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Strange Times for Artistic Practice

ABR Arts 03 August 2018

Strange Times for Artistic Practice

ABR Arts 03 August 2018

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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Comments (3)

  • 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.
    Posted by Peter J Casey
    10 August 2018
  • 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.
    Posted by Peter
    09 August 2018
  • "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.
    Posted by Peter J Casey
    09 August 2018

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