Little black face…

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18/02/2019

Talking again about Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, this was another (different) production that La Scala Milan Opera Company put on last year, and I was yet again lucky enough to get to go and see.

Unlike the Hungarian State Opera, Milan followed the composer’s instructions of having an all-black-line up, but unlike Budapest, Milan failed to grasp other political bulls, in my view, by the horns.

I had previously been to La Scala’s production of Madame Butterfly, which was a traditionally staged version. Now, this is a funny thing; I think?

Why is it, that when performing Madam Butterfly, a piece set in Japan concerning a young Japanese girl and the American Lieutenant Pinkerton, no one seems to mind that everyone on stage dresses up as Japanese? Are they all being racist?

Funnily enough, there is also a Japanese lady, not necessarily a friend of mine, but someone I have certainly worked with numerous times who sings in the chorus who I know very well, and I’d be intrigued to find out what she really thought about all her choir-mates dressing up with ‘slitty-eyed’ (for want of a better translation from the much used Italian ‘gli occhi a mandorla’) make up. I would never allow myself to embarrass her by asking.

Perhaps it’s because Puccini (the composer) was Italian, and it was written for Italian theatres with Italian audiences? I’ve no idea, but I do know that it is not in any way whatsoever ever considered as being racist nor politically incorrect.

However, when I went to see Porgy and Bess at La Scala (a little later), with a wonderful line up of singers (Morris Robinson, Kristen Lewis, Lester Lynch, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Angel Blue etc.) the choir was all-white.

They had obviously bulked at the idea of ‘blacking up’ obviously harking back to the mentality of the 70s BBC Black and White Minstrel Show, so they decided to do it half and half. The chorus was not in costume, but in civvies, and so the production was … semi-staged.

I presume the reason for the choir being all white, was for ‘union’ reasons. I’m sure that the La Scala chorus has a contractual obligation to perform in all the productions.

Digressing a little, many years ago I shared a hotel room with an Italian duke. I used to play with the RAI symphony orchestra in Rome, and when I went, I would invariably stay at a little hotel, which alas no longer exists, of the name ‘Pensione Sabbotino’. It was, very cheap, and … well… It was cheap, and ‘La Signora’ who ran it was very nice. They say, however, that the beds never got cold.

I used to spend about 20,000 lire per night, about $10, and invariably I would get a nice large room. However, every now and again, when I would arrive back late in the evening, I would find I was not alone, and someone else had also moved in.

On one of these occasions my room-mate was a tenor singer singing with the RAI chamber choir. Anyway, we chatted a lot and became friends, and I even went along to one of his concerts.

Unfortunately, many a year has passed and I no longer remember his name, but I do remember him telling me the fact of him being an Italian Duke, and of having lost his family fortune from the time of Mussolini, and his then undertaking of taking the Italian government to court to try and get compensation for their losses.

However, another thing he told me was, he was from Naples, and when he had been a young boy he had been a very fine soprano voice. He went on to tell me that both his singing teacher and his parents had seriously wanted to have him castrated, and thus become a ‘Castrati Singer’. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately depending on how you look at it, he was never inflicted with the operation and he maintained his manhood. Reasons being, probably, that it was against the law, and they would have probably all ended up in prison!

Nonetheless, my friend explained to me very clearly about the fact that ‘Castrati’ are different from female sopranos, because men are very different to women. Men’s heads are larger and resonate differently from women’s, and men’s lungs and bodies are larger and more powerful. And so, castrati singers do not sing like female sopranos. Castrati men mature much like all other men, they grow and become strong and masculine. The only difference being that their voices don’t break and become deep; castrati were indeed very, very popular as lovers of the rich ladies of the aristocracy of the period! Castrati singers had masculine voices, strong and very powerful, but yet very high. Something which is not possible to imitate nor imagine now I think.

Taking this one step further, I would go on to argue that not only do women have different voices to men, but also Caucasians have different voices to Asians, and Africans etc. This is not anything to do with racism, but rather an embracing of the wonderful diversity of the human race!

But! Returning to opera, from an artistic point of view, I think it’s important that whatever that is being done, works will only be convincing by not drawing attention to political correctness. It must work either historically, or/and artistically; it can either both work together, or both separately. But it can not work together if one of the parts doesn’t convince.

For example, last year I saw Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill film, Darkest Hour, and although it was a good film and won a lot of deserved praise, I did nonetheless feel is slipped down in several ways.

Firstly, not what I’m talking about here, but, that it couldn’t decide if it was a factual historic film or a fantasy film – many of the classy Hollywoodean special effects would have been more apt to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rather than a serious piece.

Secondly, again not what I’m trying to say… Much has been said recently, and also for a long time about Churchill’s many failings, as for example his over indulgence in alcohol, but the film still tried making an effort of portraying him a whimsical character who is ultimately lovable in one way or another. However, seemingly at the same time brushing over other less politically correct, but equally viable on the conspiracy barometer, issues such as his association with the Jewish community of the time.

Just this week a British MP, John McDonald, got himself into hot water by saying that Churchill was a villain rather than a hero, but the film seems to have got away with apparently taking some of his alleged flaws at face value, whilst ignoring others which are just as well documented.

However, the point I was going to make was, that during a scene in the London underground, when Churchill went and got to meet the ‘common man in the street’, so’s to speak, there was also a conspicuous black face among the travellers.

What’s wrong? Well, nothing. It’s just a film. But, it just stinks of being politically correct.

The ‘Windrush’ happened in the 1950s not before, and there was terrible racism in Britain for a long time. In fact, it’s only now in Britain that you can see a truly integrated society where people of all ethnic mixes are treated with respect and given equal opportunity; and that I fear is only partly true unfortunately. And so, Churchill’s black face, who chatted so naturally, and was treated with such respect by all those around just made a mockery of all the other scholia made by his critics!

And so, La Scala! Bless them all! The singing was fantastic! I absolutely love that magical sound of black voices. But the first thing that came to my mind whilst watching was… why, why, why couldn’t they find a black choir to go with it!

And the orchestra? I love them. Many of whom I know personally, and I’ve been friends for many, many years now. But. We have a saying in England, ‘You can’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’, but for Italian musicians perhaps it would be more apt to say, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

Brilliant as though they may be, they can not, and will not ‘swing’, they cannot jazz it! So, oh so square! Verdi, yes! Puccini, obviously yes! Gershwin … next question….

Perhaps they should seriously consider an all-white-cast!

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