Culture | Orientalism is no magic

What are you going to do about your racism, Opera McGill?

Patrick Hansen, the Schulich School of Music’s Director of Opera Studies, is a commanding speaker– witty and at ease in front of an audience. He began his pre-opera lecture in the Strathcona Music Building’s narrow, crowded room with a nod to Opera McGill’s 60th anniversary, marked by this 2016-2017 season.

“Not many opera companies – let alone student opera companies – make it to sixty years,” he commended.

To celebrate, the company plans to present a season of exciting performances: in January, a gala production of Strauss’ lighthearted Die Fledermaus; in March, an Opera B!NGE Fest featuring seven different operas staged throughout Montreal. Kicking off this celebratory season was the November 5 opening of Handel’s magical opera Alcina, directed by Professor Hansen and performed by a stellar cast of Schulich students.

In needlessly imagining Alcina’s island as Other – foreign, exotic, and imbued with magic, mystery, and illusion – Hansen in fact subjugated the opera’s legitimately dissident intricacies beneath an aesthetic that proved loaded and problematic from every possible angle.

In his lecture, Hansen described not only Opera McGill’s anniversary milestone, but also his own: nine years ago, he began teaching at McGill. During that first year, he also directed Alcina.

Anniversaries are an opportunity not only to acknowledge the accomplishments of the past, but also to consider the potential for growth and achievement in the future. However, in 2016, Hansen chose to lead an Alcina that acknowledged only the company’s past: a “remounted” production featuring sets, costumes, lighting, and theatrical blocking nearly identical to his decade-old original.

The 2016 Alcina looked backward in more ways than one. Beyond Hansen’s arrival at the Schulich School in 2007, and maybe beyond even Opera McGill’s 60-year history – all the way back to a time when racism, apparently, was okay.

That era, of course, is a fictional one. Even back when society actively condoned racism – and, really, doesn’t it still? – there was nothing okay about it. Yet, it’s dangerously easy to let racism slide in an art form that is a product of a seemingly distant past.

“Opera is fraught with racism and sexism and all sorts of ‘-isms,’” Hansen stated in his lecture. “It’s part of history.”

Hansen’s attitude is not unique; the opera world is infamous for such passive dismissal of the problems inherent in its art. Therefore, it’s time Hansen and his fellow opera directors get a stern talking-to: yes, racism and sexism and all the other “-isms” are part of history and part of opera; but what are you going to do about it?

Apparently, the answer to that question is: not much. Hansen’s Alcina was a cesspool of racist imagery: white singers in yellowface, appropriative costumes and Asian stereotypes concocted by white designers and directors. In the centre of the stage sat an enormous “Chinese coin” – a round, raised platform punctured by a square hole, and painted with supposedly Chinese script signifying the four points of a compass. The singers stood on, around, and within the coin; faces painted powder-white, they wore kimonos and samurai armour as they gripped fans, swords, and parasols.

Yes, racism and sexism and all the other “-isms” are part of history and part of opera; but what are you going to do about it?

In his lecture, Hansen described this setting as “pan-Asian,” a phrase with a complex history tied to Japanese imperialism. In using this phrase, Hansen presents the continent of Asia in a false and demeaning light as housing a single, monolithic culture designed to feed the Western appetite for an exotic Other.

“Vincent [Lefèvre, set designer] is an acupuncturist and a kung fu black belt. I practice Buddhist meditation and tai chi,” Hansen explained in his lecture, as if these white men’s participation in Asian cultural activities bestows them with the laurels of authenticity and excuses them from accusations of appropriation.

As a further attempt at imbuing the production with some degree of Asian legitimacy, the singers received weekly training from the Taoist Tai Chi Centre of Montreal. “There is a flow to tai chi […] that actually is quite helpful in Handel,” Hansen asserted in his lecture. “It’s a very disciplined way of learning.” He went on to equate the tai chi practice of “watching others move through space” with the task of staging an opera.

Hansen and his colleague’s pursuit of “authenticity” through these channels reflects an all-too-common pattern of racial fetishization. White people, whether Hansen realizes it or not, have oppressed, colonized, and traumatized people of colour for centuries. As such, the use of Asian cultural artefacts is implicitly loaded with vestiges of colonialism, with a white person objectifying, stereotyping, and fetishizing the cultural output of a marginalized community of colour.

Hansen and his colleague’s pursuit of “authenticity” through these channels reflects an all-too-common pattern of racial fetishization.

Notably, the Asian setting of Hansen’s production is not central to the plot of Alcina, but rather is a deliberate choice made by Hansen and the Opera McGill creative team. When George Frideric Handel composed Alcina in 1735, he based its plot on sections of a 16th-century epic poem set on an island ambiguously “east of India.” Inhabiting this island is the titular character, a powerful sorceress who enchants men to fall in love with her only to transform them into trees, stones, and wild beasts when she grows bored of their affections. The geography of the island, then, is not nearly as important as its mystical qualities – qualities which Hansen consciously opted to ascribe to a stark, exotic “Orient.”

Outstanding performances by the Schulich School’s talented opera students were overshadowed by these threads of exoticism and appropriation. Soprano Megan Miceli sparkled in the role of Morgana, a lovesick sorceress and sister to Alcina. Her breathtaking aria “Ama, sospira” – joined by Marie Nadeau-Tremblay’s insolent, agile violin solo – contrasted with the small, dainty steps with which she walked to comedic effect (the audience laughed every time she shuffled offstage).

Hansen’s decision to use physical comedy to portray a delicate, submissive Asian woman reeks of fetishization. It further perpetuates a racialized and gendered trope that runs rampant across art forms and reduces East Asian women to a demeaning stereotype.

Baritone Igor Mostovoi sang a stiff yet successful Melisso, a wizard and mentor to the opera’s protagonist, Prince Ruggiero. Mostovoi’s role was only disappointing in comparison to his absolutely stunning performance as Bhaer in Opera McGill’s 2015 Little Women. However, Mostovoi’s costume constituted “Fu Manchu” attire – the moustache, hat, robes, and staff which Hansen insisted in his lecture were inspired by Gandalf, but in fact evoked the racist classic Hollywood trope, created in an era of increasing hostility toward East Asian people in North America.

Another standout was mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh as Prince Ruggiero, a warrior trapped on Alcina’s island and under her love spell, despite being betrothed to the warrior princess Bradamante (played by a stoic and regal Veronica Algie). Fresh off winning first prize in the Canadian Opera Company’s illustrious Ensemble Studio Competition only two days before Alcina’s opening night, McIntosh sang with a spellbinding intensity, exacting an earnest chemistry with her co-star Algie. However, the broad panelled sleeves of Ruggiero’s robe comprised what Hansen described vaguely in his lecture as “sort of a fanciful, martial-artsy kimono,” and a slash of prominent red eye makeup across Ruggiero’s brow evoked Japanese kabuki theatre.

Outstanding performances by the Schulich School’s talented opera students were overshadowed by these threads of exoticism and appropriation.

Alcina is actually a complex and subversive opera all on its own, interrogating layers of queerness and upending gender roles with no need for fancy sets or staging. McIntosh, for instance, crossdressed as a character historically reserved for a high-voiced male castrato singer. Meanwhile, a subplot sees Morgana fall head-over-heels for Princess Bradamante, who is disguised as her brother Ricciardo in order to mount a rescue mission for her bewitched fiancé Ruggiero.

Hansen emphasized this narrative in his lecture. “Alcina [is] full of powerful women,” he said.

Unfortunately, these currents of subversion were lost in a larger scheme of appropriation, orientalism, and patent disrespect for a marginalized community. In needlessly imagining Alcina’s island as Other – foreign, exotic, and imbued with magic, mystery, and illusion – Hansen in fact subjugated the opera’s legitimately dissident intricacies beneath an aesthetic that proved loaded and problematic from every possible angle.

Opera McGill has a lot to celebrate in its sixtieth season, but its Alcina merits interrogation as a perpetuation of the operatic genre’s pervasive racist norms. With a cast of young, innovative, and passionate voices on the precipice of professional careers, it’s time for Opera McGill and its leadership to turn away from the genre’s historically oppressive practices, and look ahead toward thoughtful, purposeful, and compassionate interpretations of a problematic art form. Only then can we raise our glasses and say in earnest, here’s to another sixty years.


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