural conditioning as an African-American as the response suggests. If the administration considers all of its participants equal in terms of their particular contexts, it is easy to say that they did not take Angel Blue’s context seriously or at very least, they were lazy and not having a dramaturg do the appropriate historical research. Again to Ms. Bumbry’s point!

However, I do not know the facts as to whether Angel Blue made her decision without first having contact with the administration about her concerns. The response suggests that Angel Blue decided not to perform Traviata and posted her reasons online without any dialogue with Arena di Verona. If that is the case then I believe Arena di Verona has a point. A post on social media is not the way to resolve an issue. Besides wide-ranging support from friends, colleagues and friends, Angel Blue’s post generated more responses from provocateurs, expressing very racist sentiments in some cases, than intelligent debate, as is the case with the internet these days, where clickbaiting short answers are the norm. Trolls exist everywhere to add fuel to the fire of controversy, the only point of which is to divide us further.

The special case of Otello

Finally, the same argument I made for Aida yields different thoughts for Otello. Aida’s dramatic engine is not racial. Otello’s is! There is something to be said for Otello being a Black man in a Caucasian context. Jago’s racism is explicit (and by extension Rodrigo’s. at least in the Verdi version). Otello himself speaks about whether his dark hue is why Desdemona is unfaithful (in fact she is not). At least in Verdi’s 19th century context, race is a major factor. Experiencing the character as the single outsider in a foreign world works upon his experiences as a character and visual visceral for the audience. I think not having Black make-up (I personally make a distinction between that and Blackface) for Otello, when the character is played by a non-black actor is an opportunity missed. Yes, an audience can make the leap and believe a person of a different race is playing a Black man (in the case of a non-black man playing the part, which unfortunately tends to be the case), but the visual is supremely important in this case, in my opinion. It is naturally not an issue when a Black man plays the role. The great actor, Patrick Stewart understood this when instead of putting on Black make-up, he found an ingenious solution: he played the part as a white man in a Black context. For the classical theater that is ok, because many actors of color have played Shakespeare’s Othello. For my part, I would like to see more Black men play the role.

And thus, I leave you with this:

Tenor Limmie Pulliam as Otello 2017.

© 16 July 2022

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