Protesters showed up at Los Angeles Opera’s opening night of Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” on Saturday to rail against the opera company’s casting of a white man to play the Egyptian pharaoh.
Signs emblazoned with “our black history matters” and “Akhenaton was a black pharaoh” were held as the demonstrators handed out fliers.
Legrand Clegg, West Coast president of the Assn. for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, which organized the “Black History Matters” demonstration in collaboration with the Black American Political Assn. of California, opined, “We’re here to very peacefully inform people about our great history.”
L.A. Opera uses colorblind casting, much like other opera companies, whose emphasis is on the singing and acting skills of its performers.
L.A. Opera responded: “While we strive for overall diversity in our casting, we have a long-standing policy of ignoring age, race and other physical characteristics when it comes to casting particular roles,” adding that the role of Akhnaten must be played by a countertenor, a male singer capable of sustaining a controlled falsetto and a tessitura similar to a female mezzo-soprano.
The role is being played by Anthony Roth Costanzo, who sings Akhnaten in this production and sang it in a London run earlier this year; L.A. Opera said there were only two performers capable of the singing and physical demands of the role.
Darryl Taylor, a black countertenor who sang the role of Akhnaten in 2011 at Long Beach Opera, said he supported LA Opera’s decision “100%,” noting that L.A. Opera’s 2014 production of “Dido and Aeneas” featured time three black countertenors on stage together; the first time that had been executed. He was one of the countertenors. He commented, “We weren’t chosen to sing in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ because we were black. L.A. Opera chose us because we were the most qualified.”
“While we strive for overall diversity in our casting, we have a long-standing policy of ignoring age, race and other physical characteristics when it comes to casting particular roles.”
Los Angeles Opera
The Los Angeles Opera told The Los Angeles Times, “Not only do we wholeheartedly support all peaceful efforts to right these wrongs; we hope that in our own way, we can be part of the solution. We are working toward a world where people of all backgrounds experience, as artists and audience members, the transformative power of opera.”
The American public is unaware of the greatness of people of African descent because the academic, scientific and media establishments, through conspiracy, have suppressed, distorted or ignored the contributions of black people … Akhnaten and Nefertiti are icons in our community, and our children deserve to have heroes. It’s an insult. We are tired of it and we are demanding that the truth be told.”