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The Story of Otello

Learn the story of Otello in 9 minutes!


ACT 1  

Just over 200 years after Shakespeare penned the enduring tale of an African general who succumbs to the consequences of love, jealousy, patriarchy, prejudice, and deception, Gioachino Rossini wrote his operatic take– bringing to life another account of that impassioned turn of fate. The opera follows this African and Middle Eastern general, Otello, as he returns triumphant from a battle against the Turkish Army, securing a path to victory for Venice's Army. Military officials and Venetian nobles congratulate him on his service. The Doge, the senior-most elected official of Venice, welcomes him as an honorary Venetian. The humble Otello thanks the Doge but says his true happiness will come in the form of love. In an aside, he reveals that he is deeply in love with a woman named Desdemona. The two have already pledged themselves to one another in secret. Her father, Elmiro, another powerful man in Venice, would disapprove if he knew– rupturing Desdemona's title and Otello's honor. Rodrigo, the son of the Doge, seethes with jealousy and disdain. Despite his feeling of entitlement to having Desdemona as his bride, she continues to reject his advances. He watches on with Iago, Otello's Lieutenant. They both crave the power and respect that Otello seems quick to dismiss. Iago, however, is much more conniving than anyone suspects. He has a plan to destroy Otello, using Rodrigo and Desdemona as his pawns.  

Meanwhile, Desdemona worries about the pledge she and Otello made to one other. She wrote a letter to him renewing her promise, but her father took it. As she agonizes, her lady in waiting, Emilia, does what she can to soothe her. She says that if their love is true, nothing else matters.  

To begin unfolding his plan, Iago reveals to Rodrigo that he has a compromising letter of Desdemona's which he plans to use to trick Otello. Elmiro greets the men. He, too, shares their contempt for Otello. He grants Rodrigo permission to marry his daughter, which thrills Rodrigo (not like she has a say or anything, right?) Elmiro's clause is that all Rodrigo has to do is tell his father, the Dodge, that Otello is not to be trusted. With the plans now underway, Elmiro tells Desdemona that she will be married immediately. That night a party ensues to celebrate the engagement. Desdemona discovers who her father has set her up to marry, and she refuses. They all kindly remind her that she does not have a choice. Otello arrives and announces that he and Desdemona love one another. Elmiro, enraged, pulls Desdemona away.  


Act 2  

The curtains rise as Desdemona lingers in the ripples of her and Otello's love announcement when Rodrigo arrives and again tries to plead his way into her heart. She resists his advances, and he is dumbfounded. She reveals that she and Otello do not only love each other but that they have already pledged themselves to each other. Wallowing in pity, Rodrigo leaves. Emilia enters quickly after and comforts Desdemona's worries about her marriage to Otello.  

Alone, Otello contemplates his choices in disrupting his former good grace and reputation by disobeying Elmiro's wishes. Iago joins him and begins to unravel his plan. Under the guise of friendship, he hints that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Otello asks for proof, and Iago shows him the letter Desdemona wrote to him, which Otello never received. Iago says the letter must be for Rodrigo. Now convinced that she has been unfaithful to him, Otello vows to get revenge on both of them. Right on cue, Rodrigo reenters– he and Othello argue and claim enemies in one another. Desdemona arrives at the sound of their fighting and attempts to diffuse the situation. Both men accuse her of infidelity, though when she asks Otello what he means, he is too enraged to share more information.  

The men leave to fight more, and Emilia returns to Desdemona. At Emilia's invitation, the women of Venice rush to the house to comfort Desdemona, but she is far beyond distraught. She does not understand why Otello has treated her so poorly so suddenly. Elmiro arrives to further condemn his daughter for betraying his honor. She asks for his pity, but he refuses. He says she will be punished for her actions. The curtains drop on this ominous premonition as we move into the third act.  


ACT 3  

In act three, Desdemona wonders how she can ever rest knowing Otello hates her. Emilia is at a loss for how to help when they hear a gondolier singing out in the distance. Desdemona is reminded of happier times, imagining how the singer must be returning to a happy family. She recalls a friend from Africa who has passed and sings a song, Willow Song, accompanied by a harp. She sings about how the friend died at the foot of a willow tree, shaded by its branches. Emilia, unsure of how to help, leaves in despair. Desdemona lays her head down and tries to find comfort in rest. Otello enters with a lamp in hand and rage in his eyes. He laments his desire for Desdemona's beauty but anguishes in pain he believes she has caused him. In her sleep, Desdemona cries out for her love. Otello, assuming she is speaking about Rodrigo, is further enraged. Desdemona wakes up and pleads her innocence to Otello as he intensifies and further claims her infidelity. Desdemona says that her only fault was loving him. She, in essence, permits him to kill her if he must, further reinstating her devotion and obedience to him. Otello tells her that by now, Iago has fought and killed Rodrigo according to their plan. Now he will kill her. Desdemona realizes what has happened and that Iago concocted this whole scheme and tricked Otello into believing it. She asks Otello how he could trust such a vile traitor. In his fiery rage, Otello kills Desdemona. He stumbles out of the room where again, with perfect timing, the other men have arrived to reveal that, in fact, Iago has died in his battle with Rodrigo. Before dying, Iago admitted to the scheme– that Desdemona wasn't unfaithful and that Iago intended to harm Otello. Not knowing she is already dead, the apologetic Elmiro offers Otello his daughter's hand in marriage. Otello says yes, he will join her, and then, as the opera comes to a close, Otello, the once hero title character, ends his own life. End of Opera. 

Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb

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