Update Note: My review of Otello is online here.
Knoxville Opera’s production of Verdi’s Otello opens this Friday featuring tenor Michael Austin as the Moorish general. In my conversation last week with Austin for Metro Pulse articles, the issue of race in operatic casting was an inevitable topic. Austin is, of course, one of few African-American tenors known for the role of Otello, a role that he has sung almost 50 times around the world.
Austin was certainly gracious in maintaining that “times have changed,” and they have, but the sad fact remains that he had to get his start in Europe as late as the 80s.
“At the time there were those discussions,” Austin indicated, “on why aren’t there more African-Americans on the opera stages. One of the arguments was, ‘as directors, we have to be true to the art.’ Well, if that’s the case, if you cannot hire a Pinkerton in Butterfly as an African-American, then why would you cast a Caucasian and paint him dark to play Otello…no one ever had an answer for that.”
Of additional interest to readers on the overall topic may be two articles on the blog Operavore by WQXR’s Fred Plotkin from earlier this year: “Realism vs. Racism: Opera’s Casting Call” and “The Shoulders On Which They Stand“.
My profile on Michael Austin and a preview of Verdi’s Otello can be found in the Rossini Festival insert of this week’s Metro Pulse.