Culture  An open letter to Opera McGill

Our cultures are not here for your convenience

Dear Patrick Hansen and Opera McGill,

I am writing in response to your latest production of Alcina and its, according to your description, “Asian-inspired” interpretation that incorporated yellowface.

First, I would like to clarify that this is not a letter of attack, nor is it about censoring your artistic license. As a supporter of the arts and as an artist/engineer who has worked on the past three productions at Opera McGill, I have had nothing but encouragement for the company’s projects and endeavours.

However, given the circumstances and conversations from this past production, and given that you and other faculty members were gracious enough to listen to my concerns and objections in person after I discovered the choice of theme, I feel that I owe it to you and to others a more concrete and coherent explanation as to why this type of practice should be discouraged.

Therefore, this is a letter to inform future decisions and to open a discussion.

So what is yellowface and why is it offensive?

Yellowface is when a non-Asian person wears makeup and/or costumes to look what they think is “Asian.” Thus, the entire 2016 principal cast of Alcina was performing yellowface.

It is offensive because essentially it is wearing ethnicities as a costume. It homogenizes, exotifies, and objectifies various Asian cultures and puts them under the umbrella of “Orientalism.” It dehumanizes Asian people and makes Asian cultures a superficial trend or aesthetic. In addition, it propagates inaccurate stereotypes and derogatory caricatures. It can be likened to blackface.

What is cultural appropriation? Why is this not a cultural exchange?

Cultural appropriation can occur when a dominant culture adopts elements from a minority culture who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group.

On the other hand, cultural exchange occurs when people of different cultures share mutually with each other – without the systemic power dynamic.

Unfortunately, the yellowface in Alcina was the former, because it lends to oppressive behaviour.

What are the repercussions? Are they really all that detrimental?

This is the hard part to explain and where generally the rift of understanding exists. How could dressing up in a “Fu Manchu” outfit while singing an Italian libretto be detrimental to people of Asian ethnicities? In terms of this production, it is not the details of what they were wearing or the actual plot that is problematic – it is the message that it is okay for Asians to be fetishized and dehumanized that is dangerous.

Perpetuating this already pervasive mentality harms Asian people living in Canada, who endure racist encounters and obstacles on a daily basis. This can translate to social realities ranging from verbal harassment to ones that involve physical assault. It can manifest in social inequality or workplace discrimination. As a person of colour (POC), I have experienced this and I am willing to bet that every POC you encounter will have more narratives than they can count concerning this.

Did anyone mean harm?

Did anyone at Opera McGill intend to offend? Of course not. Since the original intentions of yellowface in Alcina were good, is it okay to do? Of course not.

Cultural appropriation is often done without awareness. But because the people who execute these practices do not personally experience the subsequent racist repercussions, nor do they see it, they usually cannot fully empathize or comprehend how this can be harmful. And I can understand that.

Personally, I would never want to wish upon anyone to completely empathize with or experience any racist trauma. I am not writing to ask for absolute empathy, I’m writing to implore that people acknowledge that it happens and to respect that – to respect it to the point where it influences their actions – to mitigate rather than propagate harmful mentalities and social infrastructures.

How can this be remedied?

Just don’t do it. Don’t do yellowface. There are other artistic options out there, other ways of actually appreciating Asian cultures.

Our faces are not costumes to be worn. Our customs are not tools to be utilized for social exploitation or economic gain. Our cultures are not here for your convenience, even if that convenience is artistic interpretation.

Sarah Shin-Wong

Read The Daily’s review of Alcina here.