In the short space of time since George Floyd was murdered in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement gained broader support, education about what racism looks like has – in some quarters – made incremental progress.
There have been several public apologies for the historic use of blackface. Celebrity Juice star Keith Lemon appeared in a video to say sorry to those he’d impersonated, including presenter Trisha Goddard and Spice Girl Mel B. Lemon’s jibes at Craig David and the like in his 2002-2004 TV show Bo’ Selecta! – including make-up, unflattering masks and crass cultural stereotypes – were not in isolation.
Parodic comedy series Little Britain (2003-2007) was temporarily removed from streaming services while David Walliams’s Desiree DeVere – for which the actor darkened his skin tone – was edited out of the series, along with other problematic scenes (much must have ended up on the cutting-room floor). But remorse and reflection appear to be thin on the ground at the Arena di Verona Opera Festival, where one of the world’s starriest sopranos is continuing to defend her use of blackface.
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Anna Netrebko has just sung the titular role in Verdi’s Aida, an opera about an Ethiopian princess. An Instagram photo indicates that the Italian production is using make-up to darken some singers’ skin. The Russian soprano – who has courted controversy this year by refusing to condemn Putin’s aggression in Ukraine – has sung Aida many times before with skin make-up – notably at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2018. She wrote on Instagram in 2019: “I am NOT gonna be white AIDA,” and: “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopian princess, for Verdi greatest opera! YES!”
Rather than apologise for its poor judgement, the Arena di Verona Opera Festival told OperaWire: “The point is that as long as we do a historical Aida in the Arena, it is very difficult for us to change something.”
The defence of “we’ve done it like this for ages, so this is how it must be done” is shaky at best. The amphitheatre in Verona where the festival takes place has a much longer history than Aida. But in recent years it was agreed that the open-air millennium-old gladiatorial arena would benefit from that most high-tech of additions: a roof. (Having attended a concert there during an intense summer storm I can confirm there is no escape from the elements.) Change is necessary, and often positive. (Although perhaps not for Verona’s poncho sellers.)