Strange Times for Artistic Practice

Peter Tregear Friday, 03 August 2018
Published in ABR Arts

We live in strange days. Matters once unlikely to raise a flicker of public criticism can now quickly became raging bushfires of self-righteous anger. Such is the accelerant power of social media. Our public discourse is, however, rarely the better for it. Subtlety and nuance are all too frequently sacrificed on the altar of a supposed moral clarity that, among other things,sits uneasily against the conceptually elusive nature of artistic practice.

Such was the case when Opera Australia announced it had programmed West Side Story next year for its now annual Handa Opera on the Harbour performances. The point of contention was not, as it has often been when Opera Australia has ventured into the realm of music theatre, whether the national opera company should be competing in the commercial theatre space and collaborating with commercial theatre producers. Nor was it the company’s purported over-reliance on international soloists in recent years. The cast features two Australian leads: Tony will be played by Alexander Lewis and Maria by Julie Lea Goodwin. The rumble was caused by the fact that Ms Goodwin is not a Puerto Rican or of Latin-American origin. A steady flow of angry comments on Facebook and Twitter followed, decrying the apparent ‘whitewashing’. A few days later, an article on the SBS website quoted a spokesperson from Sangre Migrante, a Latinx community organisation who explained that Opera Australia’s decision ‘is essentially taking away a very small window of opportunity for Latinx actors/singers. There is a Latinx population here in Australia, we exist and representation matters so much.’

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The Rumble from original Broadway performance of West Side Story, 1957 (credit: Wiki Commons)The Rumble scene from the original Broadway performance of West Side Story, 1957 (credit: Wiki Commons)


As it happens, an almost identical fuss had already erupted in the United Kingdom in April 2018 when it was announced that Broadway star Sierra Boggess would be playing Maria for a concert performance of the work for this year’s Proms Festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall (Boggess later announced her withdrawal).

Opera Australia’s own response to these accusation of ‘whitewashing’ was to state that ‘We’re committed to colour-blind casting, and we don’t cast any role based on ethnicity or skin colour.’ Artistic director Lyndon Terracini argued that their desire is, rather ‘about finding the best people that you possibly can and delivering the best possible production’. But Opera Australia has partly invited this controversy for it certainly has been prepared in the recent past to justify casting based on the ‘look’ (or, more specifically, the weight and age) of a singer. It is obviously tricky for it to suspend that same logic when it comes to casting of roles associated with a particular ethnic identity.

Nevertheless, Opera Australia’s position on this matter is defensible. If, for instance, the argument of Sangre Migrante’s spokesperson was taken at face value, it might seem that the only available roles for actors/singers of Latinx origin in Australia are those in which they play people of Latinx origin. But that surely is not true. If it were, it would also mean (certainly as far as opera is concerned) that only baritones with dwarfism could be cast as Alberich in Wagner’s Ring, or only Japanese sopranos be cast as Butterfly, or only physically deformed baritones as Rigoletto.

Rather, examples of casting against such a grain are nowadays much more common, such as use of non-white actors to play the founding fathers of the United States in the musical Hamilton or the casting of a British actor of Indian descent, Dev Patel, as David Copperfield in Armando Iannuci’s forthcoming film version of Dickens's novel. Our cultural life is surely all the better for it.

In the end, illusion is fundamental to opera and music theatre, indeed all theatre. It is therefore not necessarily a racial insult to cast someone in a role who does not fit a stereotypical look. By the same token nor is it an expression of over-sensitive political correctness to do so. Both options should be open to a casting director; they lie within the conventions of theatrical experience. And, lest we forget, West Side Story was conceived by Jewish-Americans; the composer was Leonard Bernstein, the librettists Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and the choreographer was Jerome Robbins. And it was all inspired, of course, by a play by a sixteenth-century Englishman. Maria is therefore always-already not pure Latinx, she never can be anything else. She is, indeed, ultimately the imaginative projection of people who might unkindly be called today ‘male, pale, and stale’.

Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein in March 1973 at the Shubert Theater in New York (photo by Ron Galella)Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein in March 1973 at the Shubert Theater in New York (photo by Ron Galella)


But this surely does this mean that we should therefore not perform West Side Story. Even the ‘whitewashed’ film version of the musical (where Maria was played by Natalie Wood, a white American of Russian origin) and sung by Marnie Nixon (another white American) still draws our attention to the immigrant experience of Puerto Ricans, and asks us, through the power of its text, music and movement, to imagine something of, and sympathise with, their inner life (and its connections with our own.) That cannot but be a good thing, however limited and imperfect a vision it may be.

It would of course be quite another issue were particular actors or singers of any race or creed being denied opportunities simply on the basis of their race or creed. This would be a real and urgent political issue deserving of public protest. But, unless I am mistaken, this was not was the root of the complaints made against Opera Australia. Rather it was a frustrated expectation that actors should always be of the same race or creed as the person they are pretending to be.

That, however, is to misunderstand both their role, and the role of theatre more generally. As the late Philip Roth wrote in I Married a Communist, the job of both is not, in the end, to erase contradictions between life and art but ‘to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being'. Otherwise, we are merely producing ‘propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself – for life as it might itself prefer to be publicised.’

Published in ABR Arts
Peter Tregear

Peter Tregear

Peter Tregear is a Principal Fellow of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. A graduate of the Universities of Melbourne and Cambridge, from 2012–2015 he was Professor and Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University.  His two most recent books are Ernst Krenek and the Politics of Musical Style (2013) and Enlightenment or Entitlement: Rethinking Tertiary Music Education (2014).

Comments (3)

  • Leave a comment

    I have re-read the comment you quoted, and I yes, if taken at face value, divorced from the rest of her sentence, that's one way to interpret Flores's position. But to do so, with respect, is to erect a straw man: Sangre Migrante's spokesperson is pointing out that for Latinx performers - who already struggle to be represented in roles where ethnicity is not specified - to see rarely-offered Latinx roles automatically awarded to white actors, is distressing. That's not apparent 'whitewashing'. It's whitewashing.

    As for when it is 'ok' to colour-blind cast and when it is not, that's not a decision, but a conversation, and one that should be had with non-white creatives - many of them, and often. This is what Opera Australia has failed, and continues to fail, to do. Non-white creatives would explain, I think probably with mild astonishment, that challenging a historically unfair imbalance is generally ok, while reinforcing one requires some serious defending. Hence, in 2018, 'Hamilton' ok; white Maria, probably not.

    Which leads to your points about cultural complexity and contemporary lived experience. In a performing arts industry with a proud tradition of giving people of colour a fair shake, you might well be right: everyone gets a chance to play every role, regardless of race of ethnicity. But that is not our industry, and Opera Australia, rather than challenging a historically unfair imbalance, have blithely and thoughtlessly reinforced an out-dated and offensive practice of which they seem rather fond. And worse, they are using the language of those who would redress such imbalances to defend their actions.

    My point, to restate it, is that we don't need to decide where all lines might be drawn, in all matters, from now on. We need only to decide whether this particular instance, from a taxpayer-funded national arts organisation, in 2018, is acceptable. It is not.

    Friday, 10 August 2018 07:13 posted by Peter J Casey
  • Leave a comment

    May I ask you to read again the comment I quoted: "Opera Australia’s decision ‘is essentially taking away a very small window of opportunity for Latinx actors/singers...." With respect, the intended meaning of this statement seems clear enough. More generally, I am still struggling to know on what basis we decide what is to be 'ok' colour-blind casting and what is not. For instance, is it that really that straightforward to distinguish Hamilton as a tale in which race and ethnicity would not be central, as opposed to WSS? My point, to restate it, is not that there might never be issues around ethnicity for casting directors to consider, but rather they should not foreclose other possibilities that reflect both the cultural complexity of the works themselves as well as contemporary lived experience. It ought to be possible, I believe, for us to accept such complexities, rather than try and resolve them through trying to enforce rules about what types of people a particular actor can or cannot play.

    Thursday, 09 August 2018 17:13 posted by Peter
  • Leave a comment

    "it might seem that the only available roles for actors/singers of Latinx origin in Australia are those in which they play people of Latinx origin"

    No, that has never been the argument. The argument is that, in 2018, for the role of Maria in 'West Side Story', every effort should be made to find a Latinx soprano, because her ethnicity is a vital part of her story. It is happening worldwide. It is happening in Hollywood. It is not happening at Opera Australia.

    "But, unless I am mistaken ... it was a frustrated expectation that actors should always be of the same race or creed as the person they are pretending to be."

    Yes, you are mistaken. The expectation is that every effort should be made, when casting non-white roles, in stories where race and ethnicity are vital, to find non-white actors. And such efforts should be especially strenuous when those roles have historically been granted to white actors by default.

    The examples you cite of non-white actors in 'Hamilton', and Dev Patel as David Copperfield, are fine examples of colour-blind or non-traditional casting. They are the sort of thing Opera Australia seem to think they are doing here. They, also, are mistaken.

    Thursday, 09 August 2018 06:26 posted by Peter J Casey

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