The second article that got me in trouble was a review of Opera McGill‘s production of Alcina this past Fall. The review, “Orientalism is no magic,” takes issue with the production’s use of yellowface — makeup, costumes, and set design appropriated from Asian cultures by white directors and designers, worn by white singers, and performed for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience.
Unlike the Don Giovanni interview, this article was 100% written by me, and I stand by it 100%. The review was a joint project meant to accompany “An open letter to Opera McGill” by Sarah Shin-Wong, a recording engineer who worked behind the scenes on the production, and whose perspective as a student of colour sheds vital light on why, exactly, the Alcina production was so infuriating:
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.
Sarah’s letter was written calmly, earnestly, and with intent to educate. My review, meanwhile, took a more…energized approach.
My language was unabashedly accusatory toward the production’s director — I mentioned his name 23 times throughout the article — because it was his “artistic vision” that drove the offensive decisions which Sarah so thoughtfully identified. His pre-performance lecture dismissed problematism in opera as nothing more than an unseemly yet unshakable relic of the art form’s past: “Opera is fraught with racism and sexism and all sorts of ‘-isms,’” he stated. “It’s part of history.”
My response wasn’t exactly a chill one:
[The director’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 [he] 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. Alcina was a cesspool of racist imagery: white singers in yellowface, appropriative costumes and Asian stereotypes concocted by white designers and directors.
Maybe I went a little too far with “cesspool.” But I still believe it was fair to place blame on the director’s shoulders. As a professor, tasked with preparing the next generation of operatic artists to enter the work force — and as an artist himself — he bears the responsibility to fully interrogate every dimension of his artistic decisions. What, exactly, did the use of yellowface add to the production — a “cool” aesthetic? A sense of mysticism, a hint of the exotic? Why are those factors so closely tied, in the eyes of the privileged, to Asian cultural artefacts? And what are some other ways to convey the opera’s setting — a magical island “East of India” — without resorting to stereotypes and appropriation?
Sarah’s letter pointed out the crux of the issue — the real, traumatic repercussions of cultural appropriation. She wrote:
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.
Thirty-six music students — both POC and allies — co-signed a letter to the Dean, acknowledging the director’s right to artistic liberty, but highlighting the fine line between creative artistic liberty and offensive cultural appropriation. “As you are the Dean of the [Faculty of Music], we urge you to look into ways that can ensure something of this kind does not repeat itself, in pursuit of a more respectful and inclusive community,” the letter read.
Ultimately, that’s what this all has been about — the Alcina and Don Giovanni articles, accusations of racism and misogyny, the debate and dialogue and Internet firestorm. It’s all been about community. How can the art we make forge a strong, diverse, and engaged community in the concert hall? How can an artistic community — a student body, an opera company — build a space that is welcoming and safe for all art and artists? If Asian and Asian-Canadian students must watch their cultures be reduced to a monolithic stereotype on stage — as Sarah explained, to the point of possible endangerment — then “welcoming” and “safe” aren’t exactly on the table.
I was disappointed to have to review the production — which featured genuinely outstanding musicianship both on stage and in the orchestra pit — focusing not on the students’ successes, but rather on the faculty’s shortcomings. But even if I had written the review for a more centrist publication than the McGill Daily, the production stirred such frustration, discomfort, and genuine hurt in the student body, that it would have been impossible to write about anything else.
The director didn’t see it this way — and that’s okay. I made a cameo on his blog, described as a “younger [critic] shocked to find that opera contains historical elements of sexism and racism.” His blog post continues:
I liken [opera] purists to Evangelical Christians on the Right, or to Social Justice Warriors on the Left, or to the followers of Voldemort — his Death Eaters, in Rowling’s world. All see their versions of the world in black and white, in right and wrong, in oppressors and the oppressed. There is no room for imagination, for innovation, for change, or for freedom to express new ideas and old ideas.
He’s right — there are ideologies blinded by binaries, extreme worldviews blurred by past injustices or fear of difference. And those voices have every right to speak, and criticize, and question. And it’s at the artist’s discretion whether or not to hear those voices, take a step back, and learn about how their art has affected, inspired, offended or bewildered or moved those voices.
But the director’s assertion here misses the entire point. “There is no room […] for freedom to express new ideas and old ideas” — but there is! That’s exactly what we’re saying — me and Sarah and the thirty-six students who signed that letter — that there is endless room for exploration and growth, for new ideas to bloom and for old ideas to find new light. With infinite possibilities before us, why settle for offensive tropes? Why not seek alternatives, collaborate across perspectives, and build something new in this brilliant, bizarre, beautiful world of opera?
Integrity means standing by your principles — your thoughts, your work, your art — wholly and completely. And if your art crosses into territory that causes harm, sometimes the best way to stand by it is not to dig your heels in, but to guide your work to new beginnings. In the process, your art will flourish and grow — and you will, too.
This experience has helped me grow, and I hope it’s helped others. This isn’t the end of our dialogue. Let’s keep talking.