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Calgary Opera’s production of South Pacific is based on a 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which also spurred a 1958 film of the same name.HANDOUT

Calgary Opera's production of South Pacific, planned for this summer, is facing upheaval over the same issue at the core of the musical: race. A dispute over the casting of a Tonkinese character has seen the director, a designer and a performer quit the production. The company says the director's departure was premature as the role has not been definitively cast – although a white artist is on hold for the role while Calgary Opera continues its search for a race-appropriate fit.

The original director, Mark Bellamy, left the production over the issue, according to Bob McPhee, who retired as general director and chief executive officer from Calgary Opera last month for health reasons and is now special adviser to the company.

"We want a strong vocal, physical performance and yes, we want it to be someone of appropriate ethnicity, but if we can't achieve that, it's not from a lack of effort. And then [Bellamy] said, 'Well, I can't agree with that,' and he said, 'I want to pull [out],'" McPhee says.

"He was premature, I feel," he adds. "I very much understood his opinion and we are trying to do the exact thing he wants. But he said, 'I can't move forward.'"

Bellamy declined to be interviewed for this story, but told The Globe and Mail that he left the production due to creative differences. He has been replaced by opera and theatre director Glynis Leyshon – a Canadian theatre veteran who is the former artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, and once ran the Banff Centre's opera as theatre program.

There is a growing awareness of the importance of diversity in theatre – both in the works presented and the performers onstage. The six plays that make up Toronto's Factory Theatre 2016-17 season were all written by people of colour. In Edmonton, a recent community-theatre production of Othello was cancelled after a white woman was cast in the eponymous role.

"It's an enormously sensitive topic, especially in the theatre world, and it is bleeding into the opera world," McPhee says. "So it's not from a lack of wanting to be sensitive to the issue. I understand. But is there repertoire we stop doing if we can't accomplish that goal? I'm not answering that question because I really don't know."

He agrees that the issue is even more pronounced with South Pacific, given the subject matter of the work.

The 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, set on a Polynesian island, presents two relationships that are threatened by ingrained racism. Ensign Nellie Forbush, a navy nurse, is in love with Emile, a French plantation owner. They're both white, but his deceased wife was Polynesian, so his children are mixed race – and Nellie's carefully taught racism prevents her from staying in the relationship. She decides to wash that man right out of her hair.

The issue in Calgary revolves around the role of Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman who hopes to connect her daughter Liat with a U.S. Marine lieutenant – but he's also got deep-seated issues of race to deal with.

McPhee says the company is about to cast an Asian singer as Liat and ethnic-appropriate performers in the roles of Emile's children.

But casting the lead role of Bloody Mary has proven more difficult for the company, which has a Canadian-first policy, according to McPhee.

"Technically they're Tonkinese or Polynesian; that's going to be impossible within the Canadian market, I believe. If we find one, fabulous. But [barring] that, we're looking for someone of Asian descent," says McPhee, who was looking at resumés this week.

He says there was one artist of Asian descent that had been considered for the role, but she was a soprano and this is a mezzo role with a significant aria. So the white performer remains on hold, although she has not been contracted.

"It's not like days gone by that you're going to do makeup and things. Thank God the days of Al Jolson are gone – and that is totally inappropriate," McPhee says.

"There will be a point when we have to call it and say that's it; we've got to go with this artist. But we're not there yet. And our commitment to the new director is we're continuing the search but we might have to call it. Ultimately we want the best performance."

That point is late April to middle of May; rehearsals are to begin in July. The production is to be staged in August as part of the company's Opera in the Village festival.

In addition to Bellamy's departure, designer Narda McCarroll also left the production, along with a character performer in the sailors chorus. When contacted by The Globe, McCarroll expressed hope that the race issue could be rectified.

McPhee expressed that same hope. "We're working towards it," he says. "We haven't given up."

He says part of the challenge is that the availability of diverse performers has not yet caught up to the demand.

"Even more so in the operatic world than the theatrical world," he says. "It is catching up … but generally in opera – being a Western European traditional art form – we're behind theatre. I do think that will change over the next decade or two and it's changing now. But our resources to do what is desired creates great limitations. That's an industry thing. That's not a Calgary Opera thing."

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