IIt was heralded as a landmark moment in operatic history – after more than 130 years and 234 performances at the Royal Opera House, the lead role in Verdi’s Otello has finally been performed by a black man.
Taking to the Covent Garden stage this week, American virtuoso tenor Russell Thomas powerfully portrayed the tragic downfall of Shakespeare’s famous Moor of Venice, much to the delight of critics.
But for Thomas, who has played the role of Otello 21 times on the world’s biggest stages, it was a moment as sad as it was joyful 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 we find ourselves in are much more diverse than they were 50 years ago. The people likely to be able to afford an opera ticket are much more diverse. So it doesn’t make sense that we only allow one group of people and maybe have a black person on stage or an Asian person on stage.
The opera, by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, is known for being one of the most punishing tenor roles, requiring a baritone weight that few singers can handle. 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 portray Otello.
But the slow pace of change is hardly surprising, Thomas said, as opera purists complained about the smallest changes, favoring tradition over progress.
“Opera is the old, it’s doing an old thing again and 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 the opera must continue to live. Otherwise, we can all sit at home and watch our 80s videos, there’s no reason to come to the theater.
The way to bring this art form to life is to modernize 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 that were written 200 years ago. It’s important, because people have to be able to see or find their way around. Otherwise, it’s just a fantasy.
Thomas’ turn as Otello is the latest in steps taken by the Royal Opera House to improve its portrayal of minorities and cultures and help provide a safer and more comfortable space for cast and crew. 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 the sex scenes in Theodora.
“I think it’s an important moment in the history of opera,” Thomas said, “but I’m saddened that it’s an important moment. I’m sure there have been black men around [before me] who could have sung Otello. A black man in over 200 performances – I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of or necessarily applaud.
Another important factor was the makeup of those working behind the scenes, Thomas added. “We can’t have a world where every CEO is white, and very few of them are women. You will never get a diverse perspective because the people making decisions behind the scenes are not diverse.
“You hear people say, ‘Black people don’t come to the opera.’ And I’m sure it would be the same in London and anywhere else if you just put people on stage that you can identify with.
The 45-year-old, who has played leading roles in some of the world’s leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, English National Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, lamented the broader art activity, which he said was “very white…even the fact that people went to Africa and Asia and stole art and l ‘brought it back to their country and then refuse to return it because they say ‘you don’t know how to deal with it'”.
He also said that the controversies over blackface in opera did not address the fundamental issue of fairness in the performing arts. There was a backlash just this week when Russian soprano Anna Netrebko posted photos of herself in dark-skinned character for her title role in Aida, in a production of the opera from 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 are heading in the right direction, but overall the answer is no.
Last week it was also announced that National Theater Deputy Artistic Director Clint Dyer would direct its production of Othello, marking the first time a black man has directed the play at a major UK theatre. Dyer told the Guardian he hoped it would be a “significant step in how we portray Othello”.