Monday, February 21, 2005

Aida? You brought her! Or, the perils of blackface

I went to see the LA opera production of Aida Saturday night, and I am happy to report that blackface is alive and well in the world of opera. This production had no fewer than 6 people in black face/body makeup and afro wigs playing Ethiopians. Is the opera world that bereft of black people? Could you not, in LOS ANGELES find 8 black dancers? Although Aida herself was black, her father was wearing dark make-up and an afro wig, as were several of the dancers who were playing Ethiopians. The fun thing, though, was they made everyone wear the same body make-up, so it actually looked like everyone was in black face, even the black dancers.

I am confounded. On the one hand, they are playing Ethiopians, and that’s the point of the opera. On the other, the Egyptians were rather multi-cultural in this production, aside from their yarn and bead wigs. Historically, there would have been a basis for the ruling Egyptians to be lighter skinned during the Ptolomeic period, but not everyone. And would there have been Asian Egyptians, wearing bronzer? My sense is you either go for it, or you don’t. It’s traditional now to have a black woman sing Aida, whether she be African, American, European in nationality. But what of the other Ethipoians? If you are really worried about everyone being the same ethnicity, then cast everyone of the same ethnicity, or just forget about it. Do it with costumes, don’t pull us out of it further with everyone wearing dark makeup and looking like Al Jolson. There’s no reason for that. I know opera can be sorely behind the times, but come on. It seems a slap in the face to all of the people who worked hard to knock down those walls. When Maria Callas played Aida, did they make her wear dark makeup?

One of the more hysterical moments (other than getting flashed by a dancer during a push up move when his lamé skirt flew up –lucky me in the 6th row) was the Egyptian/Ethiopian battle told in ballet. It’s so unfortunately effete that you’re unsure whether they’re going to kill each other or go out for cocktails. Fight has changed in dance. Come on, folks. Everyone applauds graciously, but I can’t help but think it’s because they paid as much as they did for tickets. After Robbins’ West Side Story stuff, you must be able to come up with something a little more fresh.

Voices—Aida (Michelle Crider) was great, even though eight months pregnant—I have to give it to her for that—I can’t even imagine. Amneris (irina Mishura) had a heavy back placed Russian sound that I didn’t think was always appropriate. She also had a habit of tilting her head and making sweeping straight arm gestures, as if she was presenting a washer/dryer on the Price is Right. But like I said, I was sitting close; it’s possible in the upper balcony she came across as the paragon of subtlety. Her acting improved by the end, which was welcome. That character must be one of the most schizophrenic in opera (I love him! I hate him! I hate you! I'll make you pay! Oh, just kidding, let me help you! Oh, no, you can't die! I'll save you! Oh, I failed, so I'll just hang around your tomb in flowing robes and weep!) The men were great, although Radames (Franco Farina) had a couple of straining moments--but there are some killers in that score--he did a great job with Celeste Aida, but seemed a bit tentative (read: frightened) of the high notes at the end. Or, perhaps I'm projecting my own fear of whether he would make it. Aida’s father (Lado Ataneli) was strong, and infused some energy into the second act (even in blackface). I was struck by sitting so close how loud the men were compared to the women. I was thinking that in those huge houses the high sound travels to the back, while the low stays in the orchestra. I have a harder time hearing the men generally from my usual cheap seats.

The last thing I had seen in the Dorothy Chandler pavilion was Renee Fleming in recital, with just a piano. One of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had, not only for her filling the space with no mic, but for her acting. It’s such a challenge to fill a house like that and still be able to act. Unfortunately, from where I was, the Aida singers were a bit wooden. I felt like I was doing a lot of the work for them. But hey, the ticket was free, so it’s all good by me.

No comments: