City Opera: Stuff White People Like?

The downward spiral of New York City Opera is depressing. But if their planned spring season does go forward (currently it looks like it will), it will begin with La traviata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February. They are promoting the production with this image.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell will be singing Violetta. There’s not a lot on YouTube of her singing opera rep, but based on this standard she’s got a voice and is a heartfelt singer:

But it’s obvious that she’s not a blond white lady. Can we talk about this for a minute? You can protest that they don’t have enough money to get a different poster model for this one opera. (The mysterious blonde pictured above is seen throughout their publicity materials.) Or perhaps they assembled the publicity images before their casting was complete. Since the company has become a shoestring operation this is even likely. But the result still makes me really uncomfortable.

Black Violettas are rare. I suspect this is because of the limited roles which society has allotted to women of color. Melissa Harris-Perry talked about this racism just last week on the Colbert Report. (She was promoting her book on this very topic.) Violetta’s angelic femininity does not figure in the stereotypes Harris-Perry describes. But black ladies should be just as able to be beautiful and virtuous dying courtesans in operas as white ladies! It’s great that Laquita Mitchell is defying tradition and will be singing Violetta at City Opera, and they should recognize this and put a woman of color on their poster, even if it’s not Mitchell herself.

Also, African-Americans are woefully underrepresented in classical music both onstage and in audiences. Writing the black lady out of the publicity materials isn’t a way to convince the African-Americans who think opera isn’t for them to change their minds. Look at how much Broadway has diversified in the last few years as producers have discovered how to reach more African-Americans. Maybe it’s time for classical music to figure out how to do the same.

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  1. Also in the to be fair category to amend my post, I remember they performed Treemonisha in Harlem a year or two ago, which is waaaay more outreach to that part of town than anyone else has done in, like, forever (which I probably should have given them credit for above). So I was kind of surprised to see something so tone-deaf here. But here it is.

  2. With that dress, this image looks more like an advert for the Willy Decker Traviata at the Met…woman looks a little like Popsey playing Violetta last season.

  3. The rarity of black Violettas is primarily a vocal casting issue: being an operatic character, a primary casting concern for Violetta is being able to sing the part. Different singers have different strengths, and in opera, one's voice and performing personality have to be suited to a given role. Singing a role that does not suit one's voice can be physically damaging!

    La Traviata is a famous opera and one that is performed often on the world's stages. That doesn't mean that there are many sopranos who sing the role — sopranos who find the role congenial end up sitting a great deal of those performances, but there just aren't too many sopranos of any ethnic/racial background who do find it congenial!

    Among our most famous black divas of recent years, there have been sopranos who would have been vocally too light (high coloratura Reri Grist, light lyric Kathleen Battle) or too strong («juicy lyric» Leontyne Price, spinto Martina Arroyo) for Violetta. Not to mention those divas with mezzo-soprano leanings (Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman)!

  4. As Anon #1 pointed out, the attire in the poster looks _similar_ to that of the Willy Decker Traviata. I liked the Decker Traviata (with Netrebko, never saw Pospey), but I didn't particularly care for this ad even the first time I looked at it: it looks like an advertisement for a local wine bar or something.

    Having seen the soprano, I like the ad even less. Surely they could have included Ms Mitchell somehow. If it proved impossible due to their financial issues, then surely they could have found something that would prove less racially inflammatory.

  5. "The rarity of black Violettas is primarily a vocal casting issue…"

    Well, yes, but the role of Violetta has historically accommodated quite a range of voices, from the light lyric coloratura to the full-fledged spinto. (It is true, though, that Met casting for the opera these last two decades has tended to be on the light side.) Surely a few African-American divas should have been caught in that range by now.