The Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Madama Butterfly featured a Butterfly who was not made up to look Japanese although some minor characters were. The Met also broke tradition earlier by staging Otello without blackface. This in no way affected the verisimilitude of these productions. I think that the performers probably welcomed the fact that they did not need to apply thick make-up.
As for the recent concerns about the need to choose real Japanese or black people for these roles, that is all very well if it can be accomplished but, I think, not really essential. That is because when it comes to the stage we are used to suspending disbelief. We have willingly entered into a contract with the producers, actors, dancers and singers. They have extended to us an invitation to enter their world of make-believe. Once we are in, we participate and share in the fantasy. The opera Turandot is supposed to take place in China. It has a huge cast . Should they all be Chinese or can we just “pretend?” So what if the tenor is fat or the soprano not so young or if Macbeth is black or Mary Stuart sings in Italian. We forgive them. It is all part of the magic.
Once in a while the match is perfect. Who could be better than Leontyne Price in the role of the enslaved Ethiopian princess in Verdi’s Aida? (and you can see it at the end of this post)
The Italian film director Franco Zeffirrelli attempted to make opera look more realistic by setting La Traviata (and other favorites) in the “real world” rather than a restricted stage. La Traviata takes place partly outdoors; it features
a real country house and garden and allows the characters more freedom of action. It was a success because the two principals, Theresa Stratas and Placido Domingo, both looked the part and sang gloriously.
What about Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado which was recently cancelled in New York because it was deemed racist? This is difficult for me to evaluate. I have seen it many times and was never offended by it because I took it to be a witty satire of the British and in no way a caricature of Japan. It is an old ploy to transpose a critical work to another location to escape censorship or avoid the wrath of officialdom. Perhaps it is better to choose an imaginary location like Lilliput and avoid misunderstandings altogether. Perhaps if I were Japanese I would feel differently, but I am willing to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan because they have seldom failed to entertain me and make me laugh.