Reflections on Race at the Opera

by Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

Last month, I went to the Portland Opera’s production of Aïda, which is shown as part of its “Great Women of the Stage” series. I had wanted to see Rodelinda and Carmen again, but I underestimated how popular the opera is in Portland and had missed out on tickets for these two divas. So I got tickets to Aïda, and my friends and I anxiously squirmed in our not-so-cheap nosebleed seats, waiting for the curtain to rise.

For anyone unfamiliar with Verdi’s Aïda, it’s a story about an Ancient Egyptian-era Ethiopian slave. Aïda is Ethiopian royalty, and yet she serves Egyptian royalty. When a war breaks out for unspecified reasons between Egypt and Ethiopia, Aïda is torn because her lover is the general of the Egyptian army, and her father is the king of Ethiopia. Spoiler alert: Terribly tragic and dramatic as Verdi is, the story ends with Aïda and her lover, the Egyptian general Radames, dying together in the tomb he is sentenced to for betraying Egypt by trying to run away with Aïda.

The curtain opens and the first act begins. I notice that, even though this is set in Ancient Egypt, the costumes of two main characters (Aïda and her rival, the princess Amneris) look more like they’re from the slave-era south: Amneris wears long, full skirts with what look like small panniers. Aïda had a long-sleeved shirt tucked into a full skirt, with something draped over her left shoulder; it looked sort of like a scarf, but maybe also like something you could carry things in. Their clothes reminded me more of this:

than this: .

Then, Ramfis (the main priest) was wearing drapey, Roman-style white robes with a big gold cross. An ankh would have made sense, but even in my shitty nosebleed seats, I could see a huge gold cross on his chest. Direct replicas aren’t necessary (Egyptian slaves were often unclothed or only partially clothed), but a little more attention to detail would have been appropriate.

This irked me, but I tried to push it out of my mind and just enjoy myself. But as soon as Egypt declared war on Ethiopia, some serious trouble started. I’m not referring to the feelings of conflicted loyalty that Aïda has because she loves an Egyptian general who might kill her father (the king of Ethiopia) or her countrypeople. I’m talking about the portrayal of this war and specifically the Ethiopian people.

The Egyptians have some sort of war celebration to welcome home victorious Radames and his army. This celebration includes a stylized, choreographed depiction of the war between Egyptians and Ethiopians. This is where things get ugly. The Egyptians and Ethiopians do a sort of war dance, and immediately I notice that the majority of cast members of color are on the Ethiopian side. And that they’re all wearing loincloths. And have spears. Ohhhhhhhhhh, boy.

The Egyptian soldiers, on the other hand, are wearing white and almost fully clothed, with their “war skirts” reaching their knees. They also have helmets. And the majority of the Egyptian soldiers are white.

This is an uncool dichotomy. Posing the Ethiopians as naked, which in the western mind is often equated with sex or ferality (both of which are given negative societal connotations) and giving them spears?! While the Egyptians are fully clothed in white (a color which denotes righteousness and purity in the West)?!

Here, we also see the manifestation of an idea seen often in Western discourse about Africa. Egypt (and in this case, Ancient Egypt) is divorced from its continent: Egypt is portrayed as non-African, but rather Mediterreanean and/or Middle Eastern. While these associations aren’t fully incorrect, neither are they accurate: Egypt’s history and its people are an amalgam of African, Arab, and Mediterranean cultures. White-washing Egyptians (like assuming Cleopatra was white, for example) silences the experiences and existences of those who can’t “pass” and ignores the cultural contributions of East African cultures.

I was irritated and angry. Here, I’d come to enjoy the beautiful swells of a soprano and a tragic love story, and the Portland Opera Company sees fit to send messages about racial and cultural superiority.

But it gets worse.

One Egyptian solder and one Ethiopian soldier do a martial dance, and the Ethiopian overpowered. The Egyptian kills him, and leaves his body face-down in the middle of the stage, later dragging him away after the soldiers finish their victory dance.

The soldiers then do a terribly horrific scene in which they “rape” an Ethiopian woman (played by a woman with an offensive amount of bronzed makeup on). Four Egyptian soldiers take her arms and legs, spreading them wide, while another Egyptians soldier stylistically “dance-rapes” her. In two different and disturbing positions, complete with aggressive thrusting. Then, after tossing her around a bit, they sacrifice her, impaling her on some huge hieroglyphic stake, trumpeting their victory over this woman’s body and her country.

I looked at my two companions, jaw wide open, shocked and livid. They stared back at me with the same faces.

What the hell is this? Yes, rape is a tool of war. But is it necessary to interpret this through rape simulated by dance moves? Is it necessary to include this in a story about two people from different backgrounds who were in love despite societal restrictions? Is it necessary to take women’s narratives of wartime rape and turn them into a ceremonial footnote?

Then, the war procession brings in Ethiopian prisoners of war. I notice the women are wearing blue or white robes, with their heads covered, and everyone is wearing enough bronzer to qualify themselves a place on someone’s mantelpiece.

This reminded me of the last time I saw Aïda: the woman who played Aïda was not black (unlike the woman who played Aïda in this production), but she was heavily painted with bronzer. I don’t, however, remember a stylized rape scene; I have a hard time believing my younger self would have forgotten something that made me that angry.

Why whitewash the Egyptians, giving them white Roman-style robes? Why highlight the difference between Egyptian and Ethiopian or between master and slave by using skin color? Why paint the Ethiopians as spear-chucking, loincloth-wearing savages?

I had always loved the opera because of its tragedy. I thought that in the dramatic world of opera, everyone gets the tragic shaft. It’s unfortunate that the choreographers, costume designers, and producers see fit to shaft some more than others.