Ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the first opera company in Washington, DC was founded, in 1873 by former slaves. It was also the first black opera company in the country, if not the world.
Peter Gelb, the erstwhile savior of the Metropolitan Opera, you know the one, he’s basically pawned the iconic Marc Chagall art in order to support his version of what grand opera should be. He recently stated that he was going to sell the heart and soul of the Metropolitan Opera House to the highest bidder. I suspect, before his reign is finally brought to a merciful end, if the Met is still alive, they will be wearing sponsor patches on their costume the way NASCAR drivers do.
For some strange reason, Gelb seems to believe that throwing in young singers is a great idea. I agree. But, gone are the days of the super-star. He apparently has his favorites, including a whole group of truly mediocre baritones, who aren’t worth hearing. This is the age of baritones, barihunks, yet some of the leading voices are rarely heard. We’re living in a wonderful age of opera. Contrary to rumors of its demise, young, exciting companies are sprouting up, all over the country. For me, just an eight hour drive offers no end to high-quality, world-class opera, starting with Santa Fe (which is the perfect example of doing something right). There are dozens of young singers, many with world-class voices, out there, doing what I call minor-league duty.
The point is, when you make the trip to NYC, to the Metropolitan Opera, investing both time and money, while it is thrilling to watch a great young voice get her debut, the way I did with April Millo, the Metropolitan Opera is about superstars. Back during the ‘New Golden Age of Opera’ no matter what day of the week, or what performance, you could be assured of a super-star tenor: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jon Vickers, Richard Cassilly, Alfredo Krause, Jose Carreras, Niccoli Gedda, Peter Hofmann, and non super-stars who were amazing voices Jerry Hadley, Neil Scihoff, and Siegfried Jerusalem. Today, most of the time there is a no-name tenor who is truly deplorable. Granted, this is the Golden Age of Barihunks, but you would never know it from the Met’s roster. I’m so sick of some of Gelb’s pet sopranos I can’t stand listening to them. Once upon a time, every Saturday afternoon was a thrill. Now, though, I end up turning it off, most of the time. I can’t stand how pathetically bad the voices are.
About a month ago, Gelb announced that the role of Otello would no longer be sung in in traditional ‘blackface’. Tenors playing Otello were in make-up and costume because anyone who knows their Shakespeare knows Othello was a “black-Moor”. Gelb did not want to bring up Otello’s African roots. There are some who speculate he did not want to offend his multitude of Muslim supporters of the Met, yet is was perfectly fine to present an anti-Semetic offering in the Death of Klinghoffer, last year. Like many of his pet projects, trying to make the Met more like Broadway, it was a financial flop. Before Gelb, during the age of Levine, the Met’s average seating was around 90%. Under Gelb, it’s maybe 60%. Anyone else would realize there was a problem, but not the current management and board, many of them being trophy wives of investment bankers and hedge fund managers.
Opting not to use ‘black-face’ make-up for Otello made Peter Gelb look like someone who is fine-tuned to political correctness, which he is. He looked good, and grabbed a few headlines for a few days. It was also amazingly short-sighted, but that’s what Peter Gelb is, politically correct. Otello is a ‘Black Moor’, the Renaissance way of saying he was a Muslim. Willie S also stressed that his character was a man of color. This day an age, in the theater it is just plain wrong to use ‘black-face’ and ignore the fact that there are as many talented black actors out there as are white. It’s insulting. Can you imagine Lawrence Fishburne as Othello?
Howard Haskin did Otello several years ago in the UK. I don’t know if he had the high notes, but his Otello reminds me of Richard Cassilly. He sounds as good as half the tenors I heard last year. His YouTube page has more excerpts from his Otello. He’s been doing it long enough that maybe he should have been given consideration. Granted, Aleksandrs Antonenko has been doing the role for years, and deserves at shot at it. This being said, there are many voices who have been doing amazing roles for years, that Gelb ignores. It is said that Gelb has a tendency to choose some very inferior voices from Eastern Europe and Russia, while truly slighting the greatest voice Russia has ever produced, our favorite barihunk, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who should be doing Iago.
The Metropolitan Opera has a race problem. Currently, the Met has has exactly two black artists on their roster: Eric Owens is one of the great-base baritones of the day. He should be used as frequently as Jerome Hines or Paul Plishka. Lawrence Brownlee is one of the next big things, but he’s a bel canto tenor. Once upon a time, during the ‘New Golden Age of Opera’ casting was nearly color blind. We’re talking Simon Estes, Leontyne Price, Maria Ewing, Leona Mitchell, Jessye Norman, Kathy Battle, Grace Bumbry, Barbara Hendricks, and Shirley Varrett, Florence Quivar, Florence Quivar, Barbara Conrad, and a few more people I’m trying to remember. These are just the people I saw at the Met, the point is, most of these men and women of color were basically on the roster for years, at the same time. (My old Met year books are packed. If not, I’d go through them and pull out additional names).
The problem is, today it is very difficult for a black opera singer to be recognized. What happened? I thought we had made progress. I thought opera was the most color blind of all the performing arts. Or it was, once upon a time. Then Peter Gelb took over the Met. And, don’t blame the lack of black singers on a lack of good voices. NOTHING can be farther from the truth. This year, where is Robert Mack? Where is Latonia Moore? What about the future? Michele Crider, Karen Slack, Kevin Thompson, Kendall Gladen, Janinah Burnett, Alfred Walker, Nicole Mitchell, Wendy Waller, Tichina Vaughn or what about Howard Haskin (who has sing Otello). Then there is Pretty Yonde, who has appeared at the Met. Then there are the baritones, or rather Barihunks. The future of opera is theirs. The problem, though is will they make it to the Met?
Why isn’t Noah Stewart at the Met? This is the best Recondita Armonia I’ve heard since Pavarotti. Why wasn’t he doing Cavaradossi last year at the Met’s truly repulsive Tosca? This man has voice enough to be a leading tenor, period. I don’t know if he can do Otello, though. It is a terribly difficult role. That may be the reason Gelb did what he did, and I will grant him that one point. I’ve seen Placido Domingo, Jon Vickers, and Richard Cassilly do the role at the Met. It’s one of those few Verdi roles where you can get a cross-over tenor (both Wagner and Verdi) in the roll.
Stewart has a voice similar to Pavarotti. Unfortunately, that sort of a tenor voice does not translate well, into Otello. He should be at the Met, now.
Let’s be brutally honest here. Want the truth? When you consider the many talented black opera singers, just in this country alone, the only possible and logical answer is that something at the Met is broken. Granted, the average person singing opera is only going to get to the Met by buying a ticket. But, the door should not be closed to them, just because they are not of a certain skin color. The Metropolitan Opera is the finest opera company in the world. The standards should be the same for all. If you are good enough to sing there, great. But, to be held back because of race or nation of origin is – well, it’s racist. Maybe it isn’t racism, but well, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, swims like a duck, and lays an egg like a duck – well, it just might be a duck.