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London theater cancels opera over race row

By ANGUS McNEICE | China Daily UK | Updated: 2017-10-16 16:44

A venue has canceled the London premier of a contemporary opera set in an East Asian restaurant after British-Chinese actors condemned the production's ensemble.

The Golden Dragon, produced by Cardiff-based touring opera company Music Theatre Wales, was scheduled to open at the Hackney Empire later this month. The venue pulled it after complaints of "yellow-face" casting.

A statement from 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 theater industry."

The statement went on to clarify that Hackney Empire solely acted as a venue and was "not involved in any part of the production or casting process".

The opera was written by Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos and is based on a script by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. Each of the five cast members performs many roles in the play, including playing Asian immigrants working in the kitchen of a takeaway restaurant.

British-Chinese actors criticized a stage production of The Golden Dragon at the Arcola Theatre in Edinburgh in 2011 for featuring no Asian actors.

Music Theatre Wales initially defended the casting in a statement released on Oct 3.

"The setting is a Pan-Asian restaurant and the singers play a variety of roles, genders and nationalities," the statement read. "Quite deliberately, there is no realism."

Two days later, the company released a second statement, saying: "We recognize that having an all-white cast playing some Asian characters has caused offence to some. There was certainly no intention to do this and we are sorry that people who have read about the opera have been of ended."

The statement added that the casting had been "rigorous and color blind" and was constrained because "the talent pool of singers able to perform material like The Golden Dragon is especially small".

Earlier this year, British-Chinese actors including Harry Potter star Katie Leung condemned the all-white casting of a London production of Howard Baker's play In the Depths of Dead Love. The play is set in China and features characters with Chinese names.

David Tse, a British-Chinese actor and founder of the London-based Chinese Arts Space, supported Hackney Empire's decision to cancel the premier.

"If you set the play in an Afro-Caribbean restaurant, or an Indian restaurant, undoubtedly you would have some actors of that cultural descent in the cast. Not to have it would be regarded as blatantly racist," he said.

British-Chinese actor Michelle Yim said the East Asian community lags behind larger minority groups in the UK in terms of integration in the entertainment industry.

"We haven't had that much direct contact with the arts in the UK, compared to the black and South Asian communities," Yim said. "This is really the beginning of the East Asian community's fight to get itself heard."

Yim founded Red Dragonfly Productions, a UK theater company that puts on versions of East Asian plays, in response to the Royal Shakespeare Company apologizing for casting only three actors of Asian heritage in a cast of 17 in an adaptation of the Chinese classical play, The Orphan of Zhao.

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