Feature | An open letter to Music Theatre Wales

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by Paulina Brahm

A letter to Music Theatre Wales:

I’d also like to engage The British Council and additionally Birmingham Repertory and
Hackney Empire in my letter, as both Birmingham Repertory and Hackney Empire are Arts Council-funded.

I’m Paulina Brahm; an Asian-American actress, singer, and voiceover artist. I trained in
voice and acting in New York City; acting under much-missed Broadway director Gene
Frankel and voice under leading spinto soprano Dolores Mari of the New York City Opera. I am a full lyric soprano with coloratura flexibility and I now live, work and sing in the UK.

I have been a company member of the Amato Opera Theater for seven seasons performing their regular season, then after switching to theater, I became a company member of Theater for the New City for four seasons as a leading actress before relocating to the UK.

As an opera singer that means over 300 paid performances in both chorus and solo
capacities for a paying audience in an established house. And in those over 300 performances I have heard and performed with colleagues of all ethnicities gracing the operatic stage. Opera is all-inclusive and diverse. Roles are assigned according to ‘Fach’, or voice type.

Besides this, I am a rabid opera fan and travel all over the world to attend productions.
And again, I have seen and heard singers of all ethnicities grace the operatic stage the
world over.

In entirely the wrong way I learned of the possibility of The Golden Dragon. It ticked all
my boxes: new, exciting, and telling of stories I could help sing, act, and bring to life.
I could not be more wrong.

Music Theatre Wales made sure of that. In backpedaling, yet bewilderingly justifying
statements, they steadfastly held true to their ‘vision’ of an all-Caucasian cast portraying
the struggles of those in the world of The Golden Dragon. Set in a Pan-Asian takeaway
with the main character being an illegal Chinese immigrant – and featuring characters such as ‘Chinese Mother’ ‘Young Asian’ ‘Old Asian’ ‘Chinese Father’ ‘Chinese Aunt’ ‘Chinese Uncle’ it is not difficult to imagine the added pathos and gravitas a Pan-Asian singer could bring to the role.

I speak (and write) from experience. As a full lyric soprano with coloratura abilities, I was offered the role of Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. I knew my Cio-Cio- san would be Caucasian. Maestro Amato saw the doubt in my eyes and said, “Don’t worry! You are perfect. We’ll put you in a blonde wig.” Besides Kate being a mezzo role (not my Fach) I did understand Maestro meant I had the compassion as a singing actress for a role that required the audience be sympathetic to both women. I declined, as I saw how powerful it was, having seen ‘Butterfly’ a dozen times before I was a company member, to see Kate as a Caucasian in Western dress arriving to take Dolore away from Butterfly even before she sings her first note. Kate’s entrance in Butterfly’s world is shocking, and race is a part of that. No blonde wig could bolster that illusion.

Race is also a huge part of Aida. I have been part of over 20 performances of Aida as
chorus and The High Priestess and have seen numerous pale Aidas and Amonasros arrive early to get blacked up as authentically as possible in full body makeup and wigs to portray the Ethiopian princess and her father.

MTW have handily chosen to ignore these concerns. As a singer of East Asian heritage, I
have been contacted by the offices of Cameron Mackintosh and the National Theatre when they very sensitively wanted singers of East Asian heritage for Miss Saigon and Here Lies Love. Had MTW really wished, they could have contacted me as I am a member of Spotlight – exactly how Mr. Mackintosh’s offices and the National Theatre contacted me. (Sadly, due to visa restrictions and prior commitments at the time – I could not commit to either Saigon nor Here Lies Love.)

It has been posited that Mr. Eötvös’ work is “difficult” and “challenging”. I welcome those
words. While I am grateful to be raised on a diet of Verdi/Puccini/Mozart, I love Berg,
Schönberg and the lesser-known Weill operas such as ‘Das Berliner Requiem’. In fact,
many vocal teachers, vocal coaches, and conductors have told me, “You find the difficult
easy!”

This was a missed opportunity on many levels. Creating a role in opera is a dream come true; a great honor and responsibility. The Golden Dragon was a chance for Peter Eötvös and MTW to positively benefit from sensible and sensitive casting. Many BAME opera singers could have made operatic history. Particularly in new works, when a role resonates with a singer on so many levels – vocally and in subject matter – this is a testing ground. I simply cannot believe Mr. Eötvös was tone deaf – nay, silent – on the obvious implications of his completely Caucasian cast.

This casting choice informs the audience, “There were no singers of Chinese or East Asian appearance who could have created these roles.” This is a HUGE myth and extremely misleading.

In closing, I wish to add that, particularly in the recent wake of the Print Room’s curious
stance on ancient Chinese culture with In the Depths of Dead Love I am deeply offended
by the utter arrogance and cultural insensitivity of the all-Caucasian casting of The Golden Dragon and the absurdist defensi-babble of “deliberately avoiding realism”. Well, I’ve played women, girls, boys, spirits, a bird-woman, a nun, a Countess, a High Priestess, and on two occasions, cats. However, when it comes to telling a story when race is crucial to the story, please do consider inclusivity. There is diverse talent out there.

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4 thoughts on “Feature | An open letter to Music Theatre Wales

  1. Dan Selakovich says:

    I see that absurdity has reached its breaking point. An all white cast? Seriously? Before I traveled the world, I thought America was one of the most racist countries around. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t tell you how comfortable Brits are talking to strangers about the blacks, the Pakistanis, and yes, the Asians, ruining their country. Racism is so ingrained that even artists don’t see a problem in casting an Asian play with an all white cast. And let’s keep in mind, this is a play. Traditionally where the art form is expanded, not reduced to institutionalized racism. I wonder if the producers even gave the casting of Asians a side-ways glance.

    Like

  2. P, Hodgson says:

    Looking for alleged “racism” where none exists is counter-productive. Thanks to you and your mates you have led the Hackney Empre to unilaterally cancel a show they were promoting. You have caused disappointment to many hundreds of operagoers who had booked to see the show. The lesson which Music Theatre Wales will have learned is NEVER to dream of putting on a show at Hackney Empire. And I hope that other opera companies boycott Hackney until they get a new management. I suppose you will complain to the Royal Opera and ENO next time they employ a mainly white cast to sing Turandot. And woe betide a non-Japanese Madama Butterfly or Mikado.

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    • Colin David Reese says:

      Wow! Just WOW!
      I think, firstly that the Hackney Empire has the right to cancel a show if it deems it inappropriate in any way.
      “Looking for racism where none exists … ” Only somebody white privileged could ever make such an observation in this context. Racism exists in many forms and sometimes it is inadvertent but that does not diminish its effect or how people are affected.
      I am sure that MTW had no racist intentions but that does not alter the fact that the show they put up was not appropriate in today’s world. And I, for one, feel they should have been aware of that.
      Had the cast been truly multicultural and “colour blind”, the issue would not have arisen. It wasn’t; and worse – the director tried to justify his choice by a rather fatuous excuse.
      Your snide and frankly abusive remarks are unworthy of the debate.

      Like

  3. Christopher Rollason says:

    As I understand it from various reviews, there was a cast of five playing multiple roles (25 I think in total). Some played the opposite gender. Some of the roles were of Asians, some were not (e.g. the 2 air-hostesses). The casting was thus not one-to-one between actor/singer and character. Some people’s reactions do not reflect the facts of the casting as a whole: it was not a case of 25 white artists playing 25 Asian roles.

    The question is, were any Asian singers auditioned? Did MTW take reasonable steps to publicise the auditions such that Asians would be likely to apply? They haven’t made that clear, AFAIK: could someone not have posed the question with them in the interests of a fair defence?

    If no Asians auditioned, was it MTW’s fault and would that be a reason for pulling the show or not?

    Like

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