A Blackface ‘Othello’ Shocks, and a Professor Steps Back From Class

“Of course, facing criticism for my misjudgment as a professor here is nothing like the experience that many Chinese professors faced during the Cultural Revolution,” he wrote. “But it feels uncomfortable that we live in an era where people can attempt to destroy the career and reputation of others with public denunciation. I am not too old to learn, and this mistake has taught me much.”

Professor Sheng, who joined the Michigan school in 1995 and holds the title Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor, the best rank on the college, was born in 1955 in Shanghai. As a teenager in the course of the Cultural Revolution, to keep away from being despatched to a farm to be “re-educated,” he auditioned for an formally sanctioned people music ensemble, and was despatched to Qinghai province, a distant space close to the Tibetan border, according to a university biography.

After the colleges reopened in 1976, he obtained a diploma in composition from Shanghai University, and in 1982, he moved to the United States, ultimately incomes a doctorate at Columbia University.

His work, which incorporates an acclaimed 2016 opera primarily based on the 18th-century Chinese literary traditional “Dream of the Red Chamber,” blends parts of Eastern and Western music. “When someone asks me if I consider myself a Chinese or American composer, I say, in the most humble way, ‘100 percent both,’” he mentioned earlier this year.

The Olivier movie was controversial even when it was new. Writing in The New York Times, the critic Bosley Crowther expressed shock that Olivier “plays Othello in blackface,” noting his “wig of kinky black hair,” his lips “smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red” and his exaggerated accent, which he described as paying homage to “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” (To “the sensitive American viewer,” Crowther wrote, Olivier appeared like somebody in a “minstrel show.”)

Professor Sheng, in his emailed response to questions from The Times, mentioned that the aim of the category had been to point out how Verdi had tailored Shakespeare’s play into an opera, and that he had chosen the Olivier movie just because it was “one of the most faithful to Shakespeare.” He additionally mentioned that he had not seen the make-up as an try and mock Black folks, however as a part of a lengthy custom — one which has endured in opera — which he mentioned valued the “music quality of the singers” over bodily resemblance.

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