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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Reality and Justice: On naturalism, verismo, and Puccini.

Updated: Aug 7, 2023


I am at times, an academic, and one of my specialisms is in the aesthetic philosophy of opera (in short, the ways people justify their artistic choices). In that context, I believe I have valuable things to say about certain forms of opera; this is such a blog.

I am, at other times, a freelancer and employee of various organisations with social media policies. For the avoidance of doubt, therefore, this is not about any particular production or current discourse.

This is about different forms of realism in pre-WWI opera, how they translate to our present day, and what they might mean for a director of problematic works.

As a result, this is not necessarily an article about justice, which is different from aesthetics. From the outset I would note that the demands of justice might outweigh the needs of aesthetics, but that is rather outside my academic specialism, and I would doubtless add more heat than light. Artistically, I hope that aesthetics might have an at least ethics-like value to humans.

Oh look, this person has some manner of insect on their face. What a random image.


Part One: What Is Reality?

Let us start with the term ‘realism’.

At its most basic, we might define it as ‘like reality’. For example, if a person onstage says “I am going upstairs” as they climb a set of stairs, most would consider that realism.

If somebody gets stabbed onstage with a retractable dagger, and this opens a blood pack that produces a very particular colour of blood which begins to stain their clothes, we would generally also call that realism.

If somebody sings as they get stabbed, or climbs the stairs, we are - in a very obvious way - not necessarily doing realism in the same way. Sentences will take longer to say, emotions will be exaggerated, while the stair-climbing might indeed remain very everyday and ‘realist’.

This is where we start realising that the idea ‘reality’ is contestable.

For example, if we are to show the reality of someone who hears voices that are not there, are we to prioritise their external reality (in which there are no voices), or their perceived reality (in which there most certainly are voices)?

Both are forms of realism.

To relax the example a little, if we are to show somebody who is, on the outside, completely in control, but internally feeling their heart break, is it ‘unrealistic’ to underscore their exterior composure with some rather sad music?

In certain ways, the latter is more realistic, showing an emotional reality.

This debate is at the heart of pre-WWI stage forms, as people sought a realism opposed to the excesses of Romanticism, or melodramas of the period.

In theatre, the most notable example was naturalism, portraying everyday life in a way seemed lifelike in its style and detail. Strictly speaking, we might call this ‘verisimilitude’.

In opera, verismo is the most notable example of realism. It depicts everyday events and characters, but with uninhibited emotions for psychological truth. Generally, it focused on extremely emotional events those everyday lives - love, death, betrayal, and so on.

Understanding these different goals of theatrical verisimilitude and operatic verismo is essential to understanding how opera approaches reality which - in turn - can help inform ideas about realism in opera.

Part 2. (Dis-)Applied Reality: Harmful ‘Realism’

The combination of naturalism and verismo led to, notably, La Fanciulla del West by Puccini, and another work known as Madama Butterfly, both drawing on verisimilitude-realist plays by Belasco.

Despite a set that showed detailed verisimilitude, right down to the individual props and spectacular lighting effects to replicate the American West, La Fanciulla was criticised by American audiences for how unrealistic its cowboys were, since they sang together about their longing for home. Yet while those cowboys may well not have explicitly done so in our reality, Puccini depicted the ‘emotional truth’ of their imagined homesickness.

It is criticised by modern audiences (notably in Adams/Sellars’ The Girls of the Golden West) for a grossly ahistorical depiction of the American frontier, particularly in its erasure or bigoted portrayals of Native Americans, non-white frontiersmen, and women, and the mix of cultures and emotion in the period.

Fanciulla causes harm because the ‘reality’ it claims to depict reinforces false and harmful ideas about people who exist in our world. Its lack of accuracy reinforces real problems.

Yet even The Girls of the Golden West is - by its creators’ admission - merely more accurate historically than Fanciulla. It is still an interpretation of the past, and that interpretation will doubtless be revised again.

Even La Boheme, based on a world that Puccini’s audience personally could see, has never been entirely realistic. No impoverished Parisian’s garret has ever been so gorgeously large as the main stage of an opera house. Nor have they been so full of singing (in a way that even the best singers will acknowledge is learnt and, in some ways, rather unnatural).

In short, there are three layers of historical untruth in verismo opera.

First, the operas prize emotional ‘truth’ over historical and cultural specifics to begin with, showing emotional beings rather than mundane-realistic humans.

Second, the operas’ limited attempt at historical and cultural accuracy is based on outdated ideas, and a historical field that is continually revising its ideas about the past.

Finally, the operas are operas - they are designed for the stage above all, with chances for spectacle, lavish sets, and more.

Part 3. Cinematic Realism

Nowadays, many opera audiences like so-called ‘realist’ productions, showing the details of actual life onstage.

The actual details of reality tend to be subordinate to the artistic potentials of opera. So what do people mean when they say ‘realistic’?

For that, we need to look at the overwhelmingly dominant form of media in our world - film, from YouTube to TV to cinema to (perhaps not coincidentally) live broadcasts of opera performances from around the world.

Film is an artform that, since it can theoretically show reality itself, has tended to prize verisimilitude. It is an obvious choice, and one that - after a decade or so of French absurdism around 1900 - became established as the default option for film. Film’s dominance in our culture has declared an empire of realism; people expect realistic sets, dialogue, and storylines. Or, more precisely, sets, dialogue, and storylines that reflect what people think is verisimilitude.

For a quick detour, dive into the YouTube comments of any combat clip from any film or TV show. You will find a horde of commenters arguing about the tactics, techniques, and outcome of that fight, with relation to each commenter’s perception of ‘realistic’, despite the fact that - and this cannot be emphasised enough - these fights are designed as entertainment, not historical documentaries. While Ridley Scott’s The Duellists springs to mind as an example of a film pursuing researched verisimilitude in combat, it is an exception, not the rule.

Other examples that might be included under this bracket are ‘is every deprived neighbourhood a fog-filled dump where everybody ignores each other?’, ‘does violence by armies and/or vigilantes lead to lasting settlement of philosophical and resource disputes?’, and ‘should my body really look like that?’

Weirdly, film has ended up becoming a stronger frame of reference for what is realistic in certain contexts than reality itself.

In a chicken-and-egg scenario, this ties into the dramatic verisimilitude found in Western acting. Many actors are encouraged to (in a broadly American misinterpretation of Stanislavsky’s work that has become its own school, known as The Method) ‘inhabit’ their character, in the belief that by more-or-less sharing the same mental space as the being they represent, they will create a more verisimilitude-realist depiction, reconstructing the internal (and thus external) world of the character. This also allows them to rapidly access emotions, which is useful when shooting a vast amount of footage in a short space of time for a 20-episode TV series.

Intriguingly, Stanislavsky’s own work allows for rather more craft - life is an inspiration, allowing room for flexibility in presenting a pre-scripted role, rather than an actor more-or-less-literally ‘becoming’ the role in the moment. But within modern realist acting onscreen, The Method is our main reference point.

[Internet commenters, forgive me. I paraphrase two rather complex theories of acting.]

Such schools of acting lead to a variety of odd conclusions when applied to opera, and we’ll explore that below.

Right now, just remember: verisimilitude-realism in film genres is anything but; its claims to reality - like those of any opera - are adapted to the needs of its form. The filmic form is not opera, but opera is often subject to the verisimilitude-by-default expectations of film.

Part 4. Reality and Modern Opera

For the purpose of this analysis, ‘opera-is-not-film’ is rooted in one key divergence:

People don’t sing all the time.

From this comes the fact that opera - even verismo’s tradition of seeking emotional realism - prioritises other things (usually emotional truth) over verisimilitude-realism. Therefore any attempt to make movement, visuals, and interpretation verisimilitude-realistic is doomed to a degree of failure.

This is, to be clear, only a problem if we cling to verisimilitude-realism as the ultimate goal. It’s really not; it’s one of a range of options, and opera knows this very well.

Unfortunately, sometimes people forget that this means that opera is singularly ill-placed to apply medicines developed for other contexts to opera itself.

Part 5. The Challenge: Opera’s History

Some operas, being the artform written for the wealthy elite at a time Europe was starting to, had, or was starting not to, colonise the world, are rather racist, imperialist, and otherwise varying degrees of appalling in the light of our modern values.

The music is gorgeous for many of these works, but that doesn’t obviously outweigh the ethics claim automatically. I have said that this is not directly an essay about justice, as that is not a specialism I have anything to contribute to which others have not said.

What I want to do in writing this is provide an analysis of verismo aesthetic philosophy’s relationship to various tools for justice, and use that as a basis for assessing their suitability and effectiveness.

Part 6. Filmic Solutions To Injustice

In film we often see a problem where, in the pursuit of verisimilitude-realism, people have historically been rather racist in their solutions. They have painted white actors yellow with elaborate eyes; they have put people in ‘exotic’ costumes that reflect no particular world while claiming to reflect a particular culture; they have committed any number of gross indecencies in the name of a ‘realism’ rooted in a false view of the world.

[Yes, earlier I mentioned that our view of the world can be contested. But this is not the same thing as saying that there are no objective facts, nor that we cannot believe in evil.]

As a result, a solution to the problems of racism in film includes ever-better representation onscreen: more accurate representations of cultures, and above all, ‘nothing about us without us’. In particular, by inviting non-white artists to create work about, and play roles from, particular communities, the core ideal of verisimilitude will be met with ever-better perfection, while also serving the needs of social justice by advancing the fight against bigotries past and present.

This works in film, partly because it is a form that has the option of verisimilitude in dialogue and character, and partly because, once a film is made, it is left alone. When they inevitably remake Chinatown, they will not recycle the original script word-for-word. And if you were to currently try to watch it, you would likely find a disclaimer explaining that the studio disavowed some of the attitudes and depictions therein.

Unfortunately, opera lacks both these luxuries.


Part 7. What Opera Is

In many houses, a company keeps a living tradition based on well-worn ‘museum pieces’ alive.

In many ways, this system is at the heart of the problem - these museum pieces have expensive old productions which bring in lots of ticket revenue and would cost a fortune to replace. Opera’s tradition focusing primarily on new and recent work that might better-reflect current tastes and values has largely been lost.

To reiterate: opera is not verisimilitude-realistic. It never has been; it never can be (unless we make a show in which everyone is in an environment that requires constant singing). All we can do to make it verisimilitude-realistic is alter the visual aspects of a production - the movement, the set, the costumes - and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, that means that filmic solutions - more accurate costumes, movement, casting - can only go so far to resolving problems that go more than skin-deep.

Part 8. The Problems Of Visual Verisimilitude

One reason that filmic solutions often do not work in opera is because many are based on the assumption that verisimilitude is the essence of the form.

As above, the text of the opera is rarely trying to be hugely accurate historically or culturally, and so trying to make the production which the imagined culture is expressed more accurate is an effort doomed to at least partial failure.

To think that better visual accuracy will redeem a production’s flawed representation of another culture is to make a simple error: that it is the lack of better knowledge that causes the flaws in operatic representations of the Far East, rather than a deep-seated lack of the text trying, and a lack of aesthetic beliefs that would have led to the creators doing so.

Part 9. The Imagined Realities Of Opera

Within Europe, the Scotland of Verdi’s Macbeth is an obvious example of a semi-invented foreign country; Puccini’s Far Easts are, I would argue, another. While we can try to root Turandot in a period-appropriate China, ultimately the opera will only let us go so far before we fail. We would be trying to make an ‘accurate’ version of a country that never existed, from creators who were only trying so hard to achieve what we would now call ‘authenticity’.

This seems like a line that the internet may take out of context, so let me clarify it: obviously, works set in the ‘Orient’ depict countries that exist. But the level of inaccuracy, and the lack of concern about that inaccuracy, mean that in many cases these countries have about as much relation to historical reality as Tolkein’s fantasies do to early medieval England.

They are not merely historically and culturally inaccurate, but deliberately so. They are fantasies, because what they actually prioritise is emotional ‘realities’.

Operatic versions of China, and Japan, and India, and the Ottoman Empire are fantasies that, like the best film tropes, weigh heavier on many people’s perception of the world than the actual reality. If we want to reflect the actual reality, we need to make new work, as with The Girls of the Golden West. Which is an option, but alas not one many major companies seem inclined to take.

The problem with these fantasies is twofold. First, the type of fantasies projected onto people of certain realms and origins - usually about domination of the weak, vulnerable, and foolish. Second, the fact that these fantasies are then asserted as showing the reality of our world’s past.

This is a problem exacerbated by marketing departments’ frequent claims that something being a more realistic production (due to the better costume and movement) means that it is better to legitimately enjoy what remains a spectacle of exotic lushness. They mask the deeper unrealities of the work.

Part 10. The Real Problem: Power And Its Representation

This highlights that a lack of visual accuracy is a sub-set of the underlying issue.

The real problem is the power relationship and attitude embodied in these orientalist fantasies. That is not a matter of better reflecting reality verisimilitudinally, and instead a matter of how we reflect those power relationships in the production.

While such matters of power and its representation are in my remit as a director, they’re not what I’m writing about here. Perhaps a director could write these power relationships as large as the emotional internal realities, or represent the context of a work beyond what the creators showed.

The problem is not a lack of period-accurate shoes, but a lack of acknowledging the realities of power in the period, and the distortions used to justify it then and now.

Part 11. Anti-Orientalism: A Better Case For Verisimilitude

These ideas about the power relations embodied in the world are best addressed in Said’s epic Orientalism.

He argues very persuasively that a great many western writers treat the East as an amorphous blob that is inherently exotic, smearing from somewhere around Turkey to the furthest reaches of Japan. This view dehumanises the cultures and peoples within that blob, seeing them as inferior and less fully-human or capable than westerners, rather than as societies each with their own rich and storied history.

This is where more persuasive arguments for verisimilitude than ‘realism=justice’ come from. It helps us avoid the ‘oh, those people are all basically the same’ approach, undoing elements of past orientalism.

Unfortunately, the substantive problem of many of these operas is not the accuracy of their depiction sets, costume, and movement, but how they depict the relationships that make up ‘exotic’ cultures (and especially those they have or had with western outsiders). These relationships comprise the opera’s main substance. While a director can shift emphasis, we once again reach a point where, if verisimilitude-realist historical and cultural accuracy is the goal, it may be better to extensively rewrite some operas, or just write new ones.

If we are to keep doing Turandot, Fanciulla, and similar works and seek verisimilitude-realism, we need to go further than just give them more accurate exotic clothes. Other changes are needed, despite the fact that these visual changes are by rather to a) make and b) brand for a wide audience than ‘we may need to unpick the foundations of our society’.

Why no, dear reader, that is not an allusion to any press release in particular.

Part 12. Even If We Do Make A Perfect Representation Visually We’ve Got A Problem

To summarise: even if we do achieve perfect verisimilitude of the period a work is set, we will still be left with a text that is not verisimilitude-realistic. The words and music people are singing and the emotions they are expressing remain a problem.

Once we acknowledge this, we can step to a point where visual justice is maybe necessary, but certainly not sufficient, to reclaim difficult canonical works.

This is the point where people tend to start asking about rewriting canon works.

Part 13. Rewriting Operatic Legacies

Taken to a logical conclusion, making, say, Turandot more realistic would require changing the musical and lyrical text of the piece. At that point, we might as well write a new piece, or treat our ‘new version’ as a cover version. Which is a view I have a lot of sympathy for, both from a ‘not all works have to survive’ perspective, and from a liking-new-opera perspective.

More interesting for this essay, however, are some theoretical points.

When rewriting West Side Story for a new film version, a diverse team was brought in to try and make the Puerto Ricans a more accurate reflection of Puerto Rican culture, and to acknowledge the white supremacy of the all-white Jets. Lines were changed, people of appropriate heritage were cast in the various roles of the piece, and in general it is agreed to have been a great success.

With orientalist operas, what happens when we start changing the text (music and words) to be more ‘realistic’? Either we mean that the text better-reflects the culture depicted (verisimilitude) or the inner lives of those depicted (verismo).

If the former, it’s very hard to know what that would look like. What is a ‘real’ tradition of singing-all-the-time-to-express-inner-feelings? Perhaps some dialogue could be tweaked to better reflect cultural details, poor imitations of ‘genuine Oriental music’ could be removed or replaced.

Ultimately the core problem would remain: the means of expression in opera is not naturalistically realistic, and thus the characters’ inner lives (the main focus of verismo) are not either.

Which leads us, as with verismo in the first place, to emotional realism. Perhaps we can aim at psychological truth for characters in the culture depicted.

This is where film turns to lived experience of writers and performers from a particular culture. Since they have lived in that culture, what they say about people in that walk of life is more authentic than what those outside it say.

This is a very persuasive claim; within the assumed desire to create verisimilitude-accurate depictions of reality, these people are best placed to do so. It is easiest to get inside the head of a marginalised person if you share their experience of marginalisation. Much of the work thus made has been brilliant.

I would argue that, from the operatic standpoint of realism, this effort runs into two problems: which identities of a character matter (especially when identities have been transformed by time), and how much does lived experience matter for unreal worlds?

Part 14. Operatic Casting - Which Parts Of A Character Matter For Lived Experience?

No one identity entirely reflects a character.

When discussing justice, we generally privilege some forms of identification over others. Justifiably, people focus on identities that are socially marginalised and whose marginalisation is perpetuated through media.

Within this logic of ‘nothing about us without us’, Pakistanis should be given a creative hand to tell their own stories, since they will be better able to reflect their culture and inner lives. This is a reasonable ask within a verisimilitude-realist form. In, say, La Traviata, the idea that women creatives are more likely to treat Violetta sensitively seems reasonable.

What about Violetta’s identity as a sex worker? Is it important to get a director and/or performer with that experience? And her identity among the aristocratic social milieu is also important; is that an important enough lived experience to require it for the casting call?

Part 15. Problems For Lived Experience Across Categories And Centuries

Given vast social changes (and vast misconceptions about historic social attitudes in different periods, which tend to coat everything with a thick layer of Victorian social-moral paint), how much research is needed to compensate for the changing status of women and sex workers over time? At what point has so much changed across a range of identifiers that lived experience of particular forms of marginalisation stops being a useful tool in the pursuit of inner-life realism?

More importantly, and especially when casting to (rightly) avoid yellowface, blackface, and various other problems,* language around the importance of ‘lived experience’ sometimes strays alarmingly close to the language of essentialism - that there is an innate, universal essence that unites all people of a particular group.

Within the Pakistani community, there is a gulf between assimilated British Pakistanis, unassimilated British Pakistanis, first-, second-, and third-generation British Pakistanis, Pakistanis in Pakistan of upper and lower classes, and our grandparents and other ancestors who lived across the Indian subcontinent.

There is something very fishy going on if someone says that I, a generally rather assimilated half-Pakistani, have some innate identification with my many-times-great grandparents’ neighbours by virtue of blood; something that sits near rather unpleasant ideas of innate qualities in certain groups. I might have a better chance of understanding than some people, but I equally might not.

While there is fantastic research on the inner lives on people in the past, ultimately it is very difficult to know what they thought, even if we share some aspects in common with them. When doing opera, it becomes even harder to work out which period matters most - the one it is set in, the one it was written in, or our present day? Without knowing that, how are we to know which period we should measure ‘emotional reality’ by? After all, we can all recognise friends whose internal emotional realities are shaped by their social backgrounds in very different ways to one another - and both of these people are alive at the same time.

Again, the worlds of opera are so artificial that even these questions of verisimilitude seem silly. And this is where opera’s lack of reality really begins to kick in.

Part 16 - Lived Experience For Unreal Worlds?

We can, in principle, cast to have better lived experience.

However, a second problem is that opera is not emotionally realistic either. Verismo is far bigger than everyday life - it needs rare situations in everyday lives that cause perpetually strong emotions, with those core emotions writ large, because then they are big enough to need to be sung within the logic of verismo. At its best, it entirely avoids the drab ‘we are discussing baking a cake, but there is dramatic music so it is emotional’ effects of, say, The Great British Bake-Off.

What we have, instead, are entities that are far bigger than real humans.

Nobody actually operates like that.

A ‘realistic’ Turandot is an entity that shows an emotional truth invented with limited real reference to a particular culture or way-of-actually-being. It is a reflection of a cartoonishly distorted and/or purified emotion, represented in music and text.

This means that we are left with a situation where nobody has ‘lived experience’ of the existence being presented - though they might be able to offer verisimilitude-realist insights from their own cultural background, it is ultimately in service of a constructed, verismo-realist invention of an inner life.

Opera’s always-emotional beings are a fantasy, making lived experience impossible.

In general, I have questions about whether schools of acting based on ‘becoming’ a character are as useful as their ubiquity suggests, based as many are on the idea that we can ever truly know another being. In opera that notion is immediately sunk by the fact that there is no human being quite like the human beings onstage.

There is also the practical matter of good health. If a singer says to me “I must feel every emotion my character feels”, my first question is “gosh, really?” My second question is “are you telling me every night in Act 3 you want to kill yourself?” If so, I am not entirely sure that is good for their health, and I might recommend other approaches.

A useful comparison is moh theatre. The focus is often on the external depiction of a role - its movement, sound, and other observable factors. Rather than “I become the spirit”, it is “I exactly represent the spirit in external presentations”. This sits more easily with an operatic form where about 50% of a singer’s mind needs to focus on good technique, not ‘being’ a character.

In Puccini, we must further note that three Italian men, based on a playwright adapting a short story adapting an account from the only person in this chain who’d ever been to Japan, wrote a 13-year-old Japanese child sold to an American, to be played by a 32-year-old woman. It seems fair to say that the level of likely inaccuracy (from a verisimilitude-realist perspective) makes any idea of seeking verisimilitudinal ‘authenticity’ as a goal rather difficult; an emotional-realist fantasy was what they made.

Given this lack of reality in the text of the opera itself, it is hard to argue that lived experience -> better reflection of reality -> more verisimilitude-realist show -> better. The second stage is blocked by the text of the opera; the third by opera having different aesthetic goals.

That leaves us in a rather unfortunate position: that we will never make a truly verisimilitude-realistic, ah, Turandot.

Definitely Turandot.

This is definitely about Turandot.

Part 17. Why Lived Experience Is Still Better Than What Happens Now

Despite all that, I can see two strong arguments for ‘nothing about us, without us’ in our current imperfect world (with apologies for non-citation, as I cannot remember where I saw them first):

First: we are in a world where Asian artists are refused ‘white people’ roles. Every single ethnic minority singer will confirm that. Thus I see a strong case to at least ringfence the roles that they are the right ethnicity for as a matter of being fair, rather than clearly just excluding people from certain ethnicities. If that changes, then I admit that my position would also waver.

Second: a team of people with relevant lived experience might be in a better position to identify problems in the verismo-world of emotional realism, and in the power relationships that contextualise the piece. In particular, the stereotypes perpetuated by productions claiming to represent a ‘real’ Japan, China, or similar.

Neither of these is within the realms of ‘what is reality in opera?’, so I am going to leave them behind for now. However, I did want to acknowledge them.

Part 18. The Problem Is Not Verisimilitude

Verismo opera is inherently unrealistic (by verisimilitude standards).

The characters’ inner life and surrounding world is inherently unrealistic (by the same).

It is unrealistic because it is about a place that never existed, and people who cannot exist. And that fantasy is based in an orientalist, imperialist mindset that most opera-makers do not want to reproduce unquestioningly.

Let us assume that some houses want to keep doing works like Turandot. Having hopefully articulated what the actual problems are, let us seek better solutions before leaving.

What is a better solution? One that works within the claims for reality made by opera.

Part 19. What Solutions Do Work For Opera?

Rather than stealing from film, what solutions can opera find for itself?

1. Just stop. Stop doing the problematic works and start doing new pieces that reflect our values; if we need to be verisimilitude-realist to be virtuous, then this is the best route.

2. Hire people from appropriate communities to lead projects. While, for the reasons above, I don’t think this is entirely convincing a solution for opera (TL;DR: their lived experience likely has little to do with the world the opera creates), it’s definitely better than much of what happens right now.

3. Communicate better. Opera companies need to bite the bullet about these conversations, not write press releases that distort the complexities of the problem.

4. Abandon reality. Yes, Orientalist ‘exotic’ music is woven into various verismo works. But since - for the reasons argued above - the worlds of these operas are not in fact realistic in any verisimilitude-based sense, it might work to abandon reality and instead ask a question “where do these beings and stories fit, rather than perpetuating a false view of real cultures in our world?”

In the same way that La Boheme, Rosenkavalier, and numerous other shows have been translated to other contexts, despite being far more rooted in historical realities, why not translate orientalist operas to worlds built for their needs?

For example, we could set Madama Butterfly in a world like Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, where Americans find themselves powerless and confused in the face of a far more powerful alien empire. There are, doubtless, other solutions, making the unreality of these worlds explicit.

There are those who will insist that this is a bad idea because reflecting the work’s setting is important. But I would be tempted to say that these fantastical realities are merely a backdrop; the real heart of this is an invented emotional reality, and the characters and creative team can build that anyway.

5. Most importantly: I would urge people to apply a little critical nouse when opera companies say that a more accurate reflection of, say, Meiji Japan somehow makes, say, Madama Butterfly a better piece in their press releases.


No, saying “I don’t think attempts at ‘realistic’ depictions of the Far East are aesthetically valid or achievable” does not mean I now support landlords and those who say “white people playing as non-white people by wearing racist makeup is fine.”

They’re still fools. Although I have argued that realism in opera is impossible, and therefore efforts to make it more ‘realist’ to be more socially just are flawed, that does not mean that going on as before is right, just that I think other methods might be more effective.

Though I do not think steps currently taken are always the right ones, it is good to see people trying.

Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Thank you for reading this.

*UPDATE, 26/6/2022, 15:15: I would clarify my thought here to note that, from a directorial standpoint, I’d view operas where the ethnicity of a character is important narratively (e.g. Otello) as having a particularly strong argument in favour of casting singers from the textually ‘correct’ ethnicity wherever remotely possible. Even in space, Iago’s dislike of Otello remains rooted in the latter’s being a ‘Moor’.



Sara Wilen
Sara Wilen
Mar 31

Haha, sorry! I wrote noh theatre (thanks dear computer). Thank you for the excellent text, most inspiring!


Sara Wilen
Sara Wilen
Mar 31

Do you mean "not theatre"? : )

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