Unlike Butterfly, no yellow face concerns for WNO at Expo Dubai 2020

A troupe of mainly British singers are off to the desert sunshine for Welsh National Opera’s collaboration with the United Arab Emirates on Al Wasl Opera, part of Expo 2020 Dubai. While in the UK and other countries producing theatres continue to be careful about ethnic casting, there are no such concerns with this production. The show is directed by former WNO chief Sir David Pountney.

The cast for the Expo 2020 Dubai’s Al Wasl Opera has a hefty Welsh contingent including Leah-Marian Jones, Wyn Pencarreg, Hugh Llewellyn, Gareth Dafydd Morris, Sion Goronwy, and from the ranks of the current cast of WNO’s Madam Butterfly, along with other UK singers and the Welsh National Opera (predominantly white) chorus and orchestra.

It is in stark contrast with WNO’s current Madam Butterfly that, to avoid any attacks of “yellow facing” , has stripped away the opera’s Japanese context. In the Dubai opera, for example, Leah-Marian Jones plays Latifa and her father is played by Wyn Pencarreg. Of course both may be white people with traditionally Arabic names but, of course, so too could many characters in operas where race is not specified apart from assumption from their name and context.

However, WNO’s recently appointed boss Aidan Lang defended the company’s involvement saying they only attempted to have ethnically diverse casting (which has been rejected as not acceptable by equality organisations complaining abut white singers playing specifically non white roles) and laying responsibiity at the door of Expo 2020..

 “Al Wasl is commissioned by Expo 2020, and as commissioners, all aspects of the production are subject to their approval, including casting. Expo did not stipulate a cast comprised of singers from the Middle East, but in accordance with our casting principles, we have endeavoured to field an ethnically diverse cast. “Al Wasl is set in three short acts, each set in a different moment in time – the past, the present and the future and also moves between the Middle East, the USA and other non-specific locations. Each act has its own storyline, centred around one or two main characters. In Act One, that character is Khalil, played by Lester Lynch. Act Two tells the story of Adnan, a Pakistani migrant worker (Tom Randle) and his daughter Eshaal (Meeta Raval). Act Three is about Mary, an American, who is played by Jurgita Adamonyte. The scene in which some chorus members have small roles takes place in the terminal of Dubai International Airport. The characters are international travellers of differing nationalities.”

While auditoriums for the current WNO season have been relatively sparse (unlike packed houses for other shows) it is unlikely there will be such problems with the well-financed UAE project, with tickets now on sale for the Expo opera that aims to celebrate thousands of years of UAE history, its achievements to date and its aspirations for the future. The tickets are on sale directly from Dubai Opera, where the show will be performed, running from 16-19 December.

Produced in collaboration with Welsh National Opera (WNO), the performance features more than 100 artists and musicians, as well as a production team of 70 professionals, to combine the best global operatic talent, celebrating Expo 2020’s theme, ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’.

Maha Gargash

Composed by Mohammed Fairouz, co-authored and written by Maha Gargash, directed by former WNO boss Sir David Pountney and conducted by Justin Brown, Al Wasl translates as ‘the connection’ in English, and is the old name for Dubai. 

Mohammed Fairouz

Justin Brown

Sir David Pountney said: “The story of Al Wasl begins in the desert, and we created a rather original way of depicting this desert in a metaphorical way. In the middle act, we are in the present, where there is a strong reference to the creation of the Burj Khalifa, and we move on into the future in the final act, where we are in pure fantasyland about what the future may or may not look like, depending on whether we make a commitment to a sustainable tomorrow.”

Najeeb Mohammed Al Ali, Executive Director, Expo 2020 Dubai Commissioner General Office, said: “Expo 2020 Dubai is offering a landmark opera that supports the UAE’s thriving arts scene, and also reflects our country’s values of tolerance and cooperation, as well as our global sense of responsibility to each other and our planet.”

Mohammed Fairouz said: “Celebrating Expo 2020’s vision of collaboration, Al Wasl Opera brings together many people from a variety of artistic backgrounds in order to create one art form – and there’s nothing more universal than opera and theatre. If people can laugh and cry together, then anything is possible between them.”

Al Wasl Opera will be presented in English, with a runtime of 120 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start from AED300 and are available from the Dubai Opera website.

WNO’s current season is a revival of a popular old production of The Barber of Seville and a production of Madam Butterfly stripped of its Japanese, imperial, racism, military context that reduces the intricate story to exploitation of women.

While Pountney’s tenure at WNO has ended his legacy remains with the company’s only summer 2022 offering a delayed series of musical takes on migration that had been scheduled for during the Covid pandemic.

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