American soprano withdraws from Italian festival which used blackface

American soprano Angel Blue announced on Thursday that she had canceled her planned debut of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ at the Arena di Verona in Italy after learning that an earlier production of ‘Aida’ at the summer festival had featured performers in blackface.

The Grammy-winning singer’s decision came after Russian soprano Anna Netrebko shared photos on Instagram of herself wearing dark makeup to play the title role of an Ethiopian princess.

Blue, who is black, posted on Instagram that she could not in “good conscience” associate with an institution that supports the practice, which has been largely abandoned in the United States, where it is widely considered racist and dehumanizing.

“Let’s be perfectly clear: the use of blackface in any circumstances, artistic or otherwise, is a deeply flawed practice based on archaic theatrical traditions that have no place in modern society,” she wrote. “It’s offensive, humiliating and downright racist. Full stop.”

In recent years, several politicians and artists, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Jimmy Fallon and Jason Aldean, have come under fire for wearing blackface in the past. The practice has a long and complicated history in theatre, stretching from the medieval period to Shakespeare and American minstrel shows. 2015’s Metropolitan Opera “Otello” was the company’s first production of the show that did not use skin-darkening makeup. In parts of Europe and Russia, however, blackface has endured. A 2019 Post opinion piece called it a “global problem.”

The Arena di Verona controversy comes at an inopportune time for Netrebko, who is trying to rebuild his reputation after his longtime support of Vladimir Putin drew criticism following the invasion of Ukraine. In March, Netrebko canceled performances in Europe and the United States, including several at the Metropolitan Opera after refusing to comply with the venue’s request to drop its support of Putin.

Netrebko has been a strong supporter of wearing blackface, believing it helps maintain theatrical tradition. For a 2018 production of “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera, she resorted to a tanning salon after the company balked at her desire to use dark makeup. Recent photos Netrebko posted on Instagram, which show her with long black tresses and makeup covering her face, chest and arms, have received more than 1,000 comments, many of which have called her out. (Netrebko declined, through a spokesperson, to comment for this article.)

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for Arena di Verona told OperaWire that performances of “Aida” are intended as a revival of the venue’s 2002 production directed by Franco Zeffirelli, which was “made when these sensitive topics weren’t such a problem”. The spokesperson added that “it is very difficult to change” historical productions. Other cast singers also performed with dark makeup.

In a statement responding to Blue’s cancellation, Arena di Verona further defended the decision and questioned why the soprano hadn’t withdrawn her performance commitment sooner. (“Aida” premiered on June 18.) The statement also said company officials still hoped to meet with Blue to discuss the matter further, noting, “We have no reason or intent to offend and to trouble anyone’s sensibility.” Blue remains listed for performances of “La Traviata” on July 22 and 30 on the venue’s website.

Many players in the opera world took to social media to applaud Blue’s decision and send messages of support. Fellow opera singer Ryan Speedo Green, who is also black, thanked Blue “for standing up for us” in a comment. “This practice must stop and all artists/administrations who support it must be castigated so that their support for the racist practice can be brought to light,” he wrote.

Blue’s withdrawal comes amid growing international accolades for the singer, who has been described as a “lyrical sensation”. In 2019, she was the first black woman to play Violetta in a fully staged performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Teatro alla Scala in Italy. Earlier this summer, she made her Paris Opera debut in Charles Gounod’s “Faust.”

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