Racial casting controversy leads to resignations at Calgary Opera

Racial casting controversy leads to resignations at Calgary Opera

A musical that courted controversy when it premiered in 1949 because it dealt, in part, with racial tensions is now causing race-related issues in Calgary.

Three people have left Calgary Opera's production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific over the potential casting of a white actor as character from Southeast Asia.

The musical is set on a Polynesian island during the Second World War.

The character in question, Bloody Mary, is supposed to be from Tonkin, an area then part of French Indochina and now part of northern Vietnam. 

Bob McPhee, a special adviser to the Calgary Opera and former CEO of the company, told the Calgary Eyeopener race-appropriate casting is a growing issue in the world of opera.

"This is not going to go away. It's an issue that has to be dealt with, and I can't tell you what the absolute correct answer to it is," he said.

Small pool of opera artists creates challenges

McPhee said the small pool of available opera artists creates a huge challenge when it comes to appropriate casting. Calgary Opera also has a Canadian-first policy.

"We're first and foremost looking for the right person of ethnic descent, although to find a Polynesian mezzo soprano, I would count that virtually impossible. But we are looking within the Asian community and to date we have not been able to find the artist that we feel is appropriate to bring the role to life in all of the aspects," he said.

McPhee said the search for an appropriate artist is ongoing, but Mark Bellamy, the original director who left the production, said he chose to step away because he understood a white artist had been chosen for the role.

"We tried really hard, I think, on both sides, to come to a consensus, but at the end of the day the information I was given was the opera had chosen to go a certain direction that I felt I couldn't agree with, so I chose to step down," Bellamy told CBC News.

Two other colleagues — a designer and a performer — also left.

Director who resigned speaks out

"The theme of the show is actually about racism and intolerance. When Rodgers and Hammerstein chose to write South Pacific and create South Pacific, they did so to create a conversation about this issue," Bellamy said.

"So when you're doing a show that is about racism, you have to be very, very cognizant of the casting, and the message of the show and the totality of the show, and as a director that's what I look at. I don't look at just the vocal prowess, and my feeling is that Rodgers and Hammerstein created this show to spark a discussion about racism, they didn't create this show to showcase voices."

Rehearsals for the opera are set to start in July, McPhee said.

"I have resumes on my desk. There's artists of Asian descent that we're looking at right now," McPhee said.

"But if I can't fill it with the person to give the best possible performance, I believe, by the end of April, beginning of May, we're going to move forward."

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopner