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.’