Although operatic composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born the same year (1813) and were the figureheads of their own specific styles of latter 19th-century music theater, on opposite sides of the Alps, the two never actually met. Although each rarely commented publicly about the other’s music, it was well known in the day that there was a substantial hostility felt between them—not personal, but musical.
For his part, Verdi was dismayed by the love affair that Europe seemed to have with Wagner, and he resented the pro-Wagner contingent in his home region of Italy, notably a number of Milanese writers who included the young critic/composer Arrigo Boito. After his Aida premiered in 1871 in celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal, Verdi—then 58, very successful, and weary of hearing calls for “reformation” of music theater—felt he was done with opera and resigned himself to retirement.
Many across Europe felt that Verdi’s retirement had come far too soon. There were numerous efforts hatched to get Verdi back into music—and into the theater. Verdi’s unfulfilled interest in composing an opera based on properly adapted Shakespeare was well known and, with this lure, the publisher Riccordi introduced Boito to Verdi as the ultimate adapter of the bard’s plays into Italian poetry. Boito suggested Shakespeare’s Othello as a vehicle and, although Verdi was supremely intrigued, he hesitated—for years. In 1884, at the age of 70, Verdi finally started work on his Otello; the opera had its premiere three years later at Milan’s La Scala.
The premiere attracted crowds of admirers from all over Europe, many of whom couldn’t quite believe that the master could legitimately return to the theater after 16 years. Both friend and foe seemed to be equally amazed how Verdi had grown beyond himself musically, taking positions that the composer had dismissed earlier in his career. This was not the Verdi of Rigoletto or La Traviata, but a Verdi who had possibly been influenced, subconsciously of course, by his musical nemesis, Wagner. The work had musical continuity and complex orchestration—the first that one might call truly “symphonic,” in which the orchestra is used to portray a range of character emotions.
Normally dismissive critics and writers have found little to criticize. Harold Schoenberg wrote: “There is not a single weak passage in Otello, not one false gesture, nothing but a fusion of word, action, and music.… Otello is much more than a collection of arias and ensembles. It is a through-composed opera, every element carefully joined to make a unity.”
Otello is, of course, one of the great tenor roles in the repertoire—and one of the great challenges both dramatically and musically. With a 25-plus-year international career and 47 productions as the Moorish general under his belt, tenor Michael Austin will be making his Knoxville Opera debut in the title role.
Boito’s libretto elevated the role of Otello’s wife, Desdemona, over that in Shakespeare’s version, moving the role from a symbol of innocence to a real flesh-and-blood character. And Verdi responded with some of the most beautifully heartbreaking arias in all of opera. Hailing from Thessaloniki, Greece, and making her U.S. debut as well as Knoxville Opera debut as Desdemona, will be soprano Kassandra Dimopoulou.
Returning to Knoxville Opera from his 2009 role as Tonio in Pagliacci is baritone Scott Bearden, singing the villainous Iago.
Filling out the cast will be some mostly familiar faces and voices: Jesse Stock as Montano; Andrew Stenson as Cassio; Harry House as Roderigo; Dixie Roberts will be heard as Emilia, Iago’s wife; and Kevin Thompson as Lodovico. Bits of the Shakespeare in English will be provided by actors Horace Smith, John Ferguson, and Maria Natale.
Staging Otello for Knoxville Opera is Thomas Holliday, who last directed KO’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) in 2000. In the pit will be KO general manager Brian Salesky conducting the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.