New York City’s Metropolitan Opera announced the programming for its 2020-2021 season on Thursday, unfurling details regarding many promising productions, including new stagings of Don Giovanni and Dead Man Walking as well as appearances by opera stars Marcelo Álvarez, Jamie Barton and Piotr Beczała. As has been previously reported by the New York Times, the new season will kick off with an eagerly anticipated new production of Aida. However, the Metropolitan Opera may be courting controversy with its casting of soprano Anna Netrebko as the titular character for its opening night gala, given that Netrebko is white and that Aida tells the story of an enslaved Ethiopian princess. Furthermore, Netrebko has also made controversial statements in the past about opera casting.
In June of 2019, Netrebko posted a photo of herself in character as Aida on Instagram. In the photograph, the singer is shown wearing skin-darkening makeup, and when a respondent on the post asked her if engaging in blackface was “really necessary,” Netrebko responded by saying the following: “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi[‘s] greatest opera! YES!” By building the opening night of their 2020 season around Netrebko as Aida, the Metropolitan Opera is essentially tacitly endorsing her behavior.
Blackface and opera are historically intertwined to this day in a way that continually boggles the mind, considering that the racist practice has long since been condemned by essentially every other art form. However, as recently as 2015, it was considered surprising that the Metropolitan Opera didn’t engage in blackface by putting dark makeup on a white performer playing Othello, which should tell readers just how tone-deaf and out of touch the art form can continue to be. Last year, the Metropolitan Opera showed signs of progress by casting Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the beloved Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, indicating just how much of a backslide this Aida casting is. It seems as though in the opera world, the more things change, the more they stay the same.