Soprano Angel Blue cancels Arena di Verona debut in response to Anna Netrebko Blackface scandal

The American soprano has dropped out of the company’s production of La Traviata following the publication of images of the Russian soprano in skin darkening makeup for her role as Aida

A picture of American Opera singer Angel Blue
Published: July 15, 2022 at 11:49 am
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American opera singer Angel Blue has cancelled her debut with Arena di Verona in protest at soprano Anna Netrebko's (pictured above) Blackface makeup in the Italian company’s production of Verdi’s Aida.

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Blue was due to take on the role of Violetta in Arena di Verona’s production of La Traviata, opening today, but after seeing images shared on Netrebko’s Instagram page, she took to Facebook to express her outrage at the ‘deeply misguided practice based on archaic theatrical traditions which have no place in modern society’.

Angel Blue
The opera singer Angel Blue. credit: Dario Acosta

Her full post reads:

Dear Friends, Family, and Opera Lovers,

I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that I will not be singing La Traviata at Arena di Verona this summer as planned. As many of you know, Arena di Verona recently made the decision to utilize blackface makeup in a recent production of Aida. Let me be perfectly clear: the use of blackface under any circumstances, artistic or otherwise, is a deeply misguided practice based on archaic theatrical traditions which have no place in modern society. It is offensive, humiliating, and outright racist. Full stop. I was so looking forward to making my house debut at Arena di Verona singing one of my favorite operas, but I cannot in good conscience associate myself with an institution which continues this practice. Thank you for your understanding, and to all who have shown support and sensitivity to me and my fellow artists of color.

In the Instagram pictures (above) from this year’s Arena di Verona production, Netrebko, who portrays the Ethiopian princess Aida, is seen alongside fellow cast members, who have also applied skin darkening makeup. It’s not the first time the Russian singer has darkened her skin to take on the role. In 2019 she posted a photo of herself as Aida on Instagram, and when a follower asked whether donning Blackface was ‘really necessary’, Netrebko responded: ‘Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopian princess, for Verdi’s greatest opera! YES!’

The most recent images have been roundly criticised by the musical community, including by bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, but Arena di Verona has defended their staging, telling Opera Wire:

‘The point is that as long as we do a historical Aida in the Arena, it is very difficult for us to change something. We have two Aidas. One is a copy of the one that opened the Arena di Verona in 1913 and this is a replica. The second one is the Zeffirelli Aida which was made when these sensitive topics were not such an issue.

‘Everywhere in the world used to have what you call Blackface. So as long as we have a historical production, it is very hard to change them because it means changing something that was designed that way. Somehow, the Arena di Verona is a theatrical museum. We don’t have new productions every year. We want our history to feel like it is living. We decided to have a philological approach and as long as we don’t have a new production, we follow that philological approach. We must respect the historical truth.’

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The practice of Blackface has a long association with the world of opera, and as recently as 2018, the Metropolitan Opera production of Aida in New York featured Netrebko in skin darkening makeup – though the company’s 2015 production of Otello featured white tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the lead role without makeup, and its 2021 production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess cast black singers Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the lead roles.

Authors

Charlotte SmithEditor of BBC Music Magazine

Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.

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