July 27, 2021

What a difference a year makes. In late February 2020, the Scottish Opera mounted a sold-out run of Nixon in China, John Adams’s opera about President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Communist China. The reviews of the production were uniformly glowing: it was “entrancing”, “gripping”, one of the “most rewarding and thought-provoking evenings available in any theatre this year”.

Last month, the company proudly announced that its Nixon had been nominated for a South Bank Sky Arts Award. Yet less than 48 hours later, the company withdrew from the nomination and issued a grovelling apology for causing “offence”. It begged for “space” to learn from its errors.

What had changed between 2020 and 2021? The meltdown among global elites over systemic racism after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. In this fevered, racialised atmosphere, the hapless Scottish Opera committed an offence that heretofore no one had known existed.

The company’s transgression lay in casting white singers in the roles of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, consistent with over three decades of performance practice. The fact that a black baritone sang the role of President Nixon, a first for Nixon in China, earned the Scottish Opera no protection from accusations of racism.

“Yellowface in opera has to stop,” commented British baritone, Julian Chou-Lambert. “It’s like blackface, but applied to East and South-East Asian characters. It’s offensive and dehumanising for ESEA people. Opera folks, please learn about this and do better.” A Scottish MP from the Labour Party, Sarah Owen, lamented the paucity of Asians in the production and the “exaggerated winged eye make-up”. She wondered ominously if Nixon in China had received taxpayer funding.

The company tried to defend itself by explaining that its production “intended to portray the character of Chairman Mao as old and in ill-health and in no way were we trying to change his ethnicity”. Not good enough. “There is clear photographic evidence,” an obscure advocacy group called BEATS (British East & Southeast Asians in Theatre and on Screen) shot back, “that the practice of yellowface was employed on dancers in the production.”

Apart from BEATS, Chou-Lambert, and MP Sarah Owen, there was no groundswell of outrage against the Scottish Opera and its arts nomination. Nevertheless, the company caved immediately to its detractors. It issued a statement of classic neo-Stalinist self-abnegation: “We are deeply sorry for the offence caused by the casting of our 2020 production of John Adam’s Nixon in China. We are also sorry for any misrepresentation caused by the stage make-up.” Though the company practices diversity in casting, “we accept there is a lot more work still to be done. . . . Once again, our heartfelt apologies to everyone, most especially our ESEA communities.”

If the Scottish Opera owes these “communities” an apology for “yellowface” and “whitewashing” (defined by BEATS as using non-Asian singers for Chinese roles), so do the creators of Nixon in China and nearly every director that has mounted the opera since its 1987 premiere in Houston.

It would be hard to come up with a more progressive team of collaborators than Nixon in China’s composer (Adams), inaugural director (Peter Sellars), librettist (Alice Goodman), and original choreographer (Mark Morris). Peter Sellars reigned for years as the enfant terrible of opera, updating operas to modern times and Left-wing politics, sometimes imaginatively, more often anachronistically. When Sellars ceased being an enfant, he continued being merely terrible. He opines regularly on social justice from the lectern and in his capacity as regisseur.

His Nixon in China staging, for example, was inspired by the Reagan White House, he said in a 1994 interview. Reagan and his cronies were “tearing the country apart”, “dividing profits among their close friends, slashing budgets, putting cities deeply in the hole,” while distracting the country with photo ops. In response, Sellars and librettist Goodman sprinkled elephant jokes throughout that first production.

The elephant imagery did double duty, referring not just to the GOP but also to operatic imperialism. Verdi’s Aida was playing concurrently with Nixon in China at the Houston Grand Opera. According to Sellars, Aida raises questions about the “imperialist tradition” of grand opera. Since many in Nixon in China’s audience would also have seen Aida the night before or after, the Nixon collaborators were, he said, “quite consciously commenting” on what it means to move an opera plot into Egypt.

And yet, despite Sellars’ exquisite sensibilities about imperialism and cultural appropriation, it apparently never occurred to him or to his colleagues that they were committing a racial transgression by casting all white singers for the original Nixon in China production. Within a few years of its Houston premiere, Nixon in China had been performed in Brooklyn, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Bielefeld, Germany, Los Angeles and Paris. Those casts, too, were virtually all white.

And when Adams, Sellars and Mark Morris got together again in 2011 for the opera’s premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the lead Chinese characters were once more all white. No one protested. Indeed, the New York Times’ lead classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, singled out one of those white Nixon in China singers, Robert Brubaker, as capturing Chairman Mao’s “authoritarian defiance and rapacious self-indulgence.” Today, Tommasini is lambasting classical music for its racism (see “Classical Music’s Suicide Pact,” City Journal, Summer 2021); in 2011, he did not mention Brubaker’s race.

That blindness to whitewashing continued into 2020. In its review of the Scottish Opera’s Nixon in China, The Guardian, hardly a conservative mouthpiece, praised both Mark Le Brocq as Chairman Mao and Nicholas Lester as Zhou Enlai.

A norm against “whitewashing” would make Nixon in China almost impossible to stage in the West, an anonymous source told the Telegraph recently. Finding enough Asian singers of requisite quality to fill the large roster of Chinese characters “in a country the other side of the world from China” would be “just too difficult”.

Nixon in China’s creators would presumably have an interest in defending their work and its production history against a potentially fatal new casting restriction. They are keeping out of the fray, however. When I asked John Adams if he thinks that it is problematic to cast a white tenor as Mao Zedong, he declined to comment. Peter Sellers also refused comment.

And so it is left to BEATS to explain the nuances of yellowface and whitewashing. Why is it acceptable for a black singer to sing Nixon but not acceptable for a white singer to sing Mao or Zhou Enlai? I asked. The answer turns on whether a singer’s skin color helps or hurts a political agenda.

“Casting a black singer (or other Artist of Colour – AoC) as a white historical personage can be progressive,” the group responded, “as it works to balance out the historical and current exclusion of AoCs on stage, and the discrimination they have experienced, and continue to experience”. But “casting a white actor in a specifically non-white role, such as a Chinese historical personage, is regressive, as it perpetuates the exclusion of ESEAs (East & South-East Asians) from the stage.”

But no singer is presently “excluded” from roles because of his race. Asians and blacks have sung leading white characters in Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and Offenbach, in the world’s major opera houses. If there are fewer Asian singers on opera stages than in the orchestra pit, that is because Asian involvement with Western classical music began with the string instruments. But training in Western opera techniques is catching up fast.

Staying current with “progressive” casting rules will require full-time study. Would it be acceptable for a black singer to play a Chinese character such as Mao, I asked BEATS. Not really. Here pan-Asian casting would be recommended. So artists of colour may bump whites from white roles but different categories of AoC’s should enjoy monopolies over their respective identity-defined characters.

For an organisation intent on policing identity boundaries in art, BEATS is remarkably lax in defining those boundaries. A Korean or Japanese singer may perform Mao or Zhou Enlai, the advocacy group said in response to a further question —notwithstanding the large differences in culture and history between the Chinese, Koreans, and the Japanese.

In fact, all the groups which BEATS regards as interchangeable for the purpose of casting are wildly heterogeneous. Individuals from the following countries may substitute for each other in roles written for any particular nationality: “Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, North Korea, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and their diasporas.”

Never mind that many of these peoples spent millennia subjugating and colonising each other. Today, their most important characteristic is that they are not white, so someone from Brunei may sing a Chinese Communist leader even though Brunei had almost no connection with either Imperial or Communist China. Someone from Brunei could also sing Madama Butterfly, even though Japan invaded and occupied Brunei during World War II. This conflation of distinct identities under one “Asian” umbrella is little different from the “Orientalist” tropes decried by Edward Said and his epigones.

Such ecumenicism is already behind the curve, however. To see the future of the diversity crusade in the arts, one must, as always, look to the United States, where casting directors henceforth will need a spectrometer to decide if a performer is sufficiently “coloured” to fill a role.

At the moment when the Scottish Opera was self-destructing, In the Heights, a screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, landed in American movie theatres. It, too, had an immaculately progressive creative team, with Miranda writing the screenplay and Jon Chu directing. The movie, about New York’s Dominican community, which is concentrated in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, received generally favourable press.

Miranda’s diversity credentials would seem unassailable, given his portrayal of the Founding Fathers as rap-emitting black and Hispanic citizens in the musical Hamilton. In the Heights used an all-Hispanic cast, thus obeying the rule that whites may not play person of colour roles. But the diversity racket has moved beyond such blunt categories. One critic complained that the actors in In the Heights were not dark-skinned enough, even though the proportion of dark-skinned actors among the lead characters — 16% —matches the racial demographics of Washington Heights.

A new offence was born, which may be dubbed “brownwashing.” Miranda fell on his sword immediately. “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short,” he tweeted. “I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it… I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honouring our diverse and vibrant community.”

Every time arts leaders and institutions cave to racial pressure, they deal creativity another blow. The dumb literalism of today’s censors is a frontal assault on the human imagination, which frees us from the constraints of time, place, and the boundaries of our own subjectivity. One of drama’s most mesmerising set pieces is an onstage actor putting on his make-up and costume, effacing one identity and taking on another right before our eyes. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a classic of erotic literature because transforming oneself into another being is an act of God-like power and seduction, whether of an amorous target or of an audience.

The next step in imaginative emasculation is obvious: Only elderly actors can play King Lear, only hunchbacks can sing Rigoletto or play Richard III, only fat people can play or sing Falstaff, since using stage make-up and body suits to transform non-old, non-handicapped, and non-fat actors into those roles represents ageism, fat-shaming, and ableism. Certainly no straight actor will ever be able to play a gay or “trans” character, as Sean Penn recently observed. But then again, maybe only Falstaff should be able to play Falstaff, since surely between a fat actor and Falstaff himself there are significant differences of identity. Jorge Luis Borges could have figured this puzzler out, but not the rest of us.

Ultimately, theatre itself may have to be segregated, since to claim that a white audience can identify with a black-themed work is a more subtle form of cultural appropriation. A recent play, lauded twice by the New York Times, asked white audience members to leave the theatre before the play’s conclusion so that black attendees could experience undisturbed racial solidarity.

Imaginative empathy—the ability to project oneself into someone else’s shoes–has been a key to expanding liberty and toleration. The arts have played a crucial role in widening human understanding. Now, however, they are leading the way back into a world of tribal barriers and stunted experience.

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