A leading American soprano, Angel Blue, announced this week that she was withdrawing from her planned debut at the Arena di Verona in Italy to protest its use of “blackface makeup” in a production of Verdi’s “Aida” that starred the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko.
“The use of blackface under any circumstances, artistic or otherwise, is a deeply misguided practice based on archaic theatrical traditions which have no place in modern society,” Blue, a Black soprano with a growing international career, said in a statement on social media, adding that she would withdraw from her upcoming performances in “La Traviata,” another Verdi opera. “It is offensive, humiliating and outright racist. Full stop.”
Many leading opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, have only recently stopped the practice of having white singers darken their skin with stage makeup to perform the title roles in “Aida” and “Otello,” long after minstrel shows, blackface roles and other types of performances that rely on makeup that echoes racist caricatures disappeared from many stages. But the practice is still common in parts of Europe and Russia, and Netrebko has been a vocal proponent of wearing dark makeup.
In an interview on Friday, Blue said she was disturbed when she saw photos of the production, including some that showed dancers and singers in dark makeup, circulating on social media on Monday evening while she was in Paris for another performance.
“I was shocked; I just felt really weird in my spirit,” she said. “I just felt like I couldn’t go and sing and associate myself with this tradition.”
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Netrebko, who is trying to rebuild her career after losing a number of engagements following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of her history of support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, posted photos on her Instagram this week showing her in extremely dark makeup and braids as she sang the role of Aida, an Ethiopian princess, in Verona.
Soon, Netrebko’s Instagram page was flooded with more than 1,000 comments, with many people denouncing her for using makeup that they said was racist and recalled blackface. She was not the only one in “Aida” who had darkened her skin: Some of her co-stars performed in the dark makeup, as did a different cast that appeared in the opera when it opened last month.
A spokesman for Netrebko did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. Netrebko has been a vocal defender of the practice, arguing that it helps maintain the authenticity of centuries-old works. When the Met tried to stop her from using makeup to darken her skin during a production of “Aida” in 2018, she went to a tanning salon instead. In 2019, appearing with dark makeup in a production of “Aida” at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, she wrote on Instagram, “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopian princess, for Verdi greatest opera! YES!”
The Arena di Verona noted in a statement that it had been performing this production of “Aida” for two decades, and that it was well known when Blue agreed to appear this summer.
“Every country has different roots, and their cultural and social structures developed along different historical and cultural paths,” it said in a statement. “Sensibilities and approaches on the same subject might widely vary in different parts of the world.”
It added: “We have no reason nor intent whatsoever to offend and disturb anyone’s sensibility.”
While Netrebko has not addressed the recent controversy, her husband, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who also appeared in the production of “Aida” in Verona, lashed out at Blue. In a social media post, he called Blue’s decision “disgusting,” and questioned why she had not withdrawn last month when “Aida” opened, with a different cast that also used dark makeup. (That cast included the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as “Aida.”)
Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, where Eyvazov is a regular performer, sent a letter to Eyvazov on Friday calling his remarks “hateful,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The New York Times.
“There is no room at the Met for artists who are so meanspirited in their thinking,” Gelb wrote in the letter.
Gelb, who cut ties with Netrebko this year because of her previous support for Putin, said in an interview that he had not yet decided whether he would penalize Eyvazov. “We’re considering what steps we might take,” he said.
Blue said her decision was not personal, and that she was not targeting Netrebko or her husband.
“My decision doesn’t have anything to do with them,” she said in the interview. “My decision has to do with my convictions,” she added, saying that she had felt moved to take a stand against “something that is hurtful to people who look like me.”
Blue said she hoped that more opera houses would eliminate blackface as they work to bring diversity to the stage.
“In order to keep opera relevant in today’s society, there’s no place for blackface,” she said. “I felt hurt by what I saw because I feel like that’s a tradition that they’re trying to hold onto that hurts people.”
Eyvazov’s manager said he was unavailable for comment on Friday.
The decision by Blue, who has become a favorite at the Met Opera in recent seasons and who appeared this summer at the Paris Opera in Gounod’s “Faust,” was praised by many fellow singers and American opera executives.
The revival of “Aida” in Verona is among Netrebko’s first staged opera engagements since her return to performing in late April as she tried to repair her career after being shunned in the United States and parts of Europe for her ties to Putin.