Otello: The North Star
Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight. It’s a new podcast from WQXR that interrogates the culture of our classical music scene and we look at ways to make it beautiful for all of us. In this series we’re talking about representations of blackness in opera. Today we’re talking about Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello.
Flurry of “Otello” yelled, whispered, stated, announced
Limmie Pullman: First and foremost he’s a Moor.
Terrance McKnight: Yes, first and foremost Othello is a Moor. The one Black man in Shakespeare’s play and in Verdi’s opera. These days we’d call him a token. But he was more than tokenized, this man was, villainized, criticized, minimized. And because she married him, so was his wife.
IAGO: Because he’s a facade, he’s gone too far. The level of admiration, and his intoxicating personality as a example of virtuous humanity needs to stop. Then we walks in with his trophy wife, come on. Everyone’s going “wow, wow, wow” you know?
Terrance McKnight: Otello’s othering in this opera is about race although some try to say it’s about class, I’ll tell you what, in Shakespeare’s day, racial prejudice was an institution called slavery, In Verdi’s day racial prejudice was the lifeblood of imperialism, and these days we’re still trying to find ways to live harmoniously with one another given all of that baggage from the past. But we still use race and colorism to size one another up. We do it all the time at work, at play, it’s what we know. What takes work is shedding those bad habits. I know I work at it everyday, one interaction at a time. I call everybody brother… hey bro, hey bro
Dr. Uzee Brown Jr: How would we be if we didn't have these mantles, these subtle features that distinguish us: hair texture, and complexion? .
Terrance McKnight: This is Morehouse Professor, Dr. Uzee Brown Jr.
Dr. Uzee Brown Jr: How, how would we be in, I'm talking about the whole of humanity. We have to get to the place where we understand that people can be different and yet not inferior. And it's that thing that scares us. We are scared of difference.
Terrance McKnight: Being unafraid of difference, and seeing value in our differences ..that’s radical. It’s what MLK called the “beloved community.” That is the northern star.
Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with me, Terrance McKnight. Many cultures, many voices, one people.
Terrance McKnight: Let’s continue north. In the first episode of our series on Otello, I told you how I was annoyed when I saw Verdi’s opera. This podcast has been cathartic. In the last episode we heard the backstory to the handkerchief. That handkerchief that caused the misunderstanding between Otello and his wife Desdemona. In most productions of the play and the opera, that little handkerchief is white, but back in 16th century England, the Moors had a special connection to black handkerchiefs.
Maribeth Diggle: we’ve come to understand that Othello receives this handkerchief from the woman who raised him, which was dyed black.
Terrance McKnight: This is Maribeth Diggle who sings the role of Desdemona.
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.
Terrance McKnight: Maribeth played Desdemona in the play by Toni Morrission who uncovered all of these connections to Africa that are implied in Shakespear’s piece and Verdi’s piece, but overshadowed in modern productions of Otello. There are more connections that Toni Morrission found, and Maribeth’s gonna talk about those later in this show so be sure to just keep listening.
Terrance McKnight: This is our last episode on Otello and then we’ll move on to Verdi’s opera Aida. When Verdi composed Otello he was in his late sixties he was already world famous and he came out of retirement And there were two very important factors that brought him back in the game. 1. Shakespeare was his favorite poet, secondly, a little bit sweet talk from his publisher.
He sent Verdi a letter saying “It would be supremely ingenuous to say to you that a new Verdi opera would not make us a fortune in the financial sense,” but “this thought is a hundred times outweighed and, I must say, overshadowed by the immense, indescribable emotion I feel at the thought of a work that will make your name still more glorious.”
Know what was also glorious? The 200,000 lire advance plus royalties, that was sent to Video. That’s like 1.2 million in today’s market. now that’s the sound of gloriousness. But that’s also the kind of cash he raked in for Aida in 1871. Aida premiered in Cairo Egypt and was a huge event. It was about a love affair between an Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military general. So I guess success breeds success so Verdi goes back to east Africa for Otello, and casts Otello as an Ethiopian. Now during the six or seven years that he worked on it, he and his publisher referred to it as the chocolate project because every Christmas Santa (Verdi's publisher) would send Verdi a chocolate figurine of Otello and every year they would get bigger.
But of all the Africans on the … continent, why an Ethiopian? Other than Aida, what was the fascination with Ethiopia? I’m so glad you asked.
During the decades when Aida and Otello were written, there was a lot going on between Italy and Ethiopia. Italy was part of that Berlin conference in 1884 -1885, when European nations agreed on how they would divide Africa amongst themselves.
Voice reads: Italy wanted a presence on the Red sea.The daily examiner San Francisco March 18th 1888 The coming war between Italy and King John of Abyssinia.
Abyssinian Affairs are growing daily in interest. The latest news from the Red Sea is to the effect that King John with a vast Army is marching against Masawa to fight the invading Force of Italians under General San Marzano numbering 30,000 men. The latter are throwing up defenses and placing guns in position and a great battle May shortly be expected in Italy. It is hoped that the world WAR will be short and decisive but the probability is that General San Marzano has a heavy task before him. It is generally acknowledged however that Italy is in for a campaign and that her future position among European nations depends very largely on the vindication of her military prestige in Africa. The Italian government says that it's object in the campaign is to obtain due amends for the aggression of the abyssinians at DOGALI but no mere Vindication of a point of military honor could repay Italy for the serious Enterprise in which she has embarked
Voice reads: July 10th 1888 Alabama Beacon: Italy has begun an act of campaign for the establishment of its position in Africa and Abyssinia is apparently prepared for a determined resistance. Several skirmishes between Italian outposts and natives have already occurred. That the campaign will end in the success of Italy there can be little doubt although the difficulties which will attend the undertaking are not to be despised as is shown by the British Expedition against King Theodore; the overthrow of that Monarch involved an expeditionary force of 16,000 men which the necessities of transport and supply increase to double that number and the Italians must advance by a more difficult route than the British and face the United instead of a divided people
Terrance McKnight: Those press clippings represent the public sentiment that was prevalent when Otello was being performed. I’m not seeing any press about any upsets about the depiction of this Moor as an irrational, dangerous hotheaded Ethiopian. In fact when it premiered in Milan, it was a hot ticket. Maybe because it was Black history month.
Voice reading: Otello Premiere: 5th February 1887; La Scala, Milan; Italy. The following review appeared in the New York Times. Feb 7th 1887
The first presentation to the public of Verdi's new opera, Otello last evening was a grand event in the history of Italian Musical art. La Scala was overcrowded with people representing all classes of Milan society, including all the Italian notabilities in the city or who could get here. Journalists and critics from all quarters of Europe were in attendance, with the managers of the chief European theaters and opera houses. No more critical or intellectual audience was ever brought together in La Scala to approve or condemn a new opera.
Boito's Libretto is an excellent drama.
The score is written with remarkable freshness of invention, and notwithstanding his daring evolution Verdi has sustained the Italian nationality of his work and the well know qualities of his genius will be recognized, though in a more brilliant light than heretofore.
After the curtain dropped on the final scene Verdi received an ovation. The demonstrations were surprising in their excessive enthusiasm. All the gentlemen and ladies were standing, swinging hats and handkerchiefs and crying loudly, "Viva Verdi!"
Peter Sellars,: Othello is one of the great plays of the 19th century. It's being every famous actor wants to play Othello and so is omnipresent, you know, and what that means and who is seeing what and hearing what, when they experience Othello, that's super dense stuff. So Verde is of course, um, you know, responding to the Africa that was colonized and it was cut into pieces.
Terrance McKnight: That’s Peter Sellars, the opera and theater director. So … since the opera highlights Otello’s flaws, how in the world did Desdemona fall for that man. Parents, aunt, uncles, caretakers of young children you might want to hear this next bit of the show. Maribeth Diggle will be back in the role of Desdemona.
This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight
Maribeth Diggle: I’m Maribeth Diggle and you’re listening to Every Voice with Terance McKnight. Many cultures, many voices, one people.
Terrance McKnight: In last week’s episode soprano and actress Maribeth Diggle who has played and sung the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play, Verdi’s opera and in Desdemona by Toni Morrission shared a critical part of the story that typically gets washed out.
Maribeth Diggle: We 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: Nobel Laureate and author, the late Toni Morrisson, and Peter Sellars collaborated on two plays, Shakespeares’ Othello and Toni Morrison’s Desdemona. The collaboration started as Peter was working on producing Othello,
Peter Sellers: I said to her, Tony, 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 it. And puts in a bunch of the missing material. Toni did write that play, and the missing material for one thing was women and 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.
MUSIC: Willow song
Terrance McKnight:: The title “Willow” song appears in a book for lute that was published in the 16th century. Now remember, the lute was one of those instruments that Moors brought with them to Spain during their 800 year residency.
Peter Sellers: 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 Barbery 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.
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 Barbery.
Terrance McKnight:: You hear that mom, you hear that dad, you hear that caretakers and theater directors? Desdemona found home base with Otello because her parents were too busy, so this young lady was raised by an African woman, and her childhood instincts didn’t understand prejudice, but she understood what care, she understood what love felt like, so when Otello showed up they saw that in one another.
Maribeth Diggle: I don't think anyone, maybe similarly to me, which is probably why we found each other in the way we did. I don't think anyone has ever really given him their ears to his story. I think it's probably the first time someone from a different culture, someone with a different background like me, has showed him any interest in that part of his life.
Terrance McKnight: You hear Desdemona singing “saliche”, that’s Italian for Willow. The original willow weep for me. She sings the song before her life is snuffed out by her husband Otello, who then takes his own life. Now if you’ve ever seen the play or the opera, or if you haven’t, I’ll tell you, I missed that. I missed those connections The black handkerchief, the African inspired sorrow song, the connection that Desdemona and Otello had to Africa, I missed that. Maybe it’s me, but I do believe that some of those elements get underplayed, those positive the racial aspect of Blackness gets underplayed somehow. But not here, on this show we’re playing it up, we’re trying to make things beautiful for all of us. This is how we do it.
Sylvia: “We are pulling these issues out from the shadows. We’re shining light on them, the sun is shining on them...
Terrance McKnight: Thanks to everyone who joined me for these episodes on Otello, Maribeth Diggle, Thomas Hampson, Peter Sellers, and Limmie Pulliam. And a special thank you to the late Toni Morrison for helping us all to a deeper understanding of Othello and his humanity.
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