Opera Philadelphia

Performing Othello Today: Racial Fantasies and Operatic Heroism

By Dr. Naomi André

The world of Othello encompasses many stories that remain pressingly relevant for our times today. On the larger societal level, there is the issue of how close we get to the “Other,” the person who represents difference. Do we use might to force them to build our infrastructure? Do we let them fight for our freedom? When can they represent the nation? Presented as an outsider from within, the Moor Othello as the high-ranking Venetian military officer embodies these personae. There is also the intimate plane of the domestic sphere that opens the question of who we accept into our family. What is at stake are not the casual acquaintances we make that help us feel progressive and urbane, but the deeper themes regarding who we allow to become part of our bloodline, carry on our name, and shape our reputation. Othello’s world asks us to reexamine who we count among our close friends and family.

Khanyiso Gwenxane as Otello and Rina Hirayama as Desdemona at Musiktheater im Revier Gelsenkirchen Credit: Sascha Kreklau

In Shakespeare’s play and the two most well-known operatic adaptations (both named Otello by Rossini 1816 and Verdi in 1887), the relationship between Othello (Otello) and Desdemona is presented as a marriage, though continually contested by interested others, a sentiment that reminds us that interracial unions signal divergence. The story between Desdemona and Otello is that she loves him without question, even though her suitors and society are against, or at least cautious about, their union. The detractors highlight the racialized difference of Otello as the Moor to justify their own fear and horror. In such seemingly private matters, the narratives around the Othello/Otello story reproduce some of our deepest anxieties and taboos concerning racial identity and sexual relationships. These particular tellings make a damning link between miscegenation and domestic violence that leads to murder. Compounding the tragedy of Desdemona’s death is that her trust and belief in Otello as a worthy husband is constant, even when his psyche has been broken and he has lost his reason and honor.

Using a construction for racialized identity that was theorized by Renaissance and Early Modern Shakespeare scholar Kim Hall, “things of darkness” continue to haunt us from Elizabethan England. Taking this further into performances of the play and operas today, I pose a question, what do we do with our need for Othello today? This difficult topic gets to the heart of how we manage jealousy, foster trust, and feel a sense of belonging. Many analyses focus on a condemning characterization of Othello’s motivations and deeds: his manipulatable suspicion, his mounting rage, the brutal murder of his innocent wife. Yet rarely does scholarship take into consideration the vantage point of being the outsider who has broken new ground that was not ready to be tread. 

For a moment, let’s pivot to a different perspective. Otello is referred to as the Moor, a term that signals racial and ethnic difference routed through Blackness. His advancement through the Venetian military ranks has granted him access to status and power, yet his story illustrates that such gains do not lead to his being fully included in Venetian society. Whether viewed as an exception, a marvel, or the embodiment of the noble savage, Otello is not allowed to be a regular person. Instead, he exists as “the only,” or perhaps “the first,” of his kind that his adopted community has seen. When he is shown to be fallible—with foibles and weaknesses—his humanity is his undoing. While Iago is the triggering force that ultimately shatters him, the lack of community support and nurturing has let him know all along that he never truly belonged.

Operatic Otello

As one of the most prolific opera composers in the nineteenth century, Gioachino Rossini (1792- 1868) is best known today for his comic operas, opere buffe, such as Il barbiere di Seviglia and La cenerentola. Even in his own lifetime, these comic operas were very popular and traveled outside of continental Europe into England and the United States. However, it was Rossini’s heroic operas, opere serie, that solidified the conventions of the primo ottocento (first half of the nineteenth century) and were critical to establishing his reputation. Today only a few are occasionally performed, usually Semiramide or Tancredi, which were both written for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice and reflect northern Italian tastes where the leading heroic role was performed by a female singing en travesti (as a trouser’s role). Rossini’s Otello from 1816 with a libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa and written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples was a landmark opera for its time and was popular throughout the primo ottocento. Sadly, it is rarely performed today given its difficulty (multiple heroic roles for tenors) and the later Romantic period realism presented in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (1887). 

The circulation of Shakespeare’s works in Italy was not common until the nineteenth century. Along with Niccolò Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo which premiered at La Scala in 1796, Rossini’s Otello was one of the first Shakespeare operas by a major composer to hold the stage through most of the century. Unlike Zingarelli’s Shakespeare setting, where the heroic role of Romeo was sung by the castrato Girolamo Crescentini (though that role was later sung en travesti by women, as was done for Bellini’s Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi from 1830), Rossini’s Otello is a showcase for the early Romantic heroic tenor. Given his prestigious position from 1815-1822 as director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the oldest continuously active opera venue in the world (opened in 1737 and continues through today), Rossini took advantage of their rich resources. With Isabella Colbran as the leading soprano in his Neapolitan operas (and she also became his wife), Rossini’s opera serie in Naples each included three to four leading roles for tenors. Otello was premiered on December 4, 1816 at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples (the San Carlo was being repaired after a fire earlier that year). Along with Colbran as Desdemona, the roles of Otello, Rodrigo, and Iago were all performed by leading tenors of the primo ottocento: Andrea Nozzari, Giovanni David, and Giuseppe Ciccimarra. 

Unlike the collaboration between Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Bioto on their Otello (La Scala, 1887), the version by Rossini and Berio di Salsa is not as faithful to Shakespeare’s play. Though Verdi’s four act opera is set entirely in Cyprus (Shakespeare’s Acts II-V), the action for Rossini’s three act opera takes place fully in Venice (the setting of Shakespeare’s Act I). In addition to Desdemona’s “Willow Song,” there is also an added song for a Venetian gondolier. Tragic endings in Italian opera were not the norm until 1830 when new Romantic aesthetics for heroism and tragedy were linked. For this reason, Rossini provided a “lieto fine” (happy ending; Desdemona survives) for the opera when it was revived for a production at the Teatro Argentina in Rome during the 1819-1820 carnival season. Among the conventions for organizing operatic introductions, arias, and duets, Rossini’s legacy for developing virtuosic singing for tenors is showcased in his Neapolitan operas and brought to new levels in this opera. Combined, these features make Rossini’s one of the most progressive operas of the time and a trenchant examination of how the complexities of racial representation continue to resonate into the present.

Dr. Naomi André is the David G. Frey Distinguished Professor in Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and professor emerita at the University of Michigan. She has been the Scholar in Residence at Seattle Opera since 2019, a National Humanities Center Fellow from 2022-2023, and is Scholar in Residence at Des Moines Metro Opera for the Festival season 2022.

Otello is on stage at the Academy of Music Sept. 23 - Oct. 2, 2022.

This piece appears in the O22 Festival Book.

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