Anna Netrebko and Blackface
We can’t cancel Anna Netrebko. But one of the Russian soprano’s recent Instagram posts, taken backstage during a performance of “Aida” at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre and showing off the diva’s makeup-darkened skin, may have been enough to get most any other opera singer to file for moral bankruptcy.
“Beautiful singing!” wrote one follower under the photo. “But is the blackface really necessary?” As of this writing, the conversation that resulted—sub-comments nestled under one initial comment—fill nearly six pages single-spaced. “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi[‘s] greatest opera! YES!” Netrebko wrote. The follower responded, “But it is inappropriate to paint yourself brown to portray the role. You don’t have to do this. Do you not understand that it is insensitive to people of color or do you just not care?”
And then came the deluge. Countless fans came to Netrebko’s defense. Soprano Marsha Thompson suggested that the poster “stop the fake outrage” and that she “comment on real issues facing Black people.” Another user wrote that “Singers actually performing at a high level don’t believe make up is offensive. On the contrary they think that not showing a black character as black would be offensive.” Yet another asked, “Would it then be white face if a white man were to play otello??” A fourth wrote, “Being proud to look like a black character is the pure contrary of racism.”
Of course, no one needs to defend Netrebko from internet commenters, although at this point we may need someone to defend Netrebko from herself: “Bullshit,” she added in the chain of comments, followed by the comment, “I am NOT gonna be White AIDA!” Other critical commenters were blocked by the artist. (Her press representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Full disclosure: I used to work for Netrebko while I was employed by her U.S. publicity firm.)
For whatever reason, opera seems to be a last bastion for blackface (among other forms of racial and cultural appropriation). While photos of former governors and TV anchors in poorly-considered costumes still resurface in our news cycle, they often end with resignations or firings. Opera, meanwhile, makes headlines for deciding to forego blackface, as it did in 2015 when the Metropolitan Opera announced that its new production of “Otello” would break with the tradition for the title role. A New York Times blog post on this drew 259 comments, one accusing the Met of “distorting the entire structure of the plot for shallow, pc reasons.”
Without diminishing the act itself, it’s Netrebko’s response—and similar responses from other fans and followers—that lie at the heart of the problem. Opera fans claim that the love triangle between Aida, Radames, and Amneris is rendered shapeless if Aida isn’t black. It’s as if portraying Otello’s race literally is the only way of demonstrating other-ness. There are also power differentials at work. To borrow from (and expand upon) Edward Said’s Orientalism, white Western culture has for centuries maintained the upper hand when it comes to controlling the narratives of other cultures, including the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
An important caveat is that there is always a flip side to the argument. In countries without America’s history of slavery and segregation and their persistent, tenacious trauma, blackface can been seen as less harmful. And even among black singers, perspectives differ. In an extensive roundtable interview with five singers for the Washington Post, bass Kenneth Kellogg pointed out that the power of “Otello” was in the racial dynamic. “The tension of the whole story lies in that difference.” Tenor Russell Thomas added, “Blackface is a [deliberate] caricature, not JUST the darkening of one’s skin. Personally, I find that many of those taking issue with this practice are not fans or supporters of opera.”
Perhaps Netrebko shares this sentiment and is just being greatly reductive when she calls her detractors “low class jerks 😂.” But the politics of staging a fictional opera are one thing—the optics of how singers respond to those staging choices in their off-hours is different. It’s not the first time that Netrebko has tried on different cultural identities in front of her nearly 500,000 Instagram followers. It’s not even the first time she’s shared her Aida look—or the second. It is, however, a significant moment in her refusal to hear another perspective on the matter.
“It’s a reminder that all this stuff is right under the surface,” says opera scholar and musicologist Imani Mosley, who recounted her initial reaction to Netrebko’s latest post as: “Oh gosh, we’re gonna have to go through all of this again because this happens every single time we have one of these conversations in opera-land.” For Mosley, while the situation is nuanced and complicated, she sees the photo itself as an instance of blackface. “I don’t care if it’s not this sort of minstrel show, watermelon-eating, shuckin’ and jivin’ kind of situation,” she tells me. “It’s an issue that has real repercussions and real ramifications, even if it’s nice-looking and not perpetuating of derogatory black stereotypes.”
Whether or not you call it blackface, the ability for a white person to assume the racial identity of another person is a luxury that doesn’t extend both ways. Consider, as Naomi André did in her 2018 book Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, the image of Afrikaner tenor Johan Botha darkening his face to sing Verdi’s “Otello” just decades after serving compulsory military service in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Ignoring this context can only lead to what countertenor Reginald Mobley calls “the mental and institutional laziness of our genre. Not just opera, but classical music in general.” Mobley adds, “For someone like her to do this will continue to legitimize this treatment of persons of color in this way. As long as she thinks it’s fine, then directors will think it’s fine, conductors will think it’s fine, other white European and even white Americans will think it’s fine.”
It’s not fine. Ultimately “Aida” and “Otello,” not to mention a slew of other operas that are ubiquitous within the repertoire, are works that to varying degrees fetishize race for entertainment. The stories may be fiction, but the cultures they represent aren’t.
As New York Times critic Wesley Morris wrote last year, “It can be hard to tell when we’re consuming art and when we’re conducting H.R.” Yet, for better or for worse, this is the agreement that we have made as a culture in other areas of our lives—including our actual H.R. departments. How can the arts teach empathy when the artists demonstrate a lack thereof?
Opera can lean on the argument that it’s never made these makeup choices with the aim of parodying other races (though, as an Arab-American who has sat through too many performances of “L’italiana in Algeri,” I might dispute this). But the art form will have to get used to being questioned. As opera catches up with mainstream media through cinema broadcasts, YouTube archives, social media content, and other points of HD access, these conversations are only going to become more frequent and more vital.
They’ll also start to challenge traditions and nostalgia, for both fans and artists. Unlike the last century, in which singers like Plácido Domingo could sing Otello in varying degrees of blackface without having to worry about real-time Internet scrutiny, the choices made by artists in terms of the roles they sing, the makeup they agree to, and the photos they choose to share from behind the scenes will be indelibly preserved in digital amber. (Some of those Domingo performances have resurfaced, too.) Opera has long been held up as an art form whose plots and productions operate in a realm that floats above reality. In an age, however, where reality has a tighter grip on us, artists must at least be tethered to some amount of demonstrable empathy lest they risk the perception of solipsism.
In many ways, Netrebko has already spent the last two decades challenging some of these norms and status quo in her performances. But it’s time to go deeper. “I mean,” says Mobley, “if a noose is hung in the woods and no one’s around to see it, is it racist?” ¶