A Radio Special: Verdi's "Otello"

Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight on WQXR. It’s a radio special that looks at the representation of blackness in Verdi’s opera Otello.  Growing up I played two instruments. Trumpet and piano, and eventually both instruments led me towards the experience of classical music. Going to hear the symphony orchestra was a school outing, but later became a very nice date. But going to hear an opera felt like something that was out of my league. But that changed when I got to college. 


MUSIC: “Non ti crucciar”


Terrance McKnight: As a music major in college I met professors and artists  who performed opera and who played in the orchestra pit. And that closeness to the art form allowed me to feel more comfortable traversing the world of opera on my own and even introducing my friends to this majestical form of  entertainment. One evening I was invited to see an opera. We went to see Otello at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I knew a little bit about Shakespeare’s play because Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones played the role and I looked up to these men. But I also knew that Otello was a racial minority in the play and opera so I walked into the Met already on edge, even though the Met had just recently banned the use of black face painting. So I’m wondering, okay, how badly will I feel slighted and stereotyped tonight as a Black man?


10 minutes into the opera, there it was.


MUSIC: “Roderigo, Ebben, Che Pensi? 


Terrance McKnight: Thick lipped savage!  I see in the subtitles….

I hate the Moor…


Yikes, I felt myself sliding down into my seat as everyone else around me seemed so comfortable and seemingly pleased and caught up in the sound of Verdi’s orchestral writing and the voices on stage. 


[MUSIC: “Esultate!”] 


Terrance McKnight: I saw Otello as a representation of myself, even though the singer that evening was Caucasian.  


[Otello Flurry]


Limmie Pulliam: First and foremost, he's a moor. 

Terrance McKnight: That's Limmie Pulliam, a tenor who sings the role of Otello, 

Limmie Pulliam: despite me and a celebrated war hero in, in general, is a man that even through all, all that celebration is still alone.

Kevin Maynor: My understanding of Othello, he’s one that is gullible

Terrance McKnight: Bass Kevin Maynor

Kevin:   and can be fooled easily. His ego can be easily bruised. 

Uzee Brown: This is a character who, um, faces a kind, a unique kind of human dilemma 

Terrance McKnight: Professor Uzee Brown, Jr. 

Uzee Brown: Jealousy is something. That plagues this man, and it increases because the character like, Iago, this dark figure is constantly pumping him with all kinds of reasons to become more intensely jealous.

MUSIC: “Fuggite!”


MUSIC: “Preludio” 


Terrance McKnight: Otello by Giuseppe Verdi is based on Othello, a 1604 play by William Shakespeare. And in both the play and the opera. Otello or Othello is the celebrated general who elopes with the Venetian senator's daughter Desdemona, and that's when things fall apart for him.  Mr, Otello didn't have many good options but he  drank all the Kool-Aid of Western European Civilization. He went by a Venetian name, denounced Islam, got himself baptized as a Christian, married a Venetian woman, and celebrated the murder of Muslims.  

Given all those things, he thought that he’d be accepted into society. But Shaekespere couldn’t write that into the play. When he began writing Otello, Shakespeare worked for Queen Elizabeth I, and her entertainment had to match her politics and social economic agenda.  At the end of the 16th and start of the 17th centuries, Elizabeth I issued a number of proclamations to rid England of black people: this one came in 1601, just two or three years before the first performance of Othello.

MUSIC: “Preludio” 


Tony Phillips: In 1601, Elizabeth issued a proclamation in which she declared herself highly discontent to understand the great numbers of Nagars and Blackmores, which as she's informed, are crept into this realm.

Who are fostered and relieved (i.e. fed) here to the gre


at annoyance of her own liege people that want the relief (food) which those people consume. As also for that, most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his gospel. 

Terrance McKnight: Working for Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare wasn't about to write a play about the glory of the Moors. He had to portray them in keeping with her agenda. And  given that, there weren't many good outcomes for Africans  in her realm, including on her stage. I knew some of this going into the Met that night. I knew that when Verdi’s Otello reached America in 1887,  Jim Crow laws were in effect and the image of the black brute was rampant around the country. 

Jasmine Ogiste: Seeking a black brute, Chattanooga, Tennessee, April 11. News comes from Iuka Mississippi.

That 500 people are armed and scouring the country in search of a negro named Johnson, who on Thursday night entered the house of James Thompson during his absence and brutally assaulted his wife. The lady is 60 years old and will probably die of the shock and injuries received at the hands of the brute. Johnson will be hanged by the excited people if caught.

The New York Times published April 12th, 1885. 

Terrance McKnight: I’m rarely in the mood for seeing discrimination and violence set to beautiful music. Especially when I feel kinship towards the victims. But Otello is such a well loved story, I went with the hopes of finding a deeper understanding of what I’ve been missing. After the opera, I spoke to folks who were just radiating from the experience, I thought what am I missing.  Years later I called a friend, the legendary opera and theater director Peter Sellars to get his take on Otello. 

Peter Sellars: Shakespeare was writing for an audience at that moment. He was writing this topic because they were right in the teeth of colonialism.  Colonialism was being invented in their generation. And so yes, they were seeing African people coming back on ships and stuff. So yes, they were dealing with it very directly. And it's a very alive topic. 

Othello is a very strange animal. I can’t stand that play, I hated it for years, and I got into a huge, huge, huge argument with Toni Morrison. We spent 3 ½ hours one day just going around about it.

Terrance McKnight: Toni Morrission, the writer and author and scholar who received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Medal of Freedom in 2012. 

Peter Sellars: And she said, no it’s not about him. It’s about Iago. 

Thomas Hampson: My name is Iago. Come on. I know how to talk back to him. I know how to, I know how to, to manipulate him, but I also know how to make him look better than he actually is. He's a facade himself. He looks good, but it's not good. It's nonsense.

Terrance McKnight: Baritone Thomas Hampson in character as Iago, talking about his boss Otello. 

 Thomas: He's an actor. He acts like such a powerful guy. I mean, he has got this trophy wife and he's, and he just simply puts yes men around him all the time. He doesn't actually have somebody of competence like me because I'm a, I'm a tough, I'm a tough handle, 

Peter Sellars: I got into a huge argument with Toni Morrison and she said This is the language they are still using to promote fascism in this country. This is the language they are still using, the suggestion, the not upfront, the coded racist language. In fact, all of the racism is only, you know, made possible by, uh, complicity of silence. And for people who know perfectly well what the truth is and are not gonna say it in public.

Limmie Pulliam: despite being  a celebrated war hero, in general, is a man that even through all, all that celebration is still alone. I think of it maybe there was a little bit of animosity because Igo, as [00:05:00] a, a true Venetian, he was having to take orders from someone he felt was inferior to him 

MUSIC: “Credo in un Dio crudel 


Thomas Hampson: It's easy for people to think that Iago's evilness is because he's overlooked or has missed his promotion. But in fact, that's not why I am evil. I am the embodiment of evil. 

Terrance McKnight: Baritone Thomas Hampson in character as Iago

Thomas Hampson: And if we are supposedly born of an image of God, then I can only come from a vile and angry God and my destiny is to exert and exercise that vileness to anyone in my path. I simply do not believe, on any level, the goodness of humankind. 

Maribeth Diggle:As far as I know, because I am not trained in the Theater of war,

Terrance McKnight: Soprano Maribeth Diggle in character as Desdemona, Otello’s wife.

Maribeth Diggle: I was not allowed to do this, to be part of this, to have thoughts about this. , but I can sense that Iago is damaged from the moment I see him. I think you just have to look from human to human and see that there is someone here around my husband for ulterior motives other than loyalty and friendship and camaraderie.

Thomas Hampson: the only thing that's kind of handy about Desdemona  is that she's pretty naive. So she's a very useful tool to really get inside of Othello's head because he's besotted. He doesn't, he doesn't know which way's up when she's around, he just, he'll do anything. So,this isn't about Desdemona, this is about Othello. He’s just, he's just at the core, a weak human being, and that's my lunch.

Maribeth Diggle: I don't trust him. I'm not allowed to say that I don't trust him. No one believes me when I say that I don't trust him, and maybe even no one cares when I say that I don't trust him, but I see from a distance what, what is happening. I see how he is manipulating the situation, how he's trying to manipulate my husband.

And I also see how he's manipulating his own wife, my maid Amelia. And what is there to do as a female at this point in time? What is there, what is there that I could ever say or do to, to change a man's mind in this, uh, time period? Not much.

Terrance McKnight: Soprano and Actress Maribeth Diggle knows all about Desdemona she's played the role Desdemona in Shakespeare's play, she's sung the role Desdemona in Verdi’s Opera, and she’s played the role Desdemona in Desdemona by Toni Morrison. 


Maribeth Diggle: Toni Morrison put more flesh on these characters, more humanity, um, than just the kind of hyper sensationalism that opera, uh, tends to invoke through music. Um, we get to understand their histories. We get to understand their, their pasts, their decision making, their relationships. Um, the intricate network. That ultimately brought them together,

um, gave them a space to share love, gave them space also to share chaos, and, we get to have conversations about, race and sex and gender and formalities and society and all the actually normal questions we have to face as adults, especially today, we get to answer these questions more deeply.

MUSIC: “Gia nella notte densa (Love Duet) 


Terrance McKnight: You’re listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, a radio special from WQXR in New York, looking at the representation of blackness in Verdi’s Otello. When we come back, more from Maribeth Diggle as Desdemona, more from Thomas Hampson as Iago, more from Peter Sellars, more about Otello, and you'll hear why I walk around with a black handkerchief. 

Peter Sellars: Hey I’m Peter Sellars and you’re listening to Every Voice with the one and only Terrance McKnight. 


MUSIC: “Abbasso le spade! 

MUSIC: “Tito’s Wisdom” 




Limmie Pulliam: First and foremost, he’s a Moor


Terrance McKnight: The Moors brought a robust culture, science, and industry to Europe. They were in that region now known as Spain for about 800 years, and they developed elaborate irrigation systems. They manufactured wool, cotton, silks, glass. They built 70 libraries, mosques that are still standing. They brought sugar cane, lemons, figs, peaches. You like guitars? Well, they brought ‘em. You like the violin? They brought those too. Well, they brought the precursor to the violin, the lute. And their education system was so impressive–  how it was available to so many of their citizens. And this was the case until they were expelled from Spain by the Christians in the late 15th century.  Otello was a Moor and because his heritage became threatening in western culture, he was forced to disown and disguise it, but he didn’t hide it from the one person he loved and the one person that loved him.   It was his African heritage, as strange as it might seem, it was that heritage that connected him to Desdemona. 

Maribeth Diggle: Othello walked through the door and I saw him for the first time. 

Part of me felt like I was coming home to something because I was not actually raised by my mother. I was raised by Barbary.  

MUSIC: “Esterrefatta fisso 


Terrance McKnight: Desdemona’s parents…, because they were so busy, brought in an African woman to raise their daughter. Desdemona, too young to be jaded by the propaganda of race, she saw the beauty in this woman, loved her, and when she met Otello, because of that shared heritage, She forged a connection with him. Because she lived separate from her biological family. 

Maribeth Diggle: I don’t think this decision had anything to do with my father. In fact, I think it was partially to say something inadvertently to my, both of my parents. To say, in fact, you have borne me into this lifestyle of being a senator’s daughter. And the expectations of this, um, don’t include getting to know who I am deeply at all.

MUSIC: “Era piu calmo 


Maribeth Diggle: Luckily, I had contact with cultures from Africa having had, uh, a nanny from Africa named Barbery, who Shakespeare calls Barbery, which means Africa, And I think because I had a doorway into this completely different world, that introduced me to feeling loved deeply for the first time. Feeling seen, um, feeling there were other ways of expressing myself, feeling there were…  that the world was much bigger than this political landscape of Venice that I grew up in.  

MUSIC: “Era piu calmo” cont. 


Maribeth Diggle: My husband is the most complete person I've ever met. He has lived so many different lives. I have the feeling he has had experiences that I will never have.

MUSIC: “Diceste questa sera le voestre preci” 


Thomas Hampson: The level of admiration and his intoxicating personality is as an example of virtuous humanity… needs to stop. 

He gets duped by some bullshit with a, with a handkerchief. Are you kidding me? He looks good but he’s not good. 

Terrance McKnight: This condescending attitude of Iago towards Othello reminds me and reminded Toni Morriosn of the rhetoric we heard about the prospect and audacity of Black leadership in 2008 . Maybe you remember that. In the play and the opera, Otello becomes enraged over a handkerchief that he’d given to his wife. Iago, his subordinate and nemesis, convinces his wife, Desdemona’s maid, to steal the handkerchief and plant it on another man to give the impression that Desdemona was having an affair.  When Otello discovered the handkerchief missing, he lost control. But this was no ordinary white handkerchief. This handkerchief was black and symbolic 

Maribeth Diggle: In the days of Shakespeare, to dye clothing  black was very difficult and precious, and the way they did it was by dyeing the fabric together with mummified bodies.  In England in the 16th century, when they ran out of mummified bodies, they would mummify enslaved people's bodies and so we’ve  come to understand in the play of Toni Morrison that Othello receives this handkerchief from the woman who raised him, which was dyed black. 

Terrance McKnight: So this handkerchief that Otello became so enraged about was a black handkerchief that was connected to his heritage that publicly he had to distance himself from in order to live in Venetian society. So that further explains why he was so upset about that handkerchief.

Maribeth Diggle: Yes. If you play it as a white handkerchief, Yes, And if you, I mean, if it's a black handkerchief, then it really is a, a slap in the face of course. Um, because it is such a personal item for him. It's not just a handkerchief, it's not a, you know, like just a, a thing to wipe your brow. It has familial historical value and also tells a lot about the personal past of his race.  But over the years, when you go to a performance of Othello today, the handkerchief is, is white. And I think it's so fascinating because it's literally whitewashing the most important piece of evidence. And it is literally whitewashing, , um, the characters othello's body.  I feel the handkerchief is related to Othello, and originally I think he knows the meaning of this black piece of fabric, and it would've been performed in Shakespeare's day [00:39:00] as a. Black handkerchief, which is maybe comes back to your question about Shakespeare's political wishes to speak about race. I guess we'll never know, but I think it's important to say that he understood the significance of this handkerchief being black and over the years, of European directors directing this piece, the handkerchief became Desdemona’s body by becoming white and and washed away the history with it, this piece of history. 

Terrance McKnight: The story of Desdemona’s connection to Africa and Otello and the black handkerchief was revealed in a 2011 play called Desdemona by Toni Morrission. That play was the result of her heated discussion with Peter Sellars about Shakespeare’s Othello.

MUSIC: “Mia madre aveva una povera ancella” 


Peter Sellars: I said to her,  you know, Toni, there's just too much missing from this play. I need you to write a play called Desdemona that goes next to Othello and is in dialogue with. Toni did write that play, and the missing material for one thing was women.

MUSIC: “Piangea cantando nell’erma landa…” 


Maribeth Diggle: I learned that it is okay to be vocal about women's issues. It's okay to be vocal about violence.

It’s okay to be vocal about questions about your position in, in, in society, in life. And I have to admit, um, I did not understand that there was even a space for me earlier than five years ago, earlier than the Me Too movement.

MUSIC: “Piangea cantando nell’erma landa…” cont 


Peter Sellars: ​​Toni made the encounter with all the women in the play who are censored every minute and who are hardly ever saying what they think or know.

One of the most beautiful things in the Verdi opera is the Willow song. And the Willow song is actually where we began working on Shakespeare's play because Desdemona  has a little speech before their bedroom scene and she says in Shakespeare and she says, oh, you know this song, I can't get out of my head all day…it’s this really sad song and I learned it from my mother's maid Barbary who died singing it. Which gives you a set of triggers like, excuse me, like somebody else died of heartbreak? Somebody else died of the violence of somebody just hating you? Somebody else died singing this song? Barbery, of course, is North African….

Terrance McKnight: The Willow song from Verdi’s Opera Otello, in the opera it’s sung by Desdemona who learned it from Barbary who was her childhood caretaker. The title “Willow Song” appears in a book for lute that was published in the sixteenth century. Now remember the lute was one of those instruments the Moors brought with them to Spain during their 800-year residency.  

This radio special is about the representation of blackness in Verdi’s Otello, an opera I walked into nervously years ago and walked out disturbed by the depiction of the Moor as an irrational murderer.  Through the process of producing the podcast and this radio special, through conversations with Peter Sellars, Thomas Hampson, Limmie Pulliam, Uzee Brown Jr, Kevin Maynor, Sylvia McNair and Maribeth Diggle, and learning about Toni Morrisson’s play Desdemona, I now have a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s play, and Verdi’s opera. And regardless what choices the next director makes about the opera or the play, for me Otello’s full humanity is no longer invisible, his rich heritage is no longer invisible. His handkerchief, just like mine, will be black. 


MUSIC: “Nium mi tema 


Sylvia McNair: When we’re talking about race in opera… you know, they say that sunshine is the best disinfectant possible. We’re pulling these issues out from the shadows. We’re taking them out from beneath the rug where they’ve kind of been buried, hidden. 

We need to bring this out into the light. Look at it. Talk about it. Which is what you’re doing. 

Terrance McKnight: You’re listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, a radio special from WQXR in New York, looking at the representation of blackness in Verdi’s Otello.

MUSIC: “Shout”


Terrance McKnight: Thanks to everyone who joined me for these episodes on Otello: Maribeth Diggle, Thomas Hampson, Peter Sellars, our main man Limmie Pulliam, Kevin Maynor, Dr Uzee Brown, Jr. and Miss Sylvia McNair.  And a special thank you to the late Toni Morrison for helping us all to a deeper understanding of Otello and his humanity.

Every Voice with Terrance McKnight was written and produced by Terrance McKnight, David Norville, and Tony Phillips. Our research team includes Ariel Elizabeth Davis, Pranathi Diwakar, Ian George, and Jas Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering was by Sapir Rosenblatt. And our original music was composed by Brother Jermey Thomas featuring brother Titos Sompa on percussion and vocals.

Our Project Manager is Natalia Ramirez, and our Executive Producer is Tony Phillips. The Executive Producer for WQXR Podcasts is Elizabeth Nonemaker, and Ed Yim is the Chief Content Officer at WQXR.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find more information on the web at arts.gov.

Thanks to the Met archives for the invaluable research data. 

If you enjoyed this episode, please take time to rate it, rate us, review up on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. I’m Terrance McKnight. 

Copyright © 2023 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.