Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrence McKnight. That's a new podcast from WQXR that interrogates the culture of our classical music scene and looks at ways to make it more beautiful for all of us. In this series, we're looking at representations of blackness and opera, and in this episode we're delving deeper into Giuseppe Verdi’s “Moor of Venice”….Otello
Otello. Otello. Otello…..
Kevin Maynor: My understanding of Othello is a one that is, He is gullible
Terrance McKnight: Bass Kevin Maynor
Kevin Maynor: 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 ir increases because the character like, Iago, this dark figure.
Thomas Hampson: My name is Iago. Come on. I, 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. He's an actor.
Terrance McKnight: Otello is a Black man who is a celebrated war hero, general in the Venetian army. Highly praised by some deeply hated by others, especially Iago, who thinks his boss is an empty suit and he schemes to undermine him professionally and personally. In this episode, we're delving deeper into Otello's story. Hear how jealousy, deception, and isolation brought 'em. And how his status as a free Black man with power became part of a myth that redefined Black manhood as something to be feared and controlled.
A myth that to this day, results in unnecessary violence and heart-wrenching news headlines. This is Every voice with Terrence McKnight,
Terrance McKnight: many cultures, many voices, one people.
Otello by Giuseppe Verdi is based on Othello, a play written by William Shakespeare around 1603 or 1604, and in both the play and the opera. Otello or Othello is the celebrated general who eloped with the Venetian senator's daughter Desdemona, and that's when things fell apart for him. His subordinates were jealous of that relationship.After all she had class. She was the senator's daughter, and Otello was battle tested. Folks loved him.
Thomas Hampson: He acts like such a powerful guy, you know? I mean, he is 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.
Uzee Brown: This dark figure Iago is constantly pumping him with all kinds of reasons to become more intensely jealous. Perhaps part of this and, and, and it's often been said that jealousy is quite often born out of insecurity. Uh, part of this may be insecurity and it may be insecurity because of the fact that he is a man of color, and maybe not totally believing in his own author authority over those around him to do what he does.
Terrance McKnight: Can we just sit with that for a minue.
Terrance McKnight: He was insecure, but he was the boss. His wife was the senator's daughter, and she was completely head over heels for this man. What's wrong with this picture?
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. I think of it maybe there was a little bit of animosity because Iago, as a, a true Venetian, he was having to take orders from someone he felt was inferior to him
Thomas Hampson: That's nonsense. What pisses me off is people who manipulate their power, which Otello's done. He acts like such a good guy. He acts like such a powerful guy, but this is bullshit. He just simply puts yes men around him all the time. And then what does he do? He puts his fancy pants up in front of him and actually makes me subordinate to him. I mean, what is that? I don't get that. He'd be nothing without me.
Uzee Brown: Iago's is a figure who is constantly opportunistic. He's also jealous, and he is also wanting to weave his way in and wiggle his way in, finagle his way in to become a more important person.
Thomas Hampson: It's easy for people to think that Iago's evilness is because he's been overlooked or has missed his promotion. But in fact, that's not why I am evil. I am the embodiment of evil. 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.
And I simply do not believe on any level, the goodness of humankind.
I come from a Black hole and I’m going to a black hole. Or an empty space, whatever you want to call that.
Terrance McKnight: This baritone Thomas Hampson, he's playacting, he's in character as Iago. That guy is scary in that role.
Thomas Hampson: This is a role game I've never done before. This is wild. People are gonna, people are gonna cringe. You just have to run a, a disclaimer under the whole thing.
Thomas Hampson: And he's actually a nice guy. No, this is Tom Hapmson. This is “Tom Hampson, he's, he's acting, he's act, no, he's acting.” I don't actually believe this.
Terrance McKnight: LAUGHS
Thomas Hampson: It is bizarre. This is really bizarre. I'm really, I gotta take a shower. You .
Terrance McKnight: We'll take a short break. Thomas is gonna freshen up. And we'll be back with every voice with Terence McKnight, and we’ll bring director Peter Sellars into this conversation and we’ll hear from Otello’s bride Desdemona.
Terrance McKnight: Just don't say you were channelling me when you went into character.
Thomas Hampson: You know, I'll tell you what. McKnight just gets on my nerves, I’ve had it….
*continues to mutter and laugh* fade
Thomas Hampson: When I first appear, I seem to be very much part of. Very popular. Um, and I'm muttering under my breath to a couple of other colleagues, my abject hatred of Otello, my boss,
Terrance McKnight: yes or no? Do you want Otello dead? Yes. And why?
Thomas Hampson: Because he's a facade. He's a, he, he's gone too far. The level of admiration and his intoxicating personality as, as an example of virtuous humanity needs to stop. Then he walks in with his trophy wife, you know, come on, everybody's going,
wow, wow, wow.” You know? Oh, that, come on.
Terrance McKnight: : Thomas Hampson back with us as Iago from Verdi’s opera Otello. Iago had a lot to say in this opera, he wasn’t afraid to speak out against his boss to his peers. Just listening to him reminded me of some of the rhetoric we heard about the idea of Black leadership here in America. Listen to Iago again.
Thomas Hampson: The level of admiration and his intoxicating personality is as an example of virtuous humanity… needs to stop.
MUSIC CHIMES LIKE A LIGHTBULB GOING OFF
Terrance McKnight: Sounds a lot like 2008. When I saw Otello, it jumped out at me that life was happening to and around Otello. Like he was a bystander in his own life. The celebrated theatre and opera director Peter Sellars produced Otello And he said that production his led hin to a conversation and then an argument and then a collaboration with the Nobel Laureate, novelist Toni Morrison. Morrison accepted Peter’s invitation to write a response to Shakespeare’s play. She called her play “Desdemona.” Peter had an interesting take on Otello and on Shakespeare:
Peter Sellars: It's a complicated story, uh, fellow, because you really do feel that Shakespeare didn't have any Black friends. And so he knew what this guy might be like performing for white people, but he had no idea who he was when he's alone. And so that play is the only Shakespeare play that has no soliloquies from the main character. He is alone for 10 lines max, LAUGHS, because Shakespeare just doesn't know how to be alone with him and what food he would eat or what music he likes and anything about a person.
So Otello 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. And we spent three and a half hours one day just going around about it. And she said, no, it's not about him, it's about Iago. This is the language they are still using to promote fascism in this country.
This is the language they are still using, the coded racist language. And, and she said, and this plays about how that works.
Terrance McKnight: That coded language, that smug attitude that Iago expressed, that Toni Morrison talks about, that's what I picked up when I saw Otello, it’s the kind of language and attitude of superiority that still feels all too familiar. Listen to one of the guys on my team talk about how he feels as a young man navigating his American life
David Norville: Many times in my life, I think among other races and among my own people as well, I feel like I'm almost seen like a, like a paradoxical weapon. Like a, like a blunt knife in the sense that I feel like I enter a room and I'm not seen for my full potential.
While, at the same time, People recognize my, you know, alleged capacity for lust, lasciviousness, danger, harm, betrayal, brutality, and so on. And you know, man, it does feel like a paradox because on one hand people might not readily assume that I could be intellectually competent and in the same breath, people might be wary that I could be devising some sort of scheme or strategy to, you know, steal from them,take their girl. How am I at the same time, the oaf and the imbecile, while being the greatest threat to one's safety and, and livelihood.
And so it's this, it's this really interesting feeling of, I'm a tool, I’m not a person and the thing that I, the thing that I might be designed for or capable of, I'm not skilled enough or don't have enough finesse to commit that act or do that thing or commit that atrocity.
Terrance McKnight: The invisibility and disregard for his full humanity that Dave expressed isn’t unique, talk to some of your Black friends, they’ll tell you. That’s what goes missing for me with Verdi’s Otello, that 360 view of Otello’s deep humanity. But like Peter said, we can be pretty confident Shakespeare didn’t have any Black friends, so he could imagine only so much, and to go any deeper would not have been politically prudent, Queen Elizabeth and her predecessor were not in the business of recognizing humanity…..But our society is much less homogeneous now so there are opportunities to plunge deeper into who Otello was, so that the opera or the play feel less imperialist and less culturally insensitive. Maribeth Diggle is someone who has played and sung the role of Desdemona in the play and in the opera. She reveals a side of Otello, that we typically don’t get
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.
Terrance McKnight: Maribeth Diggle will join us in the next episode, to give us a little more of Desdemona. Plus, Director, Peter Sellars, Baritone, Thomas Hampson as Iago, and Tenor Limmie Pulliam as Othello .
Maribeth Diggle:Hi, I'm Maribeth Diggle. In Verdi’s Otello, I'm Desdemon, and that's who I'll be in the next episode of this very exciting podcast
Terrance McKnight: Next time when every voice with Terrence McKnight. SINGS
Every Voice with Terrance McKnight is written and produced by Terrance McKnight, Tony Phillips and David Norville.
The research team includes Ariel Elizabeth Davis, Pranathi Diwakar, Ian George, and Jasmine Ogiste.
This episode’s sound design and engineering is by Alan Goffinski
And our original music was composed by Brother Jeremy Thomas featuring Papa Titos Sompa on vocals and percussion
The project manager is Natalia Ramirez, and Tony Phillips is our executive producer. Elizabeth Nonemaker is the executive producer from WQXR Podcasts 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 dot gov.
Special thanks to Met Archives for some invaluable research statistics.
If you enjoyed this episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.
I’m Terrance McKnight. See you.
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