• Director's Notes: Otello

    By David Alden

    Verdi's Otello is one of the absolute pinnacles of the art form – a miraculous creation. The creative journey the composer travelled in his long career is astounding. From his earlier colourful and sometimes crude works, full of inspired music and drama but still very much in the mould of Rossini and Donizetti, to his penultimate masterpiece – sophisticated, daring and utterly free of all convention, his growth and development is staggering. 

    The opera demands everything from its performers: singers gifted with voices of power and beauty who are capable of delicate word painting and acting of great range and intensity; an orchestra at the very top of its game, capable of tremendous symphonic power as well as solos and chamber music of extreme delicacy; and a chorus that can rise to the challenge of one of the composer's most demanding scores. Plus, a production that can boldly confront Verdi's and Boito's version of one of Shakespeare's most troubling plays and present it to a modern audience in all its complexity and range. 

    Designer Jon Morrell and I have tried to create a simple, almost abstract space to evoke the island of Cyprus – war-torn and caught between the conquering Muslim forces in the past and the current occupying Venetian (Christian) army. The opera is a slimmed-down and focused version of Shakespeare's more complicated drama, a harsh existential dance of love and jealousy essentially between three people – rough walls, a large empty arena and intense contrasts of darkness and light are all you really need as a playing space. The production is (ambiguously) set around the period of the opera's composition, the late-19th century.

    The age-old issue of racism is at the dark heart of Shakespeare's play. The wealthy and powerful Venetian State relies on the brilliant Moorish warrior Othello (once a slave, now a general) to lead its armies and protect it from the threat of Muslim invasion. Publicly, they need him and honour him – but privately there is ugly racist resentment which explodes when Othello's secret marriage to Desdemona is discovered. It is very possible that the ease with which Iago manipulates and infects Othello with murderous jealousy has much to do with the internalized conflict and insecurity of a black man in an aggressively white society. 

    In Verdi's and Boito's adaption of the text for the opera, the racism is more latent and submerged. Shakespeare's first act, where Desdemona's father publicly insults Othello with vile rhetoric, is cut completely – what remains are a few ugly asides from Iago and a moment (hidden within a quartet) where Otello muses on his possible misunderstanding of some subtleties in the alien white world around him. But the insidious poison of racism still lurks in the DNA of the opera – the courage of the warrior Otello and his beloved Desdemona in defying the society around them and daring to love and marry, and the tragedy of how this love can so easily be perverted and destroyed, resounds through the ages and continues to move us and challenge us. 

    David Alden
    Director, Otello

    Verdi's Otello is on stage from April 27 to May 21, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. 

    Production generously underwritten in part by
    Howard & Sarah D. Solomon Foundation in honour of Gerard Mortier

    Production Sponsor

    Thank you for joining us for Giuseppe Verdi's Otello.

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    Russell Thomas on Diversity, Activism, and Blackface in Opera (Canadian Opera Company, 2019)

    Hear it First: Tamara Wilson's Desdemona (Canadian Opera Company, 2019)

    Johannes Debus on Otello
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    Primer: Verdi's Otello (Canadian Opera Company, 2019)

    Scaling Everest: Why Verdi’s Otello is Such a Difficult Sing (Canadian Opera Company, 2019)

    Posted in 18/19

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