Does Otello need to be black? This co-production of the State Opera of South Australia – in cahoots with Cape Town Opera, West Australian Opera, NBR New Zealand opera, Opera Queensland and Victorian Opera – raises that question, but does not really come to grips with its implications. Colour blind casting can succeed in most operas, but when perceptions of race are implicit in a work, it raises problems.
Traditional performances of the Shakespeare play, the Verdi opera and also the Rossini opera have usually depicted Othello/Otello as an African, but (with notable exceptions) he has been portrayed by a white actor/singer in blackface. Clearly, that will no longer do. But, what is Otello’s identity? According to Shakespeare’s title, he was a “Moor of Venice”; Verdi’s cast list describes him as “Otello, moro”, and Iago refers to him as such (“moro”) in the libretto. The term, in Shakespeare’s day, described the Muslim people of north Africa, the southern Iberian peninsula, Sicily and Malta, so he may not have necessarily been all that black. Yet Otello has been fighting against Muslims, and Shakespeare suggests he has been baptized; presumably he could have been born a Muslim. Desdemona refers to the country of Otello’s birth and his suffering there of chains and slavery, providing a potential back story leading to his conversion to Christianity.
Verdi’s libretto refers to “i foschi baci di quel selvaggio dalle gonfie labra” (“the dark kisses of that thick-lipped savage”, Iago); Desdemona refers to his “dusky temples” (“tue tempie oscure”); Otello himself refers to his dusky complexion (“forse perchè ho sul viso quest’altro tenebror) and the chorus call him a black man (“quell’uomo nero”). His dark skin is contrasted with Desdemona’s lily whiteness (“candido giglio”), and he asks her to tender her ivory hand (“l’eburnia mano”). While not indicating the degree of blackness involved, this certainly suggests he is perceived as blacker than those around him. The contrast with Desdemona does not only suggest a colour difference, but raises one of the great myths and sources of unease amongst white racists: the fear that white women will be sullied by sexual relationships with black men, and, even worse, will succumb to and enjoy their superior prowess. This would seem to be one of the motivating factors at work in Iago’s hate of Otello and his manipulation of others. Otello’s reaction to Iago’s machinations suggests he is insecure about his position as Desdemona’s husband and his place in society. If he is white, what accounts for this?
Director Simon Phillips, formerly artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, but also known as an opera director, has chosen to update the setting to an aircraft carrier, of which Otello is the commander. The set, on moveable levels, depicts the cramped quarters which can create a hothouse for the emotions, with banks of screens suggesting surveillance of the exterior but also perhaps within. So far, so good. This Otello however is prone to vehemently throwing chairs around when things upset him. Phillips, in the liner notes, argues that “Otello’s status as a ‘warrior’ was clearly contextualized and so his recourse to violence as a solution more understandable”. I don’t think however we expect the upper echelons of the military to be prone to chucking things about when disturbed. The production fails to help us understand why this white commander of a white navy loses his cool so precipitately and falls so quickly for Iago’s deception. It can be noted that, while this is the first Australian outing for the production, it was performed last year in Cape Town, also with white singers as Otello and Desdemona.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Brad Cohen relished the bump and grind aspect of Verdi’s music, but tended to drown out the singers on occasion. In very fine form however were the State Opera of South Australia Chorus who sang in tight unison and negotiated the necessarily complicated blocking well.
SOSA is always to be praised for its enterprising casting, making the most of Australian singers, although this is not one of their best line-ups. In the name role, Bradley Daley suffered intermittently from intonation problems, although otherwise he has a pleasing tenor which blooms nicely in the upper range. His acting suffers, it seems to me, from the production; why is this respected leader behaving in such a stupid way? Adelaide favourite Douglas McNicol sang as usual with confidence and resonance, and, while his motivation is also not completely obvious, presented a nice portrait of icy villainy. Miriam Gordon-Stewart was a rather sophisticated Desdemona, but portrayed convincingly a faithful spouse baffled by her beloved’s rage against her. She has rather a wide vibrato at times, but in general her rich soprano coped well with the demands of the role. All the smaller roles were competently sung and acted. Overall, this performance was well delivered, but the basic problem of Otello’s motivation was a dramatic liability. Perhaps Otello can no longer be believably performed without a black Otello, unless some better motivation can be dredged out of the libretto, which sadly is not the case here.