Friday, August 29, 2014

Dominique-René de Lerma: 'On Casting'

George Shirley

Dominique-René de Lerma:

In a recent exchange of emails, Professor emeritus (University of Michigan) George Shirley validly stated that opera goers sought a musical experience and were willing to suspend certain expectations toward that goal.  This becomes an obligation when viewing a short, rather stout tenor (e.g. Luciano Pavarotti, but not Professor Shirley) as lover of an equally embonpointe soprano -- and if she is dying in the last act of consumption, she better be in good voice! 
There seems to be a relationship between physiology and vocal Fach (further enhanced by the unlikelihood of a light-weight Brünnhilde in her twenties).  If the soprano is quite young, she might not only be relatively petite, but also a coloratura, with a neck not yet as extended as one by Modigliani.  (A most dramatic exception is the video of Catherine Malfitano, superbly acting and singing the role of Salome, managing the bass clef demands and even going so far to remove the seventh veil!)  Not so the mezzo or contralto, who are best a bit large at least -- after all, these are mothers, old maids, or witches.  And the basses might be even taller and slimmer than baritones (how suitable for Rossini's Basilio, while Mozart's Basilio is a slimy, conniving tenor).
Then there is the question of race.  For virtually the entire history of Otello, the tenor has needed dark makeup, almost looking as if he moonlighted in minstrel shows.  So also Aida, but Leontyne Price had her natural complexion as one of many assets.
What would be said if Faust were dark-skinned to start with, or Mimì?  In this country's theater, a Black character often brings in ghetto sociology and the heritage of slavery, but that seems an American historical fact, present in endless applications.  Avoiding it appears as an Anglo comfort, a censorship.   An addict of BBC's imports to public television, I find it a great relief to witness a Black British actor as just another cast member, with no reference at all to race, even in the instance of a mixed couple -- this despite an international drive by Michael Wright (UK) for greater minority representation in all media.  If credulity is already suspended in opera, why can Don Ottavio not be a Black tenor?  But if Don Giovanni were viewed as a Black man, the myth of lechery would be immediately brought to play.
Side-stepping that fact that many Baroque operas have plots based in Africa, racial casting could be used as a subtle commentary if Figaro and Susanna (and Antonio) were not Caucasian.  And with productions revised so enthusiastically (one of these days we will find that Orfeo played tenor sax!), suppose Fidelio took place in Jim Crow South, with Florestan as a jailed civil rights activist, and the prisoners all Afro-American?

Dominique-René de Lerma

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