Skip to main content

Otello the Outsider

Verdi from two centuries past: opera at its most raw and modern.

Downstairs in Grieghallen, we have just started rehearsing Verdi´s Otello for later this month. We´ve celebrated with cake and coffee, sympathised with singers who have just stepped off red-eye ‘planes. Now director Peter Mumford is delicately picking at Shakespeare´s characters: the tortured Moor general, the growling, prowling adjutant passed over for promotion, the newly elevated Cassio.

If Otello´s agonies begin some pages into the opera, Iago is wracked with fury from the very opening chords. Iago, the soldier, the opportunist, the man with the bleak heart, has emerged from the ultimate world of trust: man together with man in the face of the enemy. He and Otello have soldiered together, faced death together, trusted their being to each other. Together, they have killed, smashed cities and broken lives. Now Otello has betrayed him. Iago is stuck in the hot-house of barracks with no plan other than revenge. And into this turmoil, Shakespeare introduces sex: the fragrant Desdemona, the Moor and mighty general´s young wife. It´s a terrible, provocative story. Nicholas Hytner, chief at the UK´s National Theatre, about to direct Shakespeare´s play and feeling alien to the world of the military, consulted a senior figure recently returned from Basra. Sex and the violence of war do not march well together, he learned. The hot-house will boil.

Centuries of performance have insisted that the play, and consequently the opera, are about race – that Otello is defined by his African roots, that the fact of his black skin makes inevitable his actions. As late as the 1960s, productions aligned his native ‘barbarism’ with his raging, uncontrollable jealousy. In the noughties, white actors still strutted obscenely with painted brown faces. And forget not that in recent memory, a good deal of pretentious babble preceded Jonas Kaufman´s Otello at the Royal Opera – would he be black, white, or merely tanned?

In Bergen, we´ve taken a fierce and deliberate line with a tacit agreement that we will concentrate fully on exploring identity and character – and of course, on presenting sounds which seize the heart. We have a white Australian Otello, and African-American singers as Desdemona and Iago.

Why, we´ve asked, presume that Shakespeare is writing about race? Far more, he is writing about the other, the outsider, the man alone in a writhing web of strangers. Otello is given his lofty position by the Venetian Court, who routinely appointed foreigners to command so as to avoid vicious muttering within their own elite. And in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, defined as mean and an abuser, is referred to simply as ‘the Jew’. We call Otello ‘the Moor’ in much the same careless way as Hamlet is deemed ‘the Dane’ – it is a means of definition. Otello, paranoia apart, is aware that he is different – but his colour is only a part of his head-banging insecurity. He worries about not having ‘those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have’; about being a generation older than his wife; about being a military man amongst ordinary people. He´s not a murderer because of colour, but because he is a complex, frail human taunted by the perfection of his highly-born child-wife, driven to utter despair by his conniving peers, and given to feeling before he thinks.

The rehearsal begins. Poison is lapping round the rim of Iago´s being. Desdemona, a trembling teenager with a violent, volatile husband, is bewildered. Cassio is drinking heavily. Verdi is knitting stupendous swerving lines into a furor of dissonance. The drama is social realism at its most acute and distasteful, set to music which inflames the soul.

This is Verdi from two centuries past, but opera at its most raw and modern. Past, present future. Emotions never change.

Mary Miller

1st December 2017

Pictures from rehearsals in Grieghallen:

Latest news

Eivind Gullberg Jensen

New Artistic & General Director

The renowned Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen takes over from Mary Miller as the new Artistic and General Director of Bergen National Opera in 2021.

Sweeney Todd

Sesongen 2019/2020 er lansert!

Velkommen til en ny sesong med storslått opera og sensasjonelle sangere! Her er noe for alle tilstander, i et program som spenner fra det besettende og groteske til det hevngjerrige og morsomme. Med en god dose operatiske kjærlighetskomplikasjoner underveis.

Anders Beyer Mary Miller Bernt Bauge Nett

Salome åpner Festspillene i Bergen 2020

– Salome er en forbløffende opera, en spektakulær historie fortalt gjennom revolusjonerende musikk. Sammen skaper vi en oppsiktsvekkende begivenhet for åpningen av Festspillene, sier operasjef Mary Miller

Werther Dies

Video: Werther by Massenet

Werther's music counts as some of the most gorgeously romantic ever written. Here you can see the live recording from 22 March 2019, with Edgaras Montvidas and Catriona Morison as Werther and Charlotte.

"Pure pleasure" - Klassisk Musikk
"Warmly recommended" - Bergensavisen
"An elegant and floating production" - Bergens Tidende

Sing along

How to make misery interesting

I´ve just been down in the rehearsal room where Massenet´s hero Werther has been dying since 10:00 this morning. The atmosphere is brisk and deeply practical.

Candide

Diversity, quality and leadership

It was Winston Churchill who once suggested that ‘while we shape our buildings, afterwards our buildings shape us.’ The content of those buildings – who are they for, and how should they be led - is a conversation currently much in focus.