Elegantly dressed opera-goers attending the Los Angeles Opera’s opening night of Akhnaten were met by “Black History Matters” protesters, with some dressed as Egyptian royalty, who believe the role of Akhnaten, a black Egyptian Pharaoh, should have gone to a black opera singer. The protest did not attempt to stop the opera, unlike what happened at Bristol University only a few months earlier. A production of Aida, put on by a local college theater group, was canceled due to students protesting white actors playing African and Egyptian characters.
Protesters at Akhnaten’s opening night, who were from the Black American Political Association of California and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, saw the peaceful protest as a teachable moment. The LA Opera isn’t likely to change their color-blind casting methods, which place the best singer and actor in each role, regardless of race; however they did include a “Statement in Response to Black History Matters” insert inside Performances Magazine, which is given to each ticket holder.
In Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, Anthony Roth Constanzo, a white male with a rare countertenor voice, is Akhnaten and J’Nai Bridges, an African-American female, plays Nefertiti. There were several African-American cast members in Akhnaten, including tenor Frederick Ballentine and bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell and several Asian singers as well. The LA Opera issued a statement that said the title role of Akhnaten required a countertenor and only two singers were qualified. Constanzo won the role because of his recent experience playing Akhnaten at the English National Opera. Costanzo is quoted as saying that he hoped to “honor Akhnaten’s legacy.”
While other performing arts are more ethnically diverse than opera, having white opera singers take on roles depicting black characters is fairly common even today. The Metropolitan Opera stopped having white singers wear blackface for Verdi’s Othello only as recently as 2015, even though theater productions of Othello stopped using blackface decades ago, proving that opera houses are still conservative institutions, lagging behind other art institutions in fully embracing diversity.