Otello, a Venetian general of Moorish descent (tenor––the highest male voice) Desdemona, a Venetian noblewoman and Otello’s wife (soprano—the highest female voice) Iago, an officer in Otello’s army (baritone—a middle-range male voice) Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s handmaid (mezzo-soprano—a middle-range female voice) Cassio, a captain in Otello’s army (tenor) Roderigo, a Venetian (tenor) A Quick Heads-up!
You’re about to see some video clips from prior productions of this opera that feature white singers in the role of Otello, who is actually a Moor (a man with Arab or African heritage). Sometimes these singers will wear makeup to help indicate a darker skin tone. This performance practice of using makeup to darken a performer’s skin (known as “blackface”) is part of an ongoing debate in the opera world regarding how to cast characters of color in a way that honors their respective stories as well as the complicated history of skin-altering makeup.
[More on this later.] So, What’s Going On?
Loyal subjects of the island of Cyprus—now under Venetian control––watch in horror as a violent storm threatens to sink a ship bearing their newly-appointed ruler and defender: Otello (oh-TEL-loh), a Venetian general.
Miraculously, Otello makes it to shore, declaring victory against a Turkish enemy. Everyone rejoices.
Take a listen…
A full-sized operatic chorus sings of the fate of Otello’s ship. Listen for the cymbal crashes and timpani rolls signifying the storm, and for the trumpet fanfare that accompanies Otello’s entrance (even his voice sounds like a trumpet, no?).
Everyone rejoices, that is, except Iago (EYAH-goh), a Venetian officer with a massive grudge against Otello. The reason? The general has achieved fame and glory while Iago still remains a lower-ranking soldier, despite being just as qualified as Cassio (KASS-eyoh), Otello’s captain. Driven by his resentment and by a prejudiced hatred for Otello’s Moorish heritage, Iago decides to stir up trouble for the general and his beautiful new bride, Desdemona (dez-DEH-moh-nah).
Iago’s evil scheme takes shape as he chats with Roderigo (roh-dehr-EE-goh), another Venetian who’s jealous of Otello. Turns out Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, and wants Iago’s help in getting Otello out of the picture. Seeing a chance to ruin both Otello
and Cassio, Iago insinuates Captain Cassio is also in love with Desdemona, and suggests Roderigo get Cassio drunk in order to jumpstart a riot that will get Cassio demoted.
The plan works: Iago keeps the wine flowing long enough for Cassio to get completely intoxicated. Roderigo then provokes Cassio into a fist fight, and an innocent Cypriot governor gets caught in the middle. Roderigo raises the city alarm, and the commotion wakes both Desdemona and Otello, who’s so shocked at Cassio’s behavior, he fires him on the spot (sorry, buddy).
Take a listen…
The crowd disperses, and Otello and Desdemona celebrate being reunited after Otello’s treacherous battle with the Turks. Listen for the dreamy wind and string music that’s played when Otello asks Desdemona for “un bacio” (“a kiss”).
VIDEO Act 2
Iago counsels Cassio to plead with Desdemona to help get him reinstated. As Cassio appeals to Desdemona, Otello walks in, and Iago slyly hints that Desdemona and Cassio appear to be a little
too affectionate ( really subtle, Iago). When Desdemona then approaches Otello to beg forgiveness for Cassio, Otello’s suspicion grows and he becomes visibly agitated. Knowing Otello suffers from epilepsy, Desdemona tries to calm him by wiping his brow with a handkerchief he’s given her, but he ignores this and pushes her away. Emilia (eh-MEE-lyah), Desdemona’s handmaid and Iago’s wife, sees the handkerchief fall to the ground and picks it up. Iago notices this and forces her to give it to him.
Once alone with Otello, Iago fuels the general’s jealousy with made-up stories about Cassio crying out Desdemona’s name in his sleep. Even more devious? Iago claims to have seen Cassio with the very handkerchief Otello once gave Desdemona (…
ouch). Now almost entirely convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, Otello swears revenge. Take a listen…
Otello vows bloody vengeance against Desdemona, and Iago promises to be his accomplice. Listen for how the voices occasionally blend in melodic (and rhythmic) harmony, but sometimes transition into their own separate tunes, an indication Otello and Iago actually have different endgames in mind.
VIDEO Act 3
As Venetian ambassadors dock in the Cypriot harbor, Otello and Iago plot to gather proof of Desdemona and Cassio’s “affair.” Desdemona tries once again to get a pardon for Cassio, which, in Otello’s mind, reinforces Iago’s claims. Otello asks Desdemona to produce the handkerchief he gave her and, when she can’t (thanks to Iago’s trickery), Otello violently accuses his wife of being unfaithful.
Determined to drive Otello completely mad, Iago next invites him to eavesdrop on Cassio. The general conceals himself and listens as Iago gets Cassio talking about his
real love, Bianca. Unable to hear the entire conversation, Otello assumes Cassio is talking about Desdemona. And when Cassio shows Iago a handkerchief that mysteriously appeared in his house (again: thanks, Iago), Otello resolves to kill Desdemona for her “sins.” Still, the general puts on a brave face and prepares to greet the Venetian ambassadors.
Photo: Otello receives news from Venice and tries to use it to further his revenge. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Things unravel pretty quickly, though, when, thanks to news brought by the ambassadors, Otello announces he’s being called back to Venice with his wife and that Cassio will take his place as military governor of Cyprus. Otello hopes this declaration will spark a reaction from the secret “lovers,” but…no dice. When all Desdemona can do is weep in confusion, Otello humiliates her by commanding she kneel before the crowd and cry for her lost “love,” Cassio.
Seizing his opportunity to make the situation even worse (he’s nothing if not relentless), Iago pulls Roderigo aside, saying that if something unfortunate happened to Cassio, Otello and Desdemona would be forced to stay, and Roderigo could keep Desdemona nearby. Meanwhile, Otello curses Desdemona and collapses in an epileptic fit brought on by jealous rage.
Told by Otello to go to bed and wait, Desdemona prepares for sleep. Anxious, she sings a haunting song from her childhood and says a prayer to the Virgin Mary for protection.
Take a listen…
Desdemona sings a song about a heartbroken woman who cries beneath a willow tree. Listen for the fluttering woodwind instruments used to evoke the sounds of wind and water, especially the plaintive English horn (cousin to the oboe) that echoes Desdemona’s mournful melody.
Otello arrives, confronting Desdemona one last time with accusations of an affair. But can she finally convince him of her innocence? Will the truth of her faithfulness outweigh Iago’s lies? And will Iago’s treachery finally be brought to light?
Good to Know
Otello, the operatic version of Shakespeare’s tragic hero Othello, is a character with a Moorish background whose skin is written as noticeably darker than the Venetians and Cypriots who surround him. The racial difference between Otello and his wife, subordinates, and subjects plays a crucial role in his feelings of isolation, marginalization, and suspicion––all of which arguably contribute to his willingness to believe Iago’s lies.
Yet, although Otello’s character is a person of color, opera producers of today tend to cast a singer first and foremost according to the specific sound of their voice rather than their racial similarity to a character. At the same time, the history of discrimination against black singers has made it difficult for past and present vocalists of color to be given an opportunity to sing the role of the Moorish general. This means the tenor cast as Otello may not always be a person of color in reality—a fact that, of course, has certain implications in terms of representation and diversity within our current cultural climate. As a result, lots of questions are bound to arise: If a singer has the right voice for the role of Otello but isn’t the right race, should he alter his appearance with makeup? How can we present
Otello with a white or lighter-skinned singer in the lead without diminishing the role race plays in the story? Should opera rethink its requirements for casting, and, if so, what would be the pros and cons?
As you review the materials on
Otello and take a look at the clips from old and new productions, we invite you to consider how you feel about the topic of color casting. Does it matter to you who’s cast as Otello? Does it concern you how he looks on stage or what type of makeup is used? Where do you think the ongoing debate regarding operatic casting will lead us in the 21st century?
[For a deeper dive on this topic, check out our Parent/Teacher guide.] Learning to Listen
Going to the opera means you’ll have to start listening in a new way if you want to take in everything the music and the voices have to offer. And guess what? This is less difficult than it sounds.
Try thinking of opera singing as its own type of language or speech. When we’re speaking, our emotions can change the way our voices sound from moment to moment—and one word can have a thousand different meanings depending on
how we say it (loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, with a high- or low-pitched voice, etc.). The same is true for the characters in an opera. Each voice you’ll hear will have its own special flavor depending on who the character is and what he or she is saying.
Otello, for example, is a powerful military leader who’s desperately in love with Desdemona. His tenor voice, therefore, will be strong and bright (to reflect his heroic nature and commanding presence), but will often sound sweeter and more romantic, especially when he sings to his wife or laments the thought of losing her.
Desdemona, on the other hand, is a young Venetian woman whose dedication to her husband is unwavering. Her shimmering soprano voice (which typically suggests youth and beauty), will rise and fall according to her feelings and to Otello’s treatment of her, but her soaring and passionate melodic style––like her commitment to her husband––will never change.
When in doubt about how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking, always pay close attention to exactly how they
sound. (The instruments in the orchestra will give you hints as well.) Check This Out…
Otello takes place in the 16th century, the director and designers of this production have chosen to set it a few centuries later. Can you identify this new time period from the sets and costumes? Why do you feel the action has been transported to a later date? Would a man like Otello face different social challenges in different centuries? Try and identify repeated tunes––known in opera as “leitmotifs”––that show up again and again throughout the performance (hint: think of the “un bacio” melody from the Act 1 love duet). How do these themes change over the course of the opera? Do they take on new meaning as the story develops?
Otello is unique in that it’s designed to feel like one long, realistic story unfolding in front of the audience, rather than a group of back-to-back scenes broken up by songs. Listen for musical effects that make the world of the opera come alive, such as the trumpets that announce the Venetian ambassadors and the swirling strings symbolizing the harsh wind that interrupts Desdemona’s “willow” song. Think About This…
Composer Giuseppe Verdi was a huge fan of Shakespeare’s (he created operas based on
Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor and also began work King Lear), but Otello features some major changes from page to operatic stage, including a scene in which Othello is forced to answer to Desdemona’s father for marrying her in secret (included in Shakespeare but not in the opera), and Iago’s pledge to an evil god (added by Verdi and Boito but absent in the play). Do these differences alter your understanding of the story in any way? Do they improve on anything? Otello has very few main characters, yet Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, chose to add a chorus to represent the people of Cyprus. Do you think the chorus serves a specific dramatic function? Does the choral music help you understand what’s going on or do you find it confusing? Do you feel the opera would be more powerful without a chorus? Take Action:
What’s Your Credo?
In Act 2, Iago pours out his evil principles in a frenzied aria that begins, “Credo…” (Italian for “I believe”). And though his beliefs are cruel and corrupt, he takes a lot of pride and joy in declaring them.
In English, “credo” means “creed,” the system of values that a person chooses to follow. Try creating your own credo in answer to Iago’s. Sit down with a pen and some paper (we think writing will be more effective than typing), and make a list of fundamental beliefs you hold to be true. These could be about anything, from how best to treat a friend who’s made a mistake to your ideas on how to be kind to those around you while still being kind to yourself.
When you’ve finished, keep the paper in a safe and accessible place (inside a book or diary, maybe). Check back in with your credo once or twice a year to see if what you believe has changed in any way. If it has, make some edits and/or add to your list.
In addition, consider revisiting your credo if you’re ever confused about how to tackle a specific situation or interaction. If you’re comfortable, share your personal creed with friends and family members and encourage them to construct a credo of their own.
You’re ready for Verdi’s
Teachers, Guardians, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of opera but, just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and eventually made its way to the United States (that’s right, Americans write operas, too). As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing. You get it.
is one of just two works by operatic dream team Giuseppe Verdi (composer) and Arrigo Boito (librettist). Already a compositional master and uncontested Italian national treasure by the time Otello Otello was proposed, Verdi agreed to compose an opera based on Shakespeare’s tragedy only after some serious coaxing from Boito and renowned publisher and producer Giulio Ricordi (whose publishing house is still in operation to this day).
The opera debuted in 1887––nearly 16 years after Verdi’s previous operatic endeavor,
Aïda, had hit the stage––and marked the beginning of a newer, more cohesive dramatic style for the composer. Where before Verdi’s operas featured stand-alone songs stitched together by shorter scenes of musical dialogue, Otello (and Falstaff, which followed five years later) was more seamless and action-packed, with arias and ensembles cleverly folded into the story. The result was an instant success, and Otello remains an essential part of today’s international operatic repertory. Want to Go Even Deeper?
Otello is a celebrated work by one of opera’s most beloved composers with one of opera’s most coveted (and technically difficult) roles at its center. Yet modern productions all face a common problem when it comes to casting this masterpiece. This is in part because opera traditionally casts voices first and people second—a practice that becomes rather complicated when the character in question is black and when his skin color is integral to the story. It’s also due to Western culture’s painful history of discrimination, and the opera world’s refusal to cast black singers as principal characters until relatively recently. When Marian Anderson took the stage at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, for example, her debut was considered revolutionary and, even then, the character she portrayed was, rather pointedly, a social “outsider.”
As a Moorish general and former enslaved person living in a predominately white society, Otello’s actions and emotions are bound to be influenced by his own outsider status and by the prejudices he experiences as a soldier, as a husband, and as a man. In this way, his story is specific to his racial identity, though most audiences will no doubt recognize some universal human truths in his narrative (we can all sympathize with feelings of fear, jealousy, and depression, even if we can’t fully understand them in the context of Otello’s personal history). But given opera’s traditional commitment to vocal ability over ethnic heritage (traditional in that it’s upheld in theory, though not always in practice) the question remains:
Who should play Otello?
Opinion is divided as to whether or not it’s best to cast Otello based on voice alone, and opera companies around the world currently struggle with the question of how to represent
Otello appropriately. In past decades, opera houses that cast a white tenor would provide the singer with dark makeup in an attempt to reconcile the uniqueness of Otello’s inner and outer conflicts with the fact that a singer of color may not have been available (or indeed, in many cases, and especially before the Civil Rights Era, allowed) to sing the role. Yet due to the historical American practice of using “blackface” makeup to degrade African-American citizens in highly stereotyped minstrel shows, many (though not all) modern operatic directors feel it’s problematic to see a white man in black makeup on stage.
Still others feel opera is in its own special category and shouldn’t be thought of as having anything to do with racist institutions. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes blackface and minstrelsy as part of an extensive “process of dehumanization” that used visual images as “weapons in the battle over the status of African Americans in post-slavery America” that “continue to be manufactured to this day,” and yet WNO’s African-American
Otello star, Russell Thomas, feels the harmful implications of blackface do not extend to opera. “Painting someone to look like a legitimate character isn’t blackface,” Mr. Thomas recently observed.
But Thomas and scholars like University of Michigan’s Dr. Naomi André still seem to agree that the casting of a white singer in a role such as Otello indicates systemic cultural issues on a wider scale:
“[To sing the role of Otello you] need a big heavy voice that can soar over a late-Verdi orchestra. There are very few voices on the planet that can sing Otello. Does that mean there are no black people who can sing this? That’s absolutely wrong, though for a variety of reasons they may not be in the pipeline, getting the training, [or] coming to the attention of the casting offices when they do have the training.” – Dr. Naomi André
As more singers like Mr. Thomas make their way to the forefront of opera, perhaps the question of who should play Otello will find its answer. However, since opera is primarily a listener’s medium and since the achievement of complete cultural diversity is an ongoing process, it’s possible the debate over Otello (and many similar characters of color in opera) will continue to be a topic of important discussion for quite some time.
We’ve compiled a few links to help you examine the subject of casting in
Otello—and the casting of opera in general. Please feel free to use them, share them, and keep this cultural conversation going.
Tenor Russell Thomas
discusses diversity in opera, both onstage and off. Four contemporary black Otellos
speak to discrimination in the operatic world and reflect on what the role of Otello means to them. A
timeline of milestones in the fight for equal rights, including a reference to Marian Anderson’s historic debut. Two
New York Times critics review the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to stop using makeup in Otello back in 2015 and consider the differences between operatic casting practices and casting trends in the world of straight theater and musicals: “Debating Otello, Blackface and Casting Trends.” Russell Thomas chats about his debut as Otello for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2017.
VIDEO Musicologist Dr. Naomi André addresses issues of inclusivity in opera and operatic audiences both in the U.S. and South Africa:
“Naomi André: Engaging Black Experience in Opera.” A
news announcement surrounding a UK competition that will introduce “blind auditions” in an attempt to combat casting biases. British actor David Harewood explores the history of white performers in blackface makeup in Otello’s Shakespearean source material. VIDEO