in theater and film, we demand that asian roles be played by asian actors. why is opera different?

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here we go again: beginning on saturday, the washington national opera is staging puccini’s beloved and oft-performed “madame butterfly,” the story of a japanese woman betrayed by her american husband. the production, originally created in 2006, is designed by a japanese artist, jun kaneko, last seen in washington with his opulent “the magic flute.” but of the four sopranos appearing in the lead role on different nights, two are korean (including the promising soprano sae-kyung rim, in her u.s. debut), one is latina and one albanian — ermonela jaho, who will sing the part opening night. and on the company’s facebook page, the debate has started about the inappropriateness of non-asian singers portraying a japanese heroine. two years ago, it was verdi’s “otello” at the metropolitan opera — the company’s decision not to put dark makeup on the caucasian tenor singing the main role opened up a discussion about blackface and cultural appropriation in opera. such discussions are happening with more frequency, in part because the culture is slowly waking up to the subtle ways that systemic racism plays out. at the same time the “otello” debate was happening, th......

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