So what’s with the Othello / Joker posters?

While I am involved with this as a volunteer the following is all my own conjecture, opinion and so on, you know the drill, use your brain, blah, etc…

This last few weeks I’ve been involved in rehearsals for Birmingham Opera‘s production of Othello. It opens on Saturday 5th so the publicity is in full flow. The poster looks like this, or a variation thereof.


Which, if you’re sufficiently up to date with popular culture, might remind you of this.


Which is Heath Ledger as The Joker in the recent Batman film The Dark Knight. In case you weren’t aware.

No, its not the same photo. Look closely. The Othello one has extremely similar makeup but underneath is a black man.

So far, so pop-culture-reference and not very interesting. So have a look at this:


That’s This Time cover featuring President Obama of the United States photoshopped in the style of Heath Ledger playing The Joker in The Dark Knight. It was done by a student for a laugh (when the film came out there was a wave of people Joker-ifying faces like this) and shared on Flickr – just another piece of flotsam in the ocean of stuff that is the Internet.

But then someone, and no-one knows who or why, took the image and turned it into this:


The reason the image looks slightly analogue, like a painting, is because they didn’t post it online – it was posted offline all over LA.


The image has since been taken up by anti-Obama blogs and sites and loads of right-wing blogs have this in their sidebar. (If you’re keeping score that’s a jpeg of a photo of a print out of a photoshop of a photoshop of a magazine cover.)

The thing is, while the original Time Magazine cover was done for an apolitical laugh and we don’t know the reasoning behind the Socialism posters the subsequent adoption by the US Right of the image is quite blatant. It’s become an icon for the President being of questionable trustworthiness. And, of course, it’s an image of a black man in white makeup. Which given the way America has it’s panties in a right old twist over race is fascinating. But what does it have to do with the Othello opera taking place in Birmingham UK next month?

ronald_samm_othelloHere’s the thing. Until this performance in Birmingham, with Ronald Samm (right) taking the lead, there has never been a production of Verdi’s Othello opera by a professional company in the UK where Othello has been played by a black man. This is because the role is incredibly hard and there just aren’t that many tenors who can do it. And when it is performed quite often the lead will play in black makeup, even now.

Which on the one hand is, well, fair enough and on the other is fucking gob-smacking.

Add into this the themes underlying Othello of a black man attempting to pass in a white society (caveat – I know next to bugger all about the underlying themes of Othello) and you’ve got some nice meaty issues to get your teeth into. Graham Vick, the director of this production of Othello, has every intention of getting his teeth into them.

Hence, if you will, the poster.

Othello the Opera opens in Birmingham on December 5th and runs for seven performances until the 19th. You can buy tickets from Ticketweb or by phoning 08444 77 1000.

I’m in the singing chorus and have been taking photos from behind the scenes (no spoilers):

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9 Responses to So what’s with the Othello / Joker posters?

  1. Matt Murtagh says:

    The fact that Othello has never been played by a black man in English Opera is astonishing, and people wonder why there’s such a disconnect between opera and the vast amount of people in the country.

    I remember seeing a production of the play ten years ago where the entire cast were black apart from Othello, a great thought provoking piece. It’s great that Birmingham Opera is doing its bit to drag opera into the twentieth century, if not the twenty first.

  2. Tim Ellis says:

    Not being a follower of Opera, I hadn’t realised this was the first Black Othello either. Which makes it all the more remarkable that (at least on the evidence of Artsfest) that Iago is also being played by a black singer… I’m not sure if this is a deliberate attempt to make a point (as in the “colour reversal” production Matt mentions above), or a sign that Birmingham Opera were so determined to get a top black tenor to perform the role that they ended up with two singers signed up for the production.

  3. Dave Harte says:

    “This is because the role is incredibly hard and there just aren’t that many tenors who can do it.”

    Actually The Times article suggests there is a certain amount of institutional racism in Opera rather than it simply being a case of a lack of black tenors good enough (football coaches have said the same thing about British Asian players for years to excuse their lack of progression to the premiership).

    I like your analysis of the poster. Actually the pop culture reference is important to note as one of the great things Birmingham Opera Company do is try to appeal outside of the core opera-going demographic and the reference to The Dark Knight would be part of that strategy. The poster makes meaning at many other levels of course but at the ‘selling tickets’ understanding the reference is enough to flag you up as a potential punter.

    “I know next to bugger all about the underlying themes of Othello” – really? I don’t believe you. It’s a great play. Go watch the cartoon version.

  4. Pete Ashton says:

    @Dave Yes, the pop culture thing is important but it can also come over as a bit lazy, especially when adverts incessantly mine the zeitgeist for “cool” and “edgy” stuff, invariably missing the point completely.

    I did check with Jean at BOC that they knew about the Obama thing but the fact that I needed to check says a lot about how this sort of branding usually comes about without much deep thought. IMHO.

    I’m pretty terrible with Shakespeare. Am watching the film now…

  5. Tony Bovaird says:

    Great analysis of the poster – and brilliant way of promoting what should be an amazing production. (Saw Graham Vick’s Aida at Bregenz this summer and can’t imagine a human being who wouldn’t have been blown away by it – deep and intense opera results, with soap opera flair).

    Saw Willard White (who used to sing a lot of opera with Simon Rattle at the CBSO) play Othello in the Shakespeare version at the Young Vic (with Ian McKellen as Iago) over 10 years ago. They asked him to do it, as he has the perfect nobility for the part, but could never sing the opera, cos Verdi wrote it for a tenor and not a bass, as all logic would have demanded!

  6. Alan Muscat says:

    It’s very hard to believe that this is not the original Black Knight image modified. At least the mouth and red make-up looks identical to my eye.

  7. Pete Ashton says:

    @Alan – Many things in life are hard to believe.

  8. Mitur Binesderti says:

    Othello has nothing to do with a black man trying to “pass” in white society. “Passing” means they associate with and are identified as white when they are of mixed race. Othello is not mixed he is unabashedly a Moor.

  9. Pete Ashton says:

    Mitur – my bad. Replace with “function” or just “live”.