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Can opera survive the culture wars? A singer's skin colour has become more important than his voice

An imperialist production of Aida. (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)

An imperialist production of Aida. (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)



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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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

They want time to learn from their mistakes? OK, fine. Let’s hope they learn that apologising to the wokerati gets you nowhere except further down on your knees. You want a model to learn from? Donald Trump. Crass, vulgar and ignorant as a dog, yet STILL morally and ethically superior to the most evolved and enlightened philosopher the left ever produced.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

Well put

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Dear God. I don’t know what part of this piece depressed me most (competition, it must be said, was fierce). Even so, thank you: it was enlightening, if not encouraging. Always worth knowing what’s coming down the pipe – and which Quislings are abetting it.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago

Many thanks to Heather Mac Donald for this piece. I saw Scottish Opera’s wonderful production of Nixon in China. The reason why Scottish Opera are such craven cowards in the face of wokery is obvious. In 2019-20 they got more than 60% of their income from the Scottish Government. Nothing terrifies institutions in Civic Scotland more than an accusation of racism, even a baseless accusation. The philistines in the Scottish Government will use it as an excuse to cut the subsidy.
Foregoing a prestigious award will be seen by the Scottish Opera Board as a price well worth paying in order to avoid a controversy.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Francis

I was wondering how much funding Scottish Opera was getting from the Scottish government.
Dark times indeed! (Can I even say that?)

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Dark times indeed! (Can even say that?)”.
I was even worried that my use of “philistines” might incur someone’s wrath.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

 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.”
Cultural appropriation. Why would Asians be allowed to practice a Western cultural form? Don’t they have their own musical tradition? And no, the argument that it’s OK for them as a less powerful group to be allowed to do what a more privileged group cannot, doesn’t stand because, in case no one’s noticed, the Chinese are a very powerful country, and for many centuries have been a powerful culture. And if you think they don’t consider themselves superior, go and live there for a few years, as I did. But back then we (both sides) didn’t think so much of ‘privilege & equity’ but more of sharing friendship and cultures.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

The simple answer to all this is freedom. An opera director should cast whomsoever he likes in whichever roles he pleases but by the same token should receive no subsidy; nor should the nit-picking bullies currently shelling out the subsidies have any further influence over what he does. And if the audience is pleased, the production will survive. The result will probably be some form of “segregation”, but if it happens spontaneously, so what? Apartheid is only a crime if it’s imposed. “Togetherness” becomes a crime by the same means. And the nature of that segregation? Cultural – not racial. I’ll bet there are plenty of minority members, old fashioned enough in their Anglophilia, who long to see traditional production of classic plays with no absurd distortions in the name of “woke” lies. No pretence, for example, that Anne Boleyn was anything other than European in race. The longer this racial gravy train goes rattling on, the nearer it approaches to the abyss; and the more various groups of passengers will clamour for this or that morsel of “representation” in every last staging of the least, little play:
“If Julius Caesar’s going to be Chinese, then I DEMAND that Mark Antony is black!”
“But he’s only five foot two!”
“Good! So much the better! A blow for the short!”
And so, miserably, anti-artistically, slavishly, on.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

My first experience of opera, or operetta at least, was as an 8-year-old -a local amdram production of The Mikado, with a fully ‘yellowed up’ cast. Loved it. Don’t suppose that’s a pleasure that this generation will ever experience.
Incidentally, when did the term ‘yellow’ become derogatory? My daughter and I were discussing cheesy Christmas songs the other day, and she said she couldn’t have Johnny Mathis’ When a Child is Born on her playlist because of the line ‘black, white, yellow, no-one knows’. Black and white were OK, but somehow yellow was offensive. We know Asiatics aren’t literally yellow, any more than anyone is literally black or white, unless they are very charred, or dead (or both). Then there’s Lennon and Yoko’s Happy Christmas (War is Over): ‘And so happy Christmas, For black and for white, for yellow and red ones, let’s stop all the fight’. Are the proto-arch-priests of woke now to be cancelled? Yoko herself is yellow!

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

At least part of me, not the kinder part (there is one, believe it or not), wants to see it all burn. Any institution that “begged for space to learn from its errors” will get no sympathy from me. The only correct response is some creative variations on “get stuffed, you utterly contemptible identitarian left scum.”

Guy Holme
Guy Holme
2 years ago

Perry, Thank You, beautifully put!

Al M
Al M
2 years ago

I would be sad if that happened, despite the cringeworthy apology. Sadly, it’s another institution that has caved in to self appointed bullies. Enjoyed patronising the RSNO for a few years now and loved every performance. Bit of a problem that few others dress in evening wear, but that’s another matter.

My Nixon in China tickets sit, unused, in a drawer due to isolation. A souvenir of a strange time. Very sorry I missed it.

You can see the lunacy and contradictions in the BEATS response. Astoundingly ignorant and predicated on intergenerational guilt. Wonder what the modern day CCP would make of a South Korean performer playing Mao.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago

Nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

Sue Julians
Sue Julians
2 years ago

Good piece.
Interesting that it didn’t discuss the all black casting rule for Porgy and Bess, as stipulated by the Gershwin estate. A Hungarian production recently tried to get around this rule by asking the cast to sign a declaration that they identified with being African American.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Surely the ultimate logic is that all performance is either “appropriation” or “misrepresentation” and must be stopped.
When are these fools in the Arts going to grow spines and tell these dullards to take a hike.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

The dullards have already taken over from the fools.

Satyam Nagwekar
Satyam Nagwekar
2 years ago

BEATS’ rationalisation has left me speechless.

Sue Ward
Sue Ward
2 years ago

Clearly the only answer is to cast no white artist in any role. Ever.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Sue Ward

That’s exactly what this is all about: well-heeled internationals turning indigenous European populations into second-class citizens – all assisted by their useful idiots, the woke kapo’s.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Sue Ward

Except Hitler, of course.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

Thank you for this article. Horribly depressing. If this situation would have been forseen in a dystopian novel or film it would either be a laugh-a-minute farce or a very gloomy piece. But it’s happening right now. Do we laugh or cry….?

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
2 years ago

Hitler goes Stalin goes Mao goes Pol Pot goes Hitler

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

Can’t the opera and theatre world follow South Africa’s erstwhile apartheid regime (more than it already does) by allowing actors to become ‘honorary’ members of other races? The South African government made Japanese people ‘honorary’ whites for the purpose of navigating its racial divides. Very imaginative, and truly artistic!

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael James
Brendan Newport
Brendan Newport
2 years ago

The introduction of racialist thinking into British society is seemingly going to plan. Nonetheless it will take some time to gain any appreciation from the paying public who will increasingly see casting choices as racialist decisions. I don’t reckon the arts is benefitting from this throwback thought process from the US of the 1950s.

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
2 years ago

I’m still confused. When I saw Sumi Jo play Lucia di Lammermoor all those years ago, was that progressive or regressive?

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Simpson

Mass confusion and paralysis is the whole point as it enhances the power of the woke elite.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Simpson

Black plays white = diversity = good.
White plays black = cultural appropriation = bad.

Phil Simmons
Phil Simmons
2 years ago

The philistinism and complete ignorance of artistic history on display here render me almost speechless. ‘Yellowface’? These people are mad.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Then there are the understudies. Could an exemption be found for them? Just to keep the show on the road? The good folk pleased and entertained? Imagine the sighs of disappointment among a theatre audience, a fairly liberal one at that, on hearing that the lead actor or singer had fallen and broken his or her leg, but their relief that the understudy was there to step into his or her shoes: “I don’t care who the understudy is. I just want a show regardless. I’ve come all this way for it.” (What if they are parents visiting their child’s school’s production of the particular play or show?). All and sundry in the West have been invited to participate in the arts and entertainments. Are the “my bad” cries going up, however, at the moment, the effect of a movement taking the fun factor out of the arts? To unsettle people? To spoil the benefits of freedom and the artistic imagination? The message to government over the last year of the pandemic from the arts world has been that the arts are vital to the soul, our health – we cannot live without it. (As the pop group Abba back in 1977 sang, “Without a song and a dance, what are we?”). Why, on the other hand, do down the West’s achievements? To all of a sudden take on notions about feeling guilty? Guilt for what? Surely no-one wants to cut one’s nose off to spite one’s face! It’s as if the report card is: the West must do better. At the start of Laurel and Harry’s 1931 classic short feature, Another Fine Mess, just before the famous cuckoo theme tune of theirs comes in and the credits roll, two young girls appear on a stage to introduce in unison the short: “Hal Roach presents, for your entertainment and approval, Laurel and Hardy’s Another Fine Mess.” Of course, they say this with more than a little irony. But now, it seems, for-your-approval is back; the entertainment a dead loss.

Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis
2 years ago

The Beeb were blatantly, even absurdly, very woke for their excellent ‘Cardiff Singer of the World’.But it is not possible to know if there were better contestants from the whitey mob who were pased over, whereas it is possible to know that the winner, a baritone from Korea, was absolutely superb. I recommend anyone interested in opera go to playback of the second round on i-player, at point 53, and listen to his singing of the Pierrot song from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. In more than 60 years of listening and attending opera I have not heard a better performance of any aria by any singer (the judges weere literally in tears at the end, — two of them anyway).
Would the mad creatures we read about in the above excellent article stop Gihoon Kim singing this piece or playing this part as he is not German (the language), Austrian (the composer) or Dutch (the mise-en-scĂšne)?

Last edited 2 years ago by Charles Lewis
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Accurately predicted by Kurt Vonnegut
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Bergeron

Irene Ve
Irene Ve
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Thank you for reminding – for a couple of years now I’ve been trying to remember this short story I read as a child, I was even citing some parts of it, but for the life of me couldn’t remember the author or the name!

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

I wonder if casting white performers in Kabuki or Noh theatre is progressive in Japan? The revealing aspect of all this is how truly it reflects Western centric conceit. The progress/good casting is such an absurd labyrinth it could only be formulated by those in academia and the arts that are looking to exercise cultural dominance.It is a cultural dead-end, which will end up limiting the imagination. Leontin Price, Willlard White
Barbara Hendricks to name but a few, are among many non white performers, who have been thrilling opera audiences for decades. Good article, I read something similar on Quillette. We need to hear the voices of those who experienced Communism, to recall where this stuff leads.

John Potts
John Potts
2 years ago

I can imagine that a remake of “Elephant Man” is going to be hard to cast. Not to mention films about Jack the Ripper.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
2 years ago

As always, it’s not the goofy protests that hurt, but the capitulation.