Theatre cancels opera over portrayal of Asian characters

Exterior view of Hackney Empire
Image caption The opera was due to be staged on 31 October

A decision to cast non-Asian singers as Chinese characters has led to a Welsh opera being cancelled by a London venue.

Music Theatre Wales’ production of The Golden Dragon was due to end its tour with a show at the Hackney Empire.

But the Empire’s management said the opera compromised its position “as a champion of diversity”.

MTW said it acknowledged “errors of judgement” and was determined to learn from the experience.

“Featuring Caucasian singers as performers playing multiple roles, some of whom are specified as Asian characters, has caused offence,” accepted the Welsh theatre producers, in a statement.

“These errors of judgement were ours alone. Our exceptional performers are not to blame.”

Music Theatre Wales describes itself as “the UK’s leading national contemporary opera company, dedicated to bringing the finest in contemporary opera to the public”.

Described as “part-comedy, part tragedy”, The Golden Dragon by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös is based on a play by the German director Roland Schimmelpfennig.

It is set in an Asian-style restaurant and tells the tale of an illegal Chinese immigrant down on his luck.

Titles of the characters include “Chinese mother”, “Chinese aunt”, “young Asian” and “old Asian”.

Cancelling the opera in its theatre, officials at the Hackney Empire said: “The debate aroused by the non-Asian casting in The Golden Dragon compromises the Empire’s commitment and position as a champion of diversity and accessibility across the theatre industry.

“It is imperative that discussion and debate on diversity in the arts is encouraged and supported by the theatre industry if it is to positively reflect the population of the UK; and it is equally imperative that the outcomes of that debate are listened to by the theatre industry.”

Officials said the theatre had been hired by MTW, and it had played no role in casting.

The theatre management added it would welcome the opportunity to work with Music Theatre Wales in the coming months “to increase diversity within the opera world”.

‘No offence intended’

The opera company said casting non-Asian roles for parts such as these was “still widespread within the opera world”.

But it added: “We acknowledge that it is problematic, and realise that we should have reflected more deeply on the implications it had for the kind of production we made.

“Music Theatre Wales’s work is undoubtedly challenging, but we have never set out to offend.

“This is a transformative experience for the company and one from which we are determined to learn.”

The production has already been on stage at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and in Birmingham.

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It is also due to be performed in Bangor’s Pontio centre in Gwynedd on 18 October.

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