In the opera “Jonnyspiel auf” the white singer of the title role performed (partially) with black make-up at the premiere, which was expressly meant as a caricature. Nevertheless, there was a loud contradiction online – now the theater is giving in.
Again, the “blackfacing”, i.e. the make-up of a white actor in a black role character, causes trouble. This time the vortex was even foreseeable. Even before the premiere of Ernst Krenek’s rarely performed opera “Jonnyspiel auf” from 1927, according to BR information, there had been quiet self-doubt among the directors and actors as to whether the controversial “mask” would be understood by the audience. Director Peter Lund had moved the plot to the time when the opera was being written, when “blackfacing” was still common in the theaters, because back then, in the 1920s, black singers were only allowed to perform together with white people in extremely rare cases .
Actors report on “Shitstorm”
So the partially inked face of the Austrian baritone singing the title role was meant as a bitter caricature. By the way, just like the figure of an overweight Jewish theater entrepreneur, like an “expression dancer” who was very reminiscent of the role model Anita Berber and like an expressionistically gesticulating poet. But above all the “Blackfacing” caused outrage.
The group of actors told BR that the “Shitstorm” on publicly visible network channels on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter had become “out of the question”. One or the other has therefore made his appearance “private”: “That’s a shame and for the most part shouldn’t be taken seriously.” Apparently, the directing idea “did not mediate”. However, with regard to Far East operas such as “Land of Smiles”, “Madama Butterfly” or “Turandot”, participants asked themselves whether only Asian singers should be cast there: “The solution can’t be these pieces no more to play.” So far there have been no protests in the hall itself.
“The depiction obviously hurt people”
The theater announced that it would refrain from “blackfacing” in all future performances: “This historical fact was critically reviewed and condemned on stage in our production,” says a statement. “However, our depiction of the blackface, which was also developed with People of Color in the making of the production, obviously hurt people. We are sorry and that was not our intention.”
In order to “continue to enable an open view of this exciting musical contemporary document” under these circumstances, it was decided “to refrain from showing the blackface in the future”. The house “cordially invites you to visit this evening despite or because of the discussion”.
In an interview with BR, director Peter Lund agreed to the change in his production. However, he suspected that the vast majority of critics who had reported online would certainly not have seen the performance.
“Historical racism is reproduced uncritically”
A statement published online by an “association of migrant and Jewish theater workers” said: “We are angry, irritated and shocked by the pictures that reached us from the Gärtnerplatztheater a few days ago.”
It’s not about restricting “artistic freedom” or issuing bans: “Those responsible for this year’s production of ‘Jonnyspiel auf’ at the Gärtnerplatztheater are trying to evade responsibility with the argument of ‘historical accuracy’. In the original production from 1928 the main actor was also a white man in blackface, so he must be it today. In other words: racism from almost 100 years ago is reproduced uncritically. There is no reflection, no distance, no critical attitude recognizable here.”
“Long, painful process”
In fact, right-wing extremist caricatures of black people were part of the staging. The Nazis agitated against “degenerate music” and illustrated this drastically with distorted images of jazz musicians. In 1928, when the opera was first staged in the Gärtnerplatztheater, the performances were massively disrupted by Nazi groups, although hardly any jazz was heard. Rather, the Nazis were probably bothered by the black title character, a jazz violinist who turns out to be deliberately self-confident and unabashed.
Incidentally, the critics, who referred to the “purely white production team”, did not want to rule out the possibility that “Blackfacing” could one day be used again as a quotation from a humiliating theater practice: “Maybe there is somewhere, somehow, a way to put oneself under this racist mask again to empower – but this must be done in collaboration with, or precisely by, those people the mask is aimed at. This is a long, painful process that will remind us as a society of the most disgusting moments of our past and therefore not with a simple ” creative decision” is to be dismissed.”
There was already a lively debate on Twitter, for example about “censorship in Wokistan”. On the other hand, before the Gärtnerplatztheater reacted, “zero learning ability and insight” had been attested to the house.