The Cultural Politics of Authenticity

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Social media is often a colossal waste of time, but you get an interesting and nuanced discussion on a subject that is both practical and principled just often enough to make it worth keeping looking at it. I’d like to reflect on one such discussion I saw amongst a group of choral directors recently, as the various contributions teased out a range of perspectives on a thorny question.

The question was whether a British choir should assume Puerto Rican accents to sing songs from West Side Story. A director had asked their choir to do so, but some of the choir’s younger members were ‘appalled’ at what they considered a racist request.

Some of the participants in the discussion supported the conductor on the grounds of musical authenticity. It would sound silly in choral British accents, they contended, and recommended reference to the original film as a guide. (Though I’d think reference to the recent remake would be a better guide from this point of view, since it uses actual Latinx actors for those roles, not white actors in brown-face as many are in the 1961 version.)

One contributor developed this point with greater depth: were they planning to bring in a Pueto Rican voice coach to help the choir with the accents, or was the plan just to do a generalised Latinx accent? If they felt the latter was sufficient, then they were effectively just rehashing caricatured stereotypes rather than actually aiming for authenticity.

Others drew a comparison with Porgy and Bess: it would almost certainly be experienced as inappropriately stereotyping for a British, largely or completely white, choir to try and replicate the dialect in those songs. Of course, DuBose Hayward wanted those songs to be sung by Black singers, so for that choir to take on the material would be going against principles of honouring the creators’ intentions from the get-go.

This in turn leads to the question of the degree of cultural authenticity present in the characters themselves. We are so used to the principle of respecting the creators’ intentions in our performance choices that we often assume that those intentions are inherently worthy of respect in terms of artistic or ethical judgements. Whilst the creators of West Side Story were exquisitely skilled in their arts, their creation is as open to critique on grounds of racism as the question that started the discussion in hand, as a very eye-opening article about the impact of the film on Puerto Ricans in America shared by another participant attested. In this light, singing the songs in a mock Puerto Rican accent is both authentic and racist, since the material itself is built on demeaning stereotypes. The person who said, ‘Do the accents or don’t do it all,’ arguably put their finger on the nub of the matter.

The one point that nobody made and which, for me, rose to the top, though, was this: if there are people amongst the choir who find this idea appalling, it’s more than likely that members of the audience will do to. You can argue all you like about artistic principles, but the kind of visceral responses described are immediate and intensely negative. Do you really want to put your audience through that? The purpose of performing music such as West Side Story is almost certainly to entertain, to offer a positive emotional and imaginative experience – so why would one persist in performing it in a way that you already know some people find deeply off-putting? Even if you don’t have a great deal of sympathy for such a response, you can recognise that it undermines the performance and, in the wider picture, the reputation of the choir to evoke it.

One of the things I find interesting about debates of musical performance practice is that, ultimately, you can’t hedge your bets. Having a debate, or writing an article, you can balance arguments on both sides, and give space to agree to disagree. But in doing a performance you actually have to decide: do I sing it like this or like that? do I sing it all? I don’t know what the choir whose question opened the discussion eventually chose to do, but having witnessed this discussion I have a lot more clarity on what I would do in their place.

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