As I write, if you visit the website of the Fargo Moorhead Opera, you’ll find an evocative image of a beautiful young Asian woman used in conjunction with the company’s production of Madama Butterfly, playing this weekend in North Dakota. However, upon reading a feature story in yesterday’s Fargo Inforum about the production, you’ll learn that the lead actress in the show itself isn’t the woman who appears in the ads, and isn’t Asian at all, but rather a Caucasian of German extraction. So what’s the deal with the false advertising?
I can think of any number of reasons why a marketing image might not match exactly what appears on stage – the cost of an original photo shoot vs. stock photography, the availability of performers sufficiently in advance of rehearsals to create the image for a months long campaign, and so on. But in the case of the Fargo Moorhead Opera, what they’ve done, whether intentionally or not, is a case of bait-and-switch, wherein they have sold what appears to be an authentically cast production of Madama Butterfly, but will be presenting one which traffics in yellowface. Why is an Asian face appropriate for their advertising, but not for their stage?
In the wake of controversies in Seattle and New York over yellowface productions of The Mikado, I don’t think I need to explain once again why the practice of casting Caucasian actors as Asian characters is offensive to the Asian community and an insult to anyone who seeks genuine diversity in performance. After all, people can and have read about the issue in recent weeks from Leah Nanako Winkler, Ming Peiffer, Rehana Lew Mirza, Nelson Eusebio and Desdemona Chiang, among others. I’ve had my say on the subject as well.
Any remotely reasonable rationalization about the chasm between FMO’s marketing and production of Butterfly goes out the window when the company’s general director David Hamilton talks about his views on the subject of casting roles with racial authenticity with Inforum.
“I don’t want to be limited who I can cast because I want the best performer for the role,” says David Hamilton, general director of the Fargo-Moorhead Opera. “We don’t have the luxury of unlimited choices to bring to Fargo.”
Hamilton says he hasn’t heard any rumblings about the FM Opera’s selection.
“Opera is about the voice and I want the best voice I can find to sing their role,” Hamilton says.
The “best performer for the role” argument is often deployed when casting in theater or opera has obviously failed to employ racial authenticity. It particularly fails for Hamilton and the FMO when one learns that the last time the company did Madama Butterfly, an Asian-American performer played the role. So the company has already shown that it can cast the role authentically.
That Hamilton “hasn’t heard any rumblings” about the casting, which I take care to note is a paraphrase and not a direct quote, may be because opera companies so frequently fail to cast for racial authenticity. It’s only this year that the Metropolitan Opera abandoned using blackface for their production of Otello – yet retained a Caucasian actor in the role. That Hamilton is unaware of any unhappiness over his casting could be a result of the circles in which he travels, and therefore hardly representative of anything more than his acquaintances, or perhaps it’s because Fargo has only a 3% Asian population. But whatever the reason, lack of protest doesn’t mean racial insensitivity is therefore condoned. Even in a community with a 90% white population, accurate representations of race matter.
As for the “opera is about the voice” argument, I must confess that this has always befuddled me. If opera were only concerts in tuxedos, or recordings, I might be prepared to grant the form more leeway. But once you have people in costumes and on sets, there is more to the performance than simply sound; what the audience sees is part of the experience. While there are many aspects of Madama Butterfly – and its descendent, Miss Saigon – that are deeply troubling to Asian-Americans, as both works trade in and perpetuate Asian stereotypes, if the work is to be done, at least let it be done with the most respect possible. That means Asian performers playing Asian characters. If there truly aren’t enough qualified Asian performers to meet the FMO standards, then that is a direct result of companies failing to cast artists of color often enough, and perhaps also a failing on the part of training programs – though if artists of color can’t get roles, that might be deterring them from pursuing operatic careers, in a vicious cycle.
“We know it’s not real, but we don’t care,” Hamilton told Inforum. “You have to suspend disbelief. … Under all that geisha makeup, who would know?” Well, I know, Mr. Hamilton, and Inforum readers know, since the reporter who wrote the story, John Lamb, made the effort to present an opposing viewpoint from Chelsea Pace, an assistant professor of movement in the department of theater arts at North Dakota State University. I think many other people are going to find out.
While it’s late in the game to have any effect on this weekend’s production, I hope David Hamilton and the board of directors of the Fargo Moorhead Opera are going to start hearing “rumblings” that they can’t and shouldn’t ignore, as a message to the FMO and other opera companies about demonstrating genuine respect and appreciation not only for vintage Eurocentric music traditions, but for all people who make up this country, as well as the performing community and its audiences – and potential audiences. That goes for the Metropolitan Opera as well, which is doing Madama Butterfly this season with two performers sharing the title role, only one of whom is Asian. Even half measures are not enough.
If you’d like to share your thoughts on this topic with Fargo-Moorhead Opera general director David Hamilton, you can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Howard Sherman is the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.