When the Opera Acts Like It's Never Seen a Black Person Before

Illustration for article titled When the Opera Acts Like It's Never Seen a Black Person Before

The man at the opera tells me I'm disgusting, but in a lot of ways, he's lucky. There is no moisture in the air. I slept the night before in braids. It's a matinee, so I'm holding a very strong day vibe: more Tracee Ellis-Ross in Black-ish than Diana Ross's 1983 Central Park performance. My hair is being tame for my hair.


On Christmas morning, my parents gave me two tickets to the Opera for the first weekend in January. "It's the orchestra, Collier," my Poppi says. "Real good seats. You're going to get to see the action up close." My eyes bulge something wild when I look down and see the ticket prices: $307.50 each. They're an aging middle class pair who don't got millions in the bank.

I take my friend Allison because I know she'll revel in the hundreds of dead animals draped over the hundreds of close-to-dead humans with me. I love the opera more for the pageantry of New York's stale, geriatric elite than I do for the ornate costumes, the larger-than-life sets.

In the theater, a man taps my shoulder. "Excuse me, dear," he says, with that almost-extinct thick New York accent. "Can ya put yah hair up? My wife has to sit on her coat in order to see past all that. And then you know of course the people sitting behind my wife won't be able to see past my wife because she has to sit on the coat."

I feel woozy. A giant fat frog crawls in my throat, then jumps like lightning straight down to my bowels. I'm on a roller coaster with a drop so high it's illegal. I can't find the words to reply to him. I only have a vision of my mom popping me real hard across my face for letting the old white man see me cry. She's a militant "do not let the white folks win" type of broad.

So I don't cry, and I don't talk. I do sheepishly pull my hair into submission.

Lights up, first intermission. I close my eyes real quick and summon that deep black woman courage that I've seen in my mom so many times. I pull my phone out, hit record, turn around and tell the old man in the calmest voice I own that I'll be taking my hair out for the remainder of the opera.


"You're disgusting," he barks.

I laugh nervously.

"No, you know what, you're really disgusting," he says again, cementing his position. "Who comes to the opera with hair sticking straight out of their head like that?" He's crossed into full-blown rant territory.


My friend Allison pleads with him. "It's her hair, sir. It's just her hair." I tell him a different version of what I've been practicing through the whole first act. "There's an army of ushers here. Someone can help you find another seat if you're unhappy with my hair." He tells at me that I'm the one who needs to find another seat. His wife chimes in, saying, "You used to be nice but now you're mean." Clearly, I tell her, we don't really know each other.


Allison tugs at me. We take our coats, find the floor manager, and tell him what happened.

He listens to me, apologizes and moves us.

Lights up, second intermission.

I go back to find the floor manager but apparently he's dealing with a guy who's just had a heart attack. (For a minute, I think about how many heart attacks have probably occurred in this building, just in the last year.) This other manager is less hospitable: "We deal with this sort of thing all the time. What do you want me to do?"


I want the dude to get yelled at, I tell him.

"I'm sure he's got a very different version of the story," says the floor manager.


"I recorded it so I have proof," I say. "I'm sure the Metropolitan Opera doesn't condone this sort of behavior. I'm sure you wouldn't want this sort of thing to get out."

He doesn't flinch, and tells me to go to the police if I want to take this any further. Dick.


I run right into the old white man on the way back to my new seat and he apologizes for losing his temper like he's apologizing for stepping on my big toe: perfunctory and hollow.

The opera we saw was about a valiant Egyptian war hero who's heavy into an Ethiopian slave woman named Aida. Unfortunately, Aida belongs to the exact Egyptian Princess who is due to marry the Egyptian valiant war hero. Consequently, shit is a real mess for both Aida (who loves the Egyptian valiant war hero) and for the Egyptian valiant war hero, who (on the low) loves Aida back. But shit is objectively worse for Aida than it is for anyone else in this whole tragedy because she's a slave and being a slave is worse than anything—and also because her country, Ethiopia, is being conquered by the man she loves.


From what I can tell there's one black opera singer in the whole cast. He's the King of Egypt and his role is tiny. It's ancient Egypt so everyone is supposed to be black, but in this production of Aida all the principals are white. This is okay, I guess, because it's the opera. We are supposed to use our imagination.

But if we are supposed to use our imagination, then what I saw in the second act doesn't make a lick of sense. There was a scene where the valiant hero shows off his war spoils to the royal court. First comes this big-ass wagon full of black bodies lying on top of one another. Whether they're dead or sleeping, Allison—who shoots me a crazy look—and I don't know.


The wagon disappears, and out comes a group of about 12 "Ethiopian" prisoners. The first row of prisoners are these four fit black men in loincloths. Behind them are a couple of black women with dreadlocks. Behind the black women is the best joke of all: a white-as-the-driven-snow white woman with dreadlocks. And look, I can't say with full confidence that she was wearing a dreadlocks wig—but she was wearing a dreadlocks wig. And these prisoners never sing. They just stand there.

The opera is supposed to take place in Egypt, but everyone in the cast is white except for the one scene where there are black people, but they're only there for a minute and they're dead, sleeping, or prisoners in loin cloths with dreadlocks.


You're really disgusting, he said.

The opera acting like it never saw a black person before.

Collier Meyerson is a writer and producer living in Brooklyn.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.



If this man complains about your hair, I'd love to hear what he says about the ridiculous middle age white lady bouffant updos you see in Texas. (Probably nothing, because he's a racist asshole.)