Operetta Research Center
25 August, 2020
Here’s the curious case of Dona D. Vaughn and the state of operetta in 2020. As artistic director of opera at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Miss Vaughn got fired for putting on Lehar’s Das Land des Lächelns (1929). Actually, she got “cancelled” via an online petition that stated: “We are requesting the immediate removal of Dona D. Vaughn from the faculty at MSM. Ms. Vaughn not only produced an extremely racist and insensitive opera but also chose to cast the only black student as the butler in this production.” The aim of the petition was to “take action now”: “Now is the time to make MSM a safe institution for all of our young artists!”
A little later someone at change.org announced that Miss Vaughn had indeed been removed from her position. “Victory,” claimed Amy Kuckelman and thanked everyone who supported the petition: “The work is never over and I hope you feel strengthened by this victory,” writes Kuckelman.
You might wonder what exactly went on, what “work” wasn’t over, and who is now “strengthened” by this affair?
The whole thing went viral via an online Q&A in which Miss Vaughn discussed the Lehár show with her students. One of them asked how an arts organization “with a social conscience” such as MSM could “resurrect” a work that “plays into racial stereotypes” and “portrays Asians as one-dimensional caricatures.”
Instead of answering this and explaining “her stand” – and also discussing the fact that a Tauber role such as Prince Sou-Chong is anything but one-dimensional – Miss Vaughn says the fatal words: “Just cut him off!” Claiming that this was “a political statement” rather than a question. And she repeats the words “cut him off,” triggering all that followed.
You cannot help but wonder if Miss Vaughn’s cancellation as artistic director was solely due to “cutting off” a student in an online Q&A? Or for putting on Land des Lächelns in the first place? Or for not being willing to enter into a political debate with regard to operetta?
Wouldn’t this Lehár show be the perfect opportunity to discuss with woke students of today how ethnic and racial stereotypes have changed over the decades, what they meant back in 1929 and what they mean in 2020? But also ask how a director could deal with such issues intelligently today – instead of cancelling the entire work and shoving it into the closet, never to talk about it again (or play the music again).
And if the students are so anxious about fair treatment: does it matter to them that a senior staff member is now out of a job? No debate, just an online petition, and wham? Is it typical power play, and never mind who gets hurt along the way?
From the claim that Land des Lächelns is an “extremely racist and insensitive opera” you might already deduct that these activist students didn’t spend too much time and energy on examining the Lehar show? Or maybe ask why the Jewish author Fritz Löhner-Beda might have been attracted to a story of “outsiders” in society who are, ultimately, crippled by traditions and social expectations. In both directions, i.e. the Austrian countess Lisa cannot adapt to the ways expected of her as a wife in China, and the Chinese prince suffers from the stereotypes projected onto him as an Asian man by the Europeans (he even sings about it, multiple times). On the other hand, he is unwilling or unable to change traditions about the role of women in China when he sees that it hurts his wife Lisa who has followed him across the world for love, overcoming all racist prejudice she encountered back home in act 1. And how is the comedy duo playing (you might say: deconstructing) racial stereotypes in contrast to Lisa and her prince? What about Chinese princess Mi being a smart modern woman who plays tennis in modern dress and refuses to accept traditional gender roles in China? What about her love interest Gustl-from-Austria who is also forced to re-think his ideas of a woman’s position in his life?
Surely, there would be a lot to delve into for any student – and maybe also ask what China’s role as aggressor and conqueror was back then, or later? Or check how the Chinese saw and see the Europeans, in caricature, film, musical theater? Would it be possible to show both sides of the narrative? And are you allowed to present all of this with humor and typical operetta farcicalness? Or is that per se “racist”?
It seems these debates are only just starting, and they have reached Europe already. Not too long ago a German critic claimed that Land des Lächelns was “racist” and suggested, as a solution, that the libretto should be re-written. (What a simple minded answer to a big issue.) When Andreas Homoki put Land des Lächeln on at Opera Zurich he simply reduced the show to a semi-concert staging without much dialogue and without overly obvious “Chinese” elements. (You could also call that a rather simple minded approach.)
How would Chinese artists themselves deal with the Lehár/Löhner-Beda show? Or artists with an Asian background outside of Asia? Could we get more perspectives on this, more opinions, more suggestions for solutions, including stagings that directly address all of this? New books, new essays, new conferences? And how does all of this apply to other shows, let’s say to The Mikado or The Geisha? And what happens when People of Color do “Yellow Face” and reproduce “racial stereotypes”?
The current Hulu series The Great about Empress Catherine the Great uses ethnic casting and stereotypes in a brilliant way to comment on a historic situation and add a very contemporary perspective to a story we know did not happen like that. A Land des Lächelns production could take its cue from this and see how it works with regard to the operetta’s fantasy Austria and China, with its court settings in Vienna and Beijing.
But it seems the MSM activists are not interested in any of this in their crusade to purge the world of anything they brand as “unwanted” or “irritating” – Dona D. Vaughn seems to have been just another “victorious” casualty along the way, like the various statues that have come toppling down the world over, without starting a multi-layered debate they simply got smashed by the mob. Making the world a “safer” place?
Fritz Löhner-Beda experienced where such mob dynamics can lead to. He was “cancelled” from all playbills in Germany after 1933, and he died in a concentration camp, beaten to death.
Obviously, that’s not quite the same as the current woke activism. But what’s similar is this: the Nazis also sent their troops into theaters in so called “Wilde Maßnahmen” (wild actions) causing so much terror and angst that many people stopped putting on shows or engaging particular artists that they knew would bring on such “actions.” Is that, seriously, what the self appointed social justice warriors of today want to repeat with their cancel culture and Twitter crusades?
We have certainly entered a new level of debate. Considering that until fairly recently operetta as a genre was seen as a world of complete “harmlessness” this might come as a shock for some. Others might see this change as a good reason to leave the familiar “safe space” operetta represented behind and connect the art form which today’s big topics. In their way, the Manhattan School of Music activists have done exactly that. And what they did should not be ignored or silently overlooked – but taken seriously!