Philip Hensher: When opera descends into black comedy

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Down at a dress rehearsal for the Royal Opera House's Ballo in Maschera, the second scene begins; Ulrica, Satan's best friend and fortune-teller, hobbles on; and - "What's she got on?" "An old horse's second-best blanket, by the looks of things." "No, I meant - what's she got on her face?" "Oh my God. She's not black, is she?" "No - she's just - she's just." "Oh my God. She's - what's the technical term - " "Blacked up, I believe." "Lovely expression. Haven't heard that for a while."

And so on, until, quite rightly, told to shut up giggling by one of the gay vicars, who, along with obsessive old opera-ladies and underemployed writers, make up the usual audience for these dress rehearsals. It didn't work. The sight of a white mezzo-soprano, blacked up, just went on getting funnier and funnier until the end of the scene. Alas, Verdi drops Ulrica subsequently - I do think he might have managed to get her into the ball at the end, perhaps with a fortune-teller's booth - or one might very well have had to go and stand in the foyer for a bit.

I honestly can't remember the last time I saw this in any kind of theatre. Some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, people suddenly started to wonder whether it was really acceptable any longer to ask white actors to "black up" to play non-white characters. More to the point, whether it was actually necessary. By the 1980s, a whole raft of highly talented black and Asian actors were at least available, if rather disgracefully infrequently called upon.

Even in the 1970s, people were starting to murmur about productions of Othello starring some knighted eminence in ludicrous make-up. Olivier's beyond-parody attempt at his idea of a black accent in the role probably did more than anything to put an end to it. Still more ludicrous, and surely the final nail in the coffin as far as such casting decisions were concerned, was Alec Guinness's really horrible Professor Godbole in David Lean's film of A Passage to India. Really, nobody could think that India, with its enormous film industry and cult of stardom, could have failed to come up with someone who could have played the role.

After that, a play like Othello rather went into a decline; theatres couldn't come up with a black actor for the role - and that, I have no doubt, was their fault for not looking - and couldn't bring themselves to resort to the old, discredited arts of the make-up lady. Now, of course, there is no excuse; there is no more subtle actor in Britain than Chiwetel Ejiofor, and plenty of black and Asian stars whose name will draw a crowd.

In fact, so many that theatres have taken to a policy of "colour-blind" casting. It's taken for granted that black actors can be cast in any role whatsoever, surely an admirable thing. It's true that occasionally one is startled to see a black actor playing, say, the son of two white characters without any comment, but in my experience one quickly stops seeing it. I wouldn't mind seeing the practice spread to films, where the casting tends to be much more literal.

To see a revival of "blacking up" in the opera house, in 2005, is just beyond belief. Not just because the practice was, one assumed, long dead and buried, but because opera has actually been in the forefront of "colour-blind" casting for a very long time. The rise of great black singers like Jessye Norman required opera houses to forget about something so trivial, and one grew used to seeing a black Sieglinde singing next to a blond Siegmund without worrying about it.

Opera had been one of the worst offenders. Older readers may even recall that, within living memory, black sopranos sometimes put on white make-up to sing on stage. Jessye Norman and others of her generation put a stop to that, and, really, we are all better off for it.

The end of this absurd practice, surely, will be brought about by the sort of reaction I experienced the other day. We thought it was just absolutely hilarious. We couldn't stop laughing at the ludicrous sight. And that, of course, a theatre or an opera house can't be having. You can complain in serious and concerned tones for as long as you like, but that will not have half the effect of an audience falling about laughing when an Ulrica done up like a refugee from the Black and White Minstrel Show comes on stage. And more and more people feel like that.

Increasingly, the opera house will have to cast black singers exclusively in black roles - I don't say this as any reflection on Samantha Blythe's vocal performance, which was excellent. But I'd like them to go beyond that; to cast black singers without any comment in traditionally white roles. To cast white singers indifferently in black roles is, perhaps, also a possibility - without, please, the make-up - though they should certainly consider the fact that black singers, in general, have few opportunities, and a one-way casting policy shouldn't give them still fewer, even in the most obvious roles.

There were, however, some black people in the production; they were four footmen, who came on to carry a table on and off, and sang not a note. I looked very carefully at their expressions, and wondered whether they had bumped into Miss Blythe in full make-up in the corridor, and what they would have found to say to each other. I couldn't tell if they looked outraged or insulted; but perhaps it was neither. Perhaps - I hope so - they thought the whole thing was just as hilariously stupid as I did.