Friday, April 27, 2007

A Night at the Opera.

This essay is for M.S. & I.G.M. ...

E tu m'amavi per le mie sventure
ed io t'amavo per la tua pieta.

"Tea & Sympathy" 108-110 Greenwich Avenue, New York, NY (Please visit "Live Opera Heaven" in Manhattan. They're on-line.)
John W. Freeman, The Metropolitan Opera: Stories of the Great Operas (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), Foreword by James Levine.


My "bizarre" interest in Opera began when I was very young, poor, a "minority group member" (whatever that is) and unaware of anyone among my peers with similar interests.

My fondness for people singing loudly in Italian and other foreign languages was enough for me to be regarded as "weird." In addition, of course, there was my reading of many books -- not just in school, but even at home -- and my lack of interest in most of the occupations and passtimes that fascinated my contemporaries, notably, criminality.

Added to this strangeness was a fondness for dance and art house cinema, philosophy and science. I guess I was -- and I still am -- "weird."

I continue to be very interested in Opera and books, strangely unapologetic about either passion. Although I certainly have not gained in any "practical" way from these interests. In other words, I haven't turned these interests into money.

My education also hasn't helped me much socially, come to think of it. So why do I recommend education to young people?

I don't know how to explain why you should care about literature, ideas, science, books or the arts. I can only tell you that, if you don't, then you are choosing a kind of spiritual poverty which can worsen material deprivation or become a kind of emotional destitution, in itself, even when a person is surrounded by great monetary riches and luxury.

I have seen very wealthy and powerful people whose inner lives are nonexistent. I have even found myself pitying them. Their suffering is only made worse by their failure to understand its causes or the remedies that are close at hand. Zachary Wolfe of the Times may be an example of irreversible imbecility despite being fictitious.

What is Opera? Why is it beautiful? What are my favorite Operas? Is this art form still "relevant" today?

I will attempt to answer these questions not as a scholar of the art form or as a performer, only as an audience member, one who applauds and shouts "Bravo!"

I think that Opera is magnificent. Opera is a very beautiful art form in which some of the most fragile and rare aesthetic experiences are still available for everyone to enjoy.

I do not know for how long we will be able to make this claim. It appears that great voices are disappearing from the Operatic stage -- especially dramatic tenors -- but we must continue to hope that so beautiful an art form will survive.

In this age of recordings, even the poor or middle class persons (like me) may delight in some of the very greatest performances of all time. These performances were only available to monarchs and aristocrats not so long ago. They could not be preserved for posterity.

Today, the performances of our best stage artists are preserved forever and made available to all who are interested. Nothing compares with live theater, of course, but tape is second best.

I will answer my final question first: This art form, Opera -- like all authentic artistic expressions -- is and always will be "relevant" for human beings.

The more interesting question today is how long human beings capable of enjoying any real art will continue to exist. Donald Trump is unlikely to attend Opera performances. Perhaps we are entering an age of "cyborgs." But until we arrive at a fully "posthuman" world, I suppose that we may always expect some persons to become passionate Opera-lovers.

A few people will even indulge in the occasional improvised concert in the shower, as I just did moments ago, ending with a dramatic rendition of "Vesti La Giuba," from Pagliacci.

My rendition of this aria required several bows to an imaginary audience made up entirely of attractive women even as I wore a fashionable towel draped around my waist while waving with a white handkerchief held in my left hand, like Pavarotti ... until I realized that my towel had slipped. Making certain not to turn my "back" on the audience, I picked up my fallen towel, with all of the dignity that I could muster.

Will my audience appreciate the gift of my voice?

I also recite great Shakesperean speeches in the shower, often bringing myself to the point of tears -- even when I don't get shampoo in my eyes: I am Othello, Hamlet, Lear ... until the hot water runs out.

I am taking my daughter to London today. Not really. You see, we have decided to pretend to visit the UK -- since we can't afford to do so in the "real" world -- by having a genuine English tea at Manhattan's "Tea and Sympathy." We will bring our English books, speak with English accents (better than Gwyneth's!), all day long, and agree to vote only for Labor candidates in the upcoming elections. (They spell it "Labour" in that funny English way.)

Next week we're going to Germany. Before she returns to school from her winter break, I have agreed to take her to Paris and Rome. We have to find a French place and a good Italian restaurant, preferably in the Village, selecting our favorite writers from those countries to accompany us. My daughter is reading Tolstoy at the moment, so Russia is next. We have discovered several good Cuban restaurants, including one near Columbia University, whose authenticity we doubt -- since I do not remember "bagel with lox and cream cheese" in Havana.

My daughter now refers to me as "Ivan Ivanovich." I call her "Princess Annoyance-and-Spolied-Rottenness" -- the First Czarina and Empress of the Inwood section of Manhattan. As a matter of fact, "Ivan Ivanovich" sounds like a great Opera title, something by Mussorgsky maybe. Literal minded half-wits should note that my child (unlike myself) is not "spoiled."

It has been suggested that my life has its Operatic quality and moments. I take a slow bow, accepting the tribute to which I am entitled, sharing a rose with my partners on stage and acknowledging -- with becoming modesty -- the orchestra, as I head off to London with a casual toss of a long white scarf over my shoulder even as I clutch my towel. (I just remembered that I am wearing my formal bow tie to complete the outfit and I won't say exactly where I am wearing that bow tie.)

I must protect my voice. In fact, my family members insist that I protect that golden voice by refraining entirely from singing. Their concern is touching. However, I cannot deprive my public of one of the few heroic tenor voices in the world today.

I am a dramatic tenor, highly dramatic. Oh, I just found a bent nail. That's good luck!

Act I.

The word "Opera" means "Work." In other words, an "Opera" is an artistic "work" combining drama with singing and music. Curiously, I am often called "a piece of work."

I am now drawing on my limited fund of Operatic knowledge. Opera is usually traced to the seventeenth century. Monteverdi (1547-1643) is often described as the first Operatic composer. I suspect that we will find earlier performances uniting music and drama in some fashion, probably in the medieval morality plays or songs of wandering minstrels. Yes, I know about Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Mantuan composer's invention was made possible by the advances of Renaissance theater. Monteverdi was not born in Mantua, but he was associated with that city as an artist. More recently, we can thank the Mobil corporation and PBS for a great deal of Opera. Incidentally, Shakespeare provides many composers with material -- including, especially, the greatest composer for the Operatic stage, in my opinion, Giuseppe Verdi.

Italy is the essential country for students of Opera and music, since the first music conservatories were created in Italy (in the eighteenth century) and musical notation is still in Italian. As with the history of painting, Italy leads the way in musical drama.

Italian philosophy is a neglected topic in the English-speaking world that I will discuss, as a student, in a future essay. Among my favorite Italian philosophers are Benedetto Croce and Umberto Eco today. Others I have already discussed include Antonio Gramsci, Cesare Pavese, even Thomas Aquinas and Antonio Negri display surprising parallels.

Italian-Americans are deservedly proud of their artistic heritage, but often they do not know much about Italian philosophy and science. I highly recommend Michael Gregorio's fun and instructive novel, Critique of Criminal Reason (New York: St. Martin's, 2006). (Immanuel Kant is a detective in search of a murder suspect making use of the latest scientific discoveries by Italian inventors of criminology in the eighteenth century.)

I will mention ten Operas that you should know at least at the level of "bluffer's knowledge" -- that is, if you wish to be regarded as an educated person. I will suggest a few recordings, when appropriate, that you ought to own -- placing them, discreetly, on your coffee table when women visit your home after a date.

Like Woody Allen, I once purchased a hundred yard dash medal for display on such occasions. Finally, I will say a little more about the Opera that is, in my opinion, the greatest Operatic work ever written: Verdi's Otello. (I will refer to the character in the Italian Opera as "Otello" and Shakespeare's original is always "Othello.")

Do not allow anyone to intimidate you with their alleged superior knowledge of Opera. The world -- and even the MET -- is filled with "Opera bluffers," who often have no clue of what they are talking about. The only way to know about Opera is to love the art form and listen to great performances. One anecdote may suffice to illustrate this point concerning "bluffing."

In the memoirs of Gatti-Gazzaza -- who was the first great impressario at the MET -- he describes an evening's special performance for the New York glitterati early in the twentieth century. The tenor hired to sing Flotow's Marta was ill. No one could be found to sing the role and the house was sold out. The Maestro ran into a tenor friend in a restaurant as the singer was enjoying his massive dinner. Gatti explained the emergency offering the shocked tenor twice his usual fee to sing that evening.

For three times the standard fee, the tenor (admittted) that he would have sung the performance naked while standing on his head -- as, indeed, would I.

The tenor explained that he only knew the aria "M'Apari" from Marta. Gatti was unperturbed: "Great, just sing that single aria every time you don't know what's going on."

This is like asking an actor to speak the "to be or not to be" speech in Hamlet during the entire play, every time the prince is required to say something. Needless to say, the tenor did exactly what he was told and received four curtain calls after the performance.

I am not "approving" of, or "endorsing," this deception. I can neither endorse nor condemn this deception, at this time, subject to further information at some future time, unless there isn't any -- further information, that is, as opposed to time -- since I hope there will be future time for all of us, for some more than others.

I am "deploying" a picaresque anecdote to suggest that life itself can be Operatic. In this story, life is Opera as farce; all too often, life is Opera as tragedy -- tragedy whose pains can be alleviated by the catharsis of art and laughter.

I am clearing my throat and vocalizing. The aria will now begin.

Act II.

The ten Operas you should know well enough to discuss at a cocktail party (don't say anything about that word "cocktail"!), will probably be different for each Opera lover. I am sure that some of these works will be on everyone's list. Here they are presented in no particular order:

1. Mozart, Don Giovanni.

2. Puccini, La Boheme.

3. Puccini, Turandot.

4. Verdi, La Traviata and/or Aida (preferably sung by Leontyne Price)

5. Wagner, Tristan und Iseult.

6. Beethoven, Fidelio.

7. Verdi, Otello. (Greatest Opera ever written!)

8. Wagner, Complete Ring Cycle.

9. Verdi, La Forza del Destino.

10. Puccini, Manon Lescaut.

O.K., I have to add five more because I can't just leave it at ten:

11. Verdi, Il Trovatore.

12. Mozart, Die Zauberflote. (Make a mental note to supply the two little dots over the "o" or Germans will get pissed off.)

13. Puccini, Tosca or Madame Butterfly -- You decide, I can't.

14. Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana/Leoncavallo, Pagliacci. Ditto.

15. Giordano, Andrea Chenier.

As for recordings, I think any of the following are worth the big money -- if you can find them: Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi Tosca; Del Monaco, Tebaldi, Protti and Domingo, Scotto, Milnes recordings of Otello are completely different yet equally good; Pavarotti, Sutherland, Milnes in Rigoletto; Carreras, Ricciarelli, Bruson (?) in Don Carlo and Pavarotti or Carreras with Ricciarelli in Un Ballo in Maschera; Corelli, Nilsson, Merill Turandot. The usual suspects are always worth the extra effort: Price, Tucker, Warren Il Trovatore and the "black-and-white" Price/Domingo recording of duets is already a classic. The Jonas Kaufman and Kristina Opalais Puccini recordings are right up there with the best of them. Ramon Vargas has one of the best tenor voices in the world today and he is probably the best "Rudolfo" in La Boheme at the moment.

See if you think of anything unique about the Domingo/Price recording of the love duet from Act I, Otello: "Gia, nelle note densa ..." (Remember the accent over the first "a," which I can't supply here, or Italian speakers will be upset!)

Also, the Domingo/Price Trovatore has not been surpassed -- and won't be for some time. It is allegedly available in a pirated recording. For one image of the Opera gods, see:

Opera is an attempt to enlist all art forms in the service of ultimate human emotional experiences represented on stage in a single "work" -- love, eros, conflicts in loyalty, murder, death and most other human crises are depicted powerfully in Opera.

Music is made to encompass all of these themes, and so is poetry (in the form of amazing librettos), drama (some Opera singers have been great actors, as evidenced by Dame Judy Dench's comments on the Callas/Gobbi "conflagration" on stage at Covent Garden in the sixties).

I think Domingo is in that tiny group of great singers, musicians, actors. Again: Kaufman, Opalais, Fleming, and a few others are also great.

Dance is also an important component in many Operas, which often contain small ballets -- as in Ponchielli's masterpiece "Dance of the Hours" in La Gioconda -- also costumes and fashions designed for particular productions require the contributions of fashion designers and other artists. Sets must be built, direction on stage is needed, lighting. In short, all of the magic of theater is essential to this art form.

Great Operatic performances are almost a miracle -- and an expensive one! -- which is always a unique and non-duplicable experience that has a lot to do with luck.

There is something about live experience in theater and Opera which no film or movie captures. Cinema -- even filmed Opera, as cinema -- is simply a different art form from live theater or Opera, which is more immediate and direct, personal for each recipient of the experience, also fleeting and elusive, mysterious.

The experience of a great Operatic performance is a passionate love affair between audience and performers that lasts two-and-one-half hours, maybe a little more.

For some people -- George Clooney perhaps! -- this may be (or once was) longer than their usual love affairs.

A great Operatic/dramatic performance is always unique. Even if a performance is filmed. Once a performance is complete, it can never be experienced again by those who "shared" it -- not even by seeing a film of the event.

Every audience contributes to the experience of a great Operatic or theatrical performance, knowingly or not, even by such gestures as an intake of breath or applause.

When something magical is happening on stage, there is a feeling of electricity in the theater, as audience members become a "community" attending a semi-religious event, tapping into collective archetypal forces, images and emotions in a communal catharsis and explosion.

The audience member is one more character in the Opera, another instrument for which the composer has written music, including revealing silences. I am not surprised that ancient Greek theater was aligned with religious festivals and ceremonies. It is also clear why Beckett and Pinter have been described as "Operatic" dramatists whose silences are always pregnant with meaning.

I will now attempt to give a small sense of an experience of genius on stage in a single performance that I attended which (I know) will stay with me for the rest of my life.

By way of comparison, see and accounts of the experience of Del Monaco's Otello. See Dyneley Hussey, Verdi (New York: Collier, 1962).

I have enjoyed friendships with several professional tenors discussing singers and Opera for hours with these ladies and gentlemen along with highly knowing audience members. Among the best tenors and friends from years gone by, I include Carlos Montanes (a beautiful Rigoletto at the MET was recorded, I believe) and Guillermo Prieto, a wonderful lyrical-spinto tenor who sang dramatic roles -- including "Otello" in what was then Yugoslavia -- for many years.

Act III.

A. Background.

As I recall, the performance I am about to describe took place on a Saturday evening in 1979. I invited my sister to accompany me. Orchestra tickets had cost me almost six months' wages. I was not suicidal enough to ask a young woman I did not know -- not from my neighborhood! -- to go to the Opera.

"What's that? Opera? Are you outta your mind?"

I never answer such questions from a charming female interlocutor. It is always best to plead the Fifth Amendment and ask for a lawyer when questioned by any woman.

My sister kindly agreed to go with me -- for a small fee -- and brought a book, in case things got dull. She didn't need it. The Opera was Verdi's Otello, sung by Placido Domingo ("Otello"); Sherill Milnes ("Iago"), one of the best or maybe the best baritone I have ever heard; Gilda Cruz-Romo ("Desdemona"), a fine, big-voiced Mexican soprano filled-in, superbly, for Diva Renata Scotto.

Ms. Scotto is a great Puccini soprano, incidentally, and also a magnificent thespian. Ms. Scotto will always be the definitive "Madame Butterfly."

Otello is a musical drama in four acts, music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901); the text, inspired by Shakespeare's masterpiece, was written by Arrigo Boito -- whose librettos are brilliant works in themselves -- that drew less on Shakespeare, than on Romantic interpretations of the Bard in the translations of Giulio Carcano and Victor Hugo (1802-1885).

This Opera offers a reading of Shakespeare not as the Renaissance poet we know in the English-speaking world, but more as a suffering Romantic artist in the vision of the nineteenth century's Latin world.

Victor Hugo is another Verdi favorite, several of whose novels I read early in my life. Verdi's personal emotional drama finds echoes in Hugo's life and novels, especially (in my opinion) The Hunchback of Notre Dame and L'Homme Quis Ris ("The Laughing Man").

This most intense and masculine Operatic drama reveals swirling passions that are vital, even today, especially in Latin culture. I have yet to know a man -- especially a Latin man -- who is not deeply moved by this work, even when he is not musical or interested in the arts. Clearly, something powerful and universal is going on in this Opera.

The first performance of this work was in La Scala, February 5, 1887. Otello was first heard in New York at the Academy of Music, April 16, 1888. The experience of such a drama is only enhanced by the respectfulness of audience members wearing a nice suit, approaching the theater with a sense of reverence and awe for what is about to be brought to life on stage.

The beauty of the surroundings at New York's Lincoln Center, modelled on the Piazza Navona in Rome, the splendor and luxury in the plush red seats and glittering, star-like chandeliers that rise slowly -- like cherubim -- when the performance is about to begin adds to the feeling of anticipation. All of these elements are part of the total experience of Opera.

A composer (like Verdi) knows this and is well aware of how to make the most effective use of his effects in order to deliver a powerful emotional wallup to the audience -- Otello does exactly that.

Otello is a tragedy of self-doubt, loss of love, disintegration of identity, displaying on stage, in public, male anxieties and fears concerning self-worth, along with the acid-like effects of social stigma, racism, violence, poverty and also the heroism of self-giving in love. This drama is about a man's spiritual death, more than the physical death which follows and is incidental to it.

Verdi is both Otello and Desdemona, as Shakespeare is Hamlet, Ophelia, and all of his characters.

Verdi has placed on stage all of the pain of growing up poor, unrecognized, doubted, insulted by self-styled "social superiors." Verdi understood slavery -- which he passionately opposed -- as an Italian nationalist and patriot ("Aida"), yearning to expel the Austrians from the Italian penninsula.

Verdi represents, metaphorically, in this Opera his personal drama of romantic love for a woman who was a celebrated artist when Verdi was only a starving young musician.

Giuseppina Strepponi became Verdi's second wife after living with the composer for decades. Braving social stigma and insults together, the couple endured many slights at the hands of rich and powerful foreigners and aristocrats, experiences which are also there, in the music. So is evil, envy, betrayal of trust, balanced by innocence and goodness, "in" the music.

This Opera is one of the glories of Western civilization.

Comparisons to various filmed versions of Shakespeare's tragedy will help in appreciating this Opera. I like Olivier's performance as "Othello" (because of his beautiful voice and command of the text), though there are some problems. The same may be said for Orson Wells, who provided Franco Zefirelli with his idea for film locations in Cyprus. I also admired Ian McKellen's more recent "Iago." Lawrence Fishburne is a perfect cinematic interpreter of this classic role, whose performances will only ripen with the passing of the years. Morgan Freeman would be magnificent in the role. Anthony Hopkins was terrific in a BBC production I loved as a college student. James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer created a Broadway legend in this play. I think Samuel L. Jackson would play Othello as a warrior unable to abandon battlefield suspicions. Imogen Stubbs is meltingly beautiful and heart-breaking as Desdemona and is the proud owner of one of the most gorgeous voices in the English theater today. Ms. Stubbs' recording of "Ophelia" opposite Simon Russell Beale as "Hamlet" (first delivered as a BBC radio play) is not to be missed. Who knew "Lucy Steele" was so nice? (See the film and read the novel of "Sense and Sensibility.")

I believe that the finest stage interpreter of this great tragic character who is more timely in the twentieth century -- a character who is only equalled by Hamlet and Lear -- must be Paul Robeson, who endured many torments similar to those experienced by Othello.

To say that Shakespeare's "Othello" or Verdi's "Otello" are about jealousy or "misoginy" is like saying that War and Peace is about Russia. Both play and Opera are about life.

B. Performance and Performances.

A storm explodes on stage as the curtain rises. Otello's entrance is on a high note and killer verse, where breath control and musical intelligence are challenged, immediately, so that some tenors have been unable to continue after the First Act. Verdi eliminates Shakespeare's introductory sections dealing with Venetian hostility and hinted racism in response to Otello's love for Desdemona. ("What? The Duke is in his council, at this hour? ...")

Verdi trusts "interpreters" to emphazise musical hints concerning these tensions in the course of their performances. Domingo certainly does this hinting at racism. The Spanish-born tenor was a man possessed on the evening that I especially remember, exceeding all other performances (including his own) in this role. I suspect that there were family members and "friends" in the audience that night.

Otello's entrance ("Esultate!") signals the most triumphant moment for the character. Every step he will take after this point will be doomed, each being a further descent into utter destruction, eased by the serpentine Iago, whose "motiveless malignity" has puzzled critics and audiences for centuries.

Evil is a mystery. Evil is not subject to rational comprehension. Evil is depicted (both by Shakespeare and Verdi) with full respect for ambiguity and mystery.

I can attest to that enigma of evil (among other reasons) from the experience of hackers altering this text, for the sake of destroying it and no other purpose that I can see.

Much more familiar is the evil of sadists delighting in inflicting pain through forced separation from loved-ones, slander, destruction of relationships, and worse. No rational explanation -- certainly not resentment at Cassio's promotion -- justifies Iago's hatred and (I think) envy of Otello.

Iago desires not Otello, but Otello's talents and gifts. Iago's second act "Credo" is one of the moments when this Opera's music achieves a bottomless profundity. At such moments, this score can only be compared with the best of Beethoven or Wagner.

Iago's monologue is a celebration of nihilism that only became possible in the nineteenth century, as Christianity waned and Darwin's humbling discoveries concerning human origins would initiate a new era for Western civilization.

Iago's "Credo" would become the song of Himmler or Eichmann in the twentieth century. Iago's words are the outpourings of an emptiness filled by resentment and hatred -- they might have been scripted by theorists of totalitarianism in the hideous century to come that Verdi foresaw with great clarity.

It is frightening to consider that the worldview expressed in Iago's Credo may find its echo in the anti-religiousness of, say, Friedrich Nietzsche -- or in the self-indulgence of Martin Heidegger -- both of which "ideologies" (narcissism and nihilism) have become banal in our day. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow" and "Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

The pieces for this chess game in which Otello's simplicity -- despite his courage -- never had a chance are carefully aligned.

Cassio is a young, naive member of Desdemona's class and race. Hence, he is Otello's reminder of self-doubt and insecurity, racism, insults and wounds.

Cassio's role is understood by Iago, not by Otello.

Desdemona is a personification of goodness, who (unusually in the nineteenth century!) is also eros, confidently and unselfconsciously sexual. Desdemona is both sexually desirable and desiring. Desdemona is both Bizet's "Carmen" and "Michaela" in one woman.

No other nineteenth century composer -- with the possible exception of Puccini -- saw women in so full-rounded and rich a manner, as complex and equal human beings. Violetta in La Traviata could only have been created by Verdi. Verdi experienced a very limited erotic life, probably far less active than Giuseppina's, and never (apart from epistolary flirtations) really wanted any other woman in his life during her entire existence.

Verdi indicates the beauty and goodness of the shared passion and mutual adoration of these two characters in one of the greatest duets ever written for tenor and soprano that closes Act One.

Otello and Desdemona reveal subconscious fears and their essences as well as foreshadowing doom at this instant of mutual vulnerability and surrender. In English, at the cost of the rich poetry of the Italian verse, notice the words here:


"Now in the dark night
every noise is silenced,
My beating heart
is lulled in this embrace and stilled.
Let war thunder and the world be engulfed
if after infinite wrath comes this infinite love!"

Most importantly:


"Let death come! And in the ecstasy
of this embrace
may the supreme moment take me."

This is Romanticism's celebration and unification of eros and thanatos -- love and death -- inherited by Freud, for example, from his favorite German poets and the ancient Greeks (who obsessed nineteenth century Germans), notably Holderlin and Novalis, then Nietzsche on the German side. Also, the shadow of Schopenhauer falls on Freud's pages.

Dionysious becomes Don Juan in Otello's crucial moment of passion. "Lucia di Lammermoor" is more steeped in Keats, Shelley and Byron by way of Sir Walter Scott's novel, but the themes of the Romantics are also very much present in Donizetti's masterpiece. ("What you will ...")

For Verdi, the key insight is derived from a poetic, visual (Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and "Bachus" were also way ahead of Freud), and musical direction, not from philosophy. This is ultimate masculine wish- and fantasy-imagery. After all, can you think of a better reception after a hard day (don't say it!) defeating the Turkish fleet?

There she is: blond, beautiful, curvy, and in love with you -- in a silky nightgown no less, probably from the nineteenth century equivalent of "Victoria's Secret." And what does she say? Get this:


"My proud warrior!"

I can't remember the last time a beautiful blond in a sheer nightgown said that to me.

Like Woody Allen, I might be tempted to respond: "Are you talking to me? I was going to get a sandwich, but I can definitely stay for a while ..."


"-- How much suffering,
how many sad nights and how much hope
have led us to these sweet embraces.
Oh, how sweet it is to murmur together:
do you remember?"

It is with this love that the doorway to memory is opened for both characters. The acceptance of painful remembered conditions of slavery -- literal (his case), figurative (her case) -- is made possible giving each of them a final sense of peace and fulfillment.

Each character has seen not only themselves "in" other, but the other's pain and torments experienced in the imprisonment and solitude of their similar early lives.

Each of these two characters knows -- and shares -- the other's nature and history.

There is an exchange of missing fragments of soul in this duet -- strength and worldliness for her (from him), gentleness and serenity for him (from her) -- and it is that exchange that allows for their only possible mutual achievement of identity.

By destroying this union both of their lives and psyches will be shattered, resulting in a physical destruction that is merely redundant when it finally arrives. This is high tragedy with a measure of hope offered in compensation for the pain endured and witnessed.

Verdi -- like Shakespeare -- must be merciless and cruel to his creatures.

Why do such different people love each other?


"And you loved me for the dangers
I had passed
And I loved you that you did pity them."

Notice the echo of this line, which is underlined for the benefit of the audience:


"And you loved me for the dangers
I had passed
And I loved you that you did pity them."

Equality in recognition and in the "dangers" each has passed is not incidental. Repetition is reinforcement, reassurance. Otello's physical courage and military heroism is matched only by Desdemona's passion and capacity for self-giving in love. These two characters are twin-aspects of the composer's psyche -- Verdi is on the side of his love -- that is, Verdi's judgment (like Shakespeare's) falls on all, except Desdemona.

This Opera's culmination is the instant Faust yearned for, what Mephistopheles could not provide, the moment that one might wish to "linger forever," an eternal now. "A kiss ... a final kiss."

Even in this garden of earthly bliss, there is a shadow of evil and destruction, together with the vision of what must come in this imperfect world -- even to lovers -- if never to their love:


"Such is my soul's joy that I am afraid.
I fear that such another divine moment
will never more be vouchsafed me
in the unknown future of my fate."

What follows in the remainder of the Opera is only the confirmation of this foreboding: the destruction of this beautiful love is the death of both Otello and Desdemona.

The characters' love is the fragile crystal -- a unicorn figurine for Tennessee Williams, a Golden Bowl for Henry James -- which shatters, destroying their universe, leaving rubble and debris where once there was happiness and beauty.

The Second Act's crescendos are the insinuation of suspicion and doubt by means of the use of Shakespeare's brilliant device and symbol, a handkerchief -- which is always white in my experience -- designating the virginal purity of the couple's love, that is about to be stolen and tarnished.

Arias and duets are "bookended" in this work: the First Act love duet is shadowed by the suspicion duet in the Third Act; Otello's lamentation aria is balanced by Desdemona's humiliation aria -- which is a small Opera in itself.

The baritone and tenor duet at the end of Act Two is Iago's greatest moment of triumph, for he has won Otello back to the hatred in which Iago lives and battlefield rage. This is masculine rage winning over feminine grace, something Verdi sees as dangerous and evil, which arrives with Fascism in twentieth century Italy and elsewhere. This malignant tendency to militarism and violence is always with us. This is something for Americans to think about today. ("America's Love of Violence.")

Desdemona's unwillingness to suspect malice is her undoing. Emilia's worldliness and guile is a mechanism of survival for embryonic feminists in male-dominated societies.

Shakespeare's "Emilia" warms the hearts of man-haters everywhere, even pleasing those of us who are sympathetic to feminism without hating masculinity or men.

Most of these ideas are bound to be stolen by dissertation writers in "feminist studies." Whatever!

Otello's great aria -- possibly the most revealing and compelling aria ever written -- comes after the tenor has sung the equivalent of two complete Operas. I do not envy any tenor attempting this role.

Domingo has mastered the art of painting with the voice, shading darkness in deep blues and grays in the lower register, then shifting in lyrical passages into pastel colors, adding poignancy in the upper sections of his voice, which is burnished with a brass-horn quality and the biggest tessiture (middle register) of any tenor that I have ever heard.

Few voices these days fill the MET as his voice did -- and still does.

A recent Adriana Lecouvrer sung by Domingo with Maria Guleghina and Olga Borodina was spectacular, with the tenor sounding more fresh than some of the young tenors at the MET.

Domingo is a consummate vocal magician, using the acoustics at the MET to great advantage. Otello is a bravura moment in Opera that has earned Domingo recognition as one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.

Otello's spiritual death arrives in Act Three, long before the final events in Act Four:


"God! Thou might have tried me with
afflictions of poverty, of shame;
made of my brave triumphal trophies
a heap of rubble and a lie ...
And I would have born the cruel cross
of suffering and of disgrace
with unruffled brow and have
been resigned to the will of heaven.
But, O grief, O anguish! Torn from me
is the mirage
wherein I blithely lull my soul!"

A world without goodness and beauty -- where love is an illusion -- is not one in which Otello can live.

Given the life of violence and loss that he has experienced this is not surprising. For Otello, Iago's nihilism is unlivable. Nihilism is unlivable for all sane and healthy persons. ("Out of the Past.")

Influences on Domingo's interpretation include the obvious: Domingo sung the role of Cassio, as a very young man, when Mario Del Monaco was "Otello" in Mexico City. The lyricism in Domingo's interpretation may be traced to Ramon Vinay, the great Chilean tenor from the forties at the MET, also to Domingo's careful study of recorded versions of the role by the great Giovanni Martinelli and, even earlier, Mr. Lauri-Volpe.

Influences on Domingo's style include Spanish Zarzuela's more open singing, also the great Giuseppe Di Stefano's passionate phrasing and Franco Corelli's stentorian quality, though neither of those two Italian tenors sang the role of "Otello."

Di Stefano's late recording of Dio mi potevi is the best recording of that single aria that I have ever heard, even though the role came too late in Di Stefano's career to count in his repertoire.

Bergonzi and Di Stefano must not be judged by late efforts to cope with this role.


"... now you [Christ] must cover your holy face
with the horrible mask of hell!"

Otello is in hell. He is beyond human compassion or mercy. This is a condition afflicting millions in our world. It explains many horrors that we live with, including what happens to young men living with violence, rage, hatred, racism, poverty, insults on a daily basis in many places in America.

This seemingly esoteric art form, Opera, is not so "weird" or distant from our realities after all. Like all great art, this work examines and comments, profoundly, on the human condition. Love between men and women. War. Betrayal. Power. Hatred. Compassion. Faith and its absence. All of these are themes in Otello.

Is Opera relevant today? I think so. I also believe that it is important to educate young people to appreciate such works, as their artistic inheritance, in order to provide outlets and cathartic experiences for many of us, who really need them. Boy, do we need them. At this point in my life, there are still persons questioning my intelligence and writing ability, while others alter, deface, even seek to destroy my work with impunity. ("Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

The alternative to despair or self-destructive violence is creativity and love. I will not allow this venom of hatred to poison my life any more than it already has.

Cinema allows many people who cannot afford the hefty cost of Opera tickets -- I cannot afford them these days -- to experience such art.

I suggest that you rent Zefirelli's film version of this Opera and then Lawrence Fishburne's Othello. Then see something totally (or seemingly) different, like the film O.

What relationships and themes do you find in these works? Now see Equilibrium. Why are feelings dangerous in the society depicted in Equilibrium? Was the wisdom of the mythical society's banishment of feelings in Equilibrium vindicated or the opposite? Why or why not?

Refer to any sources that you like. Essays should be double-spaced and neatly typed. No chewing gum on the pages, please.

Finally, Otello's "Niun mi tema ..." (after Desdemona's sublime "Ave Maria") conveys all the weariness and painful wisdom of a life destroyed and denied by evil.

I can relate to that.

Desdemona's vindication of human love, even as a response to violence, is the restoration of a most Christian affirmation with human dignity. This man and woman on stage, this night, were destroyed by the poisoning of their love, through envy and hatred.

Otello sings "anima, mia ..." so that it is his own soul that he has killed. Biographical "issues" for Verdi are suggested in this passage, in his own youthful insecurities and in his feelings at the hostile reactions by others to the woman that he loved.

Verdi's love triumphs in the end. Desdemona, in my opinion, is also a "winner" because of her willingness to love no matter what, at any cost, knowing perfectly well what that cost would be.

I think I can also relate to Desdemona's gift for loving. A person "can be destroyed, but not defeated" -- to quote Ernest Hemingway. Otello's and Desdemona's love is restored and is triumphant in death.

Comparisons are available to the hunchback's great final aria in Rigoletto.

Curtain Call.

Otello is a masterpiece by a composer who should be likened to Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart and a few of the great French and Russian masters, who is (I think) the finest composer for the Operatic stage.

Otello was way ahead of its time in viewing women, as equals, struggling against forms of oppression -- Desdemona's "humiliation aria" merits a full essay, as I say -- symbolizing the human capacity to create and preserve beauty and passion, as forms of strength, in a hostile, indifferent, often cruel world.

Verdi has placed his "femininity" in tension with his "masculinity" in this work -- opting for his creative, "feminine" talents over rage and resentments that he must have felt, which might have destroyed others (and which certainly hurt him deeply), so as to conclude with hope and optimism. Yes, optimism about the human condition.

Final suggestion: compare A Streetcar Named Desire with this greatest musical drama. In death, Otello's and Desdemona's love is restored providing all of us with a kind of redemption. ("Master and Commander" then "The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

"Un altro baccio ..."

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home