• Scaling Everest: Why Verdi’s Otello is Such a Difficult Sing

    By COC Staff

    When Verdi’s Otello premiered in 1887 it was the composer’s first new opera in 16 years.   

    Critics and audiences who might’ve expected the composer to pick up exactly where he left off a decade and a half earlier were in for a strange surprise: Verdi’s opera forged a new musical language in response to Shakespeare’s psychologically complex, multi-layered text, bringing with it unique challenges for the singers tackling the piece.

    The difficulty of staging Otello has always been about finding three leads who can credibly tackle the psychological, technical, and artistic demands of this repertoire. As The Globe and Mail noted, this is an opera that “requires an extraordinarily skilled cast of singers, and that's just what Torontonians will get.

    Russell Thomas, tenor


    Otello has been called “the Everest of tenor roles,” a “voice killer,” and the kind of part that requires “carrying a two-ton sack on your back” (in the words of Royal Opera House Music Director Antonio Pappano).

    It’s not so much the length of the role, as Russell Thomas has observed, but the tricky pacing, requiring a judicious uncoiling of emotion as the character moves from war hero to broken man. While Thomas has never sung the role in a fully staged production, the opera world has long been eying him as perhaps the next great Otello. When he previewed the role in a concert performance with the LA Phil last summer, it was a sign of things to come — and yet another reason why this cast is “truly something to get excited about” (The Globe and Mail). 

    “Thomas gave notice that he has the making of a compelling Otello, which he will perform on the opera stage for the first time next year for Canadian Opera. His tone was clarion without being imperious, more a wounded, vulnerable leader. It wasn’t Iago who poisoned him with false intimations of Desdemona’s infidelity so much as a society uncomfortable with, and condescending toward, an outsider." — Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

    Gerald Finley, bass-baritone


    In their correspondence Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, often referred to the piece as Iago — and until the curtain went up on opening night, it was an alternate working title for the opera, testifying to the central place that Shakespeare’s villain took up in Verdi’s imagination and the truly memorable music the composer conceived for him. Iago, Verdi wrote, is “the devil who sets everything in motion,” and his music thrillingly captures that disturbing quality, oscillating between surface and depth, and humour and malevolence.

    Gerald Finley — who was last with the COC for Falstaff, another Verdi-Shakespeare adaptation — has called Otello his favourite opera and the occasion of his return to Toronto has CBC Music vowing “not to miss his first staged performance as Iago at the COC.” 


    Tamara Wilson, soprano


    Desdemona is the one character in this narrative that might appear overdetermined by her purity, placed beyond the corrupting influence of jealousy or hatred and thus elevated into a totem of goodness. In this way, the risk is that Desdemona will come across as more caricature than fully realized person. But Verdi’s music actually provides intriguing opportunity to draw out a complex heroine, from the Act I-finale duet “Già nella notte densa” to her famous Willow Song and Ave Maria prayer.

    Tamara Wilson — a “veritable force of nature” (Chicago Tribune) — will take on this variety of musical textures and modes in a highly anticipated role debut that promises a “night of excellent singing” (The Globe and Mail).

    Does our cast have what it takes to climb Verdi's herculean musical hurdles? Only one way to find out...

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

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    Johannes Debus on Otello (Canadian Opera Company, 2019)

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

    Posted in 18/19


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