Royal Opera House Accused of ‘Whitewashing’ Despite Diverse Cast
Jack Simpson, The Telegraph, March 12, 2023
For many opera goers, the Royal Opera House’s (ROH’s) latest production of Puccini’s Turandot will be considered an example of truly diverse casting, with performers coming from across the globe.
The nine lead characters hail from six different countries, including singers from South Korea, South Africa and the Congo.
But one group, which promotes Asian representation in the theatre industry, says ROH’s newest production is an example of opera’s “whitewashing” problem.
The British East and South-East Asians in Theatre and On Screen (BEATS) group has lambasted the production for its lack of British East and South-east Asian (BESEA) singers in the cast and production team.
On Saturday, the not-for-profit organisation took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that of the nine lead roles, only two were BESEA performers.
Turandot, composed by Italian Giacomo Puccini, is set in China and tells the story of Prince Calaf trying to win the hand in marriage of Princess Turandot by answering riddles, at risk of death.
The casting of a white Italian woman as Princess Turandot, a specifically non-white role, has been one of the main complaints levelled at the ROH by the group.
A spokesman from BEATS said: “Casting a white actor in a specifically non-white role, known as ‘whitewashing’, is regressive, as it perpetuates the historical and present exclusion of artists of colour from the stage.”
However, the ROH responded to the criticism saying it is opposed to pigeonholing singers into certain roles based on ethnicity.
The institution called this “limiting and reductive,” adding: “We are proud that this revival presents an outstanding and diverse cast, and we will continue to work with others across the industry to ensure that broader representation is achieved on our stages and across the performing arts.”
Many nationalities represented
The opening performance of the opera lists a cast of nine main performers. Two of those listed are from South Korea, with Yonghoon Lee playing Calaf and Hansung Yoo playing Ping.
Among the remaining seven cast members, six nationalities are represented, including last year’s UK Singer of the Year finalist Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, who is originally from South Africa.
While BEATS acknowledged in its statement that performers of colour featured on the cast list, it said that the lack of BESEA singers for an opera set in China was disappointing, particularly as this group had historically had limited opportunities in the arts and British life.
It also accused the production of including “orientalist tropes and stereotypes”, and being as regressive as previous performances, which included “yellowface” make-up.
The group’s statement said: “Royal Opera House’s trailer to the production [is] predominantly showing singers wearing masks, literally masking their lack of ESEA heritage.”
This is the second time that BEATS has decried a ROH production of a play set in Asia.
Last year, it accused the ROH of “whitewashing” a production of Madame Butterfly.
The criticism came despite the ROH spending nearly a year in consultation with experts in Japanese culture to ensure the production was culturally respectful. The original script also underwent a full review of the choreography, costumes, and make-up.
The BEATS statement referenced the Madame Butterfly production and said that it was clear the ROH had not learned any lessons from its earlier criticisms.
It added: “For an opera set in China to have so few BESEAs on and off stage in 2023 is simply unacceptable.
“We urge the Royal Opera House to undertake a thorough review of its casting processes to ensure that its productions have much better and more appropriate representation on and off stage.”
The group also called for all UK opera companies to include BESEA artists in the original creative teams of operas, because they have a nuanced understanding of the BESEA race relations, history and culture.
In a statement responding to the criticism, an ROH spokesperson said: “We have a duty to recognise the importance of the opportunities afforded on our stages and we are committed to ensuring the broadest range of artists can benefit from them, now and long into the future.
“We are proud that this revival presents an outstanding and diverse cast, and we will continue to work with others across the industry to ensure that broader representation is achieved on our stages and across the performing arts.”