The director who left a Calgary Opera production of South Pacific over a casting issue says he quit because it was his understanding that a white performer had been selected to play an Asian character – and he disputes the company's version of events. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, set on a Polynesian island, deals with the issue of race. Three people – the director, a designer and a cast member – have quit the production over that same issue.
Director Mark Bellamy had initially declined to speak with The Globe and Mail about this – saying only that he left the production over creative differences. But he has decided to speak out after reading comments about the dispute made by Bob McPhee to The Globe.
McPhee – who recently retired as CEO and general manager of the company and is now a special adviser – had said that he felt Bellamy left the production "prematurely," while the company was still looking for a race-appropriate performer to play the role. McPhee said a white performer was on hold, not contracted, for the role and that the search was still under way.
But an e-mail exchange between Bellamy and the interim artistic director appear to indicate that a selection had been made. The Globe found that the agency that represents the white singer had included the role on her Web page.
Bellamy, a Calgary-based theatre artist, was uncomfortable with this. In the hit musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1949, Bloody Mary is supposed to be from Tonkin, now a region of Vietnam. Bellamy believes strongly that the character should not be played by a white performer.
"The short answer is it's 2017," he says, when asked why he left the production.
"First and foremost, the show is about racism. When Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the show … it was to create a conversation about intolerance and how we are taught to hate, we are taught to not accept people because of the colour of their skin or the shape of their eyes. And Bloody Mary is one of the characters that carries one of those major story arcs forward through the piece," he says.
"The intention of the creators of this piece was to have this dialogue and I felt it would be disingenuous to have that dialogue when you've got a white performer portraying a character of Asian descent. … I think for the story to be told properly, it's important to cast it that way. And in its almost 70-year history, that role has almost exclusively been cast with an artist of colour. Very rarely is it ever done with a white performer. … And I think in this day and age, that's a practice that can't work in a show and a situation like this."
Bellamy says the discussions he had with the company "seemed clearly to indicate" that the company had decided to go forward with the white artist and that no further search would be made.
"It was my impression that that was definitely the only consideration that they had on their plates at the time when we sort of came to an impasse."
He says he relayed his concerns to interim artistic director Taras Kulish.
"One of the things I said was as a director I'm not going to be comfortable walking into this room every day and having to deal with this casting [decision] I don't agree with and I don't know how I would possibly function. I wouldn't function well. I wouldn't be a very good director at that point," he says.
In response, an e-mail from Kulish reads, in part: "I know you're not going to like that decision, however I feel we did our due diligence in trying to find an Asian person to sing the role, however none of the options were vocally appropriate. For the opera world, the quality of voice is of utmost importance."
Bellamy said Kulish asked him to think about it for 24 hours and the next day asked Bellamy whether he had reconsidered.
"There wasn't an offer to continue the conversation," says Bellamy. "I, in an e-mail, said I was willing to look at other options but that didn't seem to go anywhere. It certainly felt to me at the time that that was the choice they were making. If they did have other options at that time, those options were not expressed to me."
In response to a Globe request to speak with Kulish, Calgary Opera sent a statement from board chair Michael Brown that states that the role was put on hold, but not contracted, to a mezzo-soprano who is Caucasian. Since then, Calgary Opera has been searching for an Asian mezzo-soprano, it reads.
"Calgary Opera has been searching for a person of ethnic background to fulfill the role, and will soon be casting an appropriate Bloody Mary," says Brown in the statement. "Every effort is being made to present this socially important production of South Pacific, and we intend to do the production justice in all aspects."
Meanwhile, Dean Artists Management, which represents mezzo-soprano Megan Latham, had included the role on her Web page. "Ms. Latham's 2016/17 season … continues with Bloody Mary in South Pacific for Calgary Opera."
When contacted by The Globe on Tuesday, agency president and CEO Alison Pybus said that Latham had not been contracted to play the role. The sentence was subsequently removed from the site.
Bellamy says after his 24 hours, he replied to Kulish by e-mail, writing that his decision stood (he would not divulge the name of the singer to The Globe).
"I simply cannot support the decision to cast someone Caucasian in that role. If you are still willing to explore other options I would be willing to continue that discussion, but if you are committed to [the white performer] then I must respectfully step away from this project," he wrote.
The response he received from Kulish did not suggest that the company was still looking for an artist to play the role: "Ok. I wish you all the best!"
Glynis Leyshon was subsequently hired to direct the production.
Calgary Opera told The Globe that its statement would be its only response. It concludes with this paragraph, attributed to Brown: "The original role was written for a Tonkinese female, and debuted with a mezzo-soprano African-American in the role. In Canada and the opera world, this combination is hard to come by, but we are ardently working on and committed to finding the voice and attributes that best suit the role. This leads us to the question – do now all roles, a significantly small pool of opera professionals from which we already have to choose from, become only available to those with the original ethnicity in mind? This opens up a whole series of debates about casting, and one that Calgary Opera Board takes seriously."
Bellamy says the discussions were always respectful and at no point was there any unpleasantness. A subsequent meeting with Brown on Wednesday was "excellent" Bellamy says, and he says the company is actively trying to find an appropriate artist. Bellamy says he wishes the production, planned for this summer's Opera in the Village festival, no ill will. But he believes it's important to have this discussion.
"This is an issue that in the world of theatre we are dealing with now on a very serious and constant basis, and I think it's a place where some of the other arts disciplines need to try and catch up a little bit. And I think if this is a catalyst for that, then that's great."