If there ever has been an opera written for news junkies, it's Giuseppe Verdi's 1887 masterpiece "Otello," which Knoxville Opera will stage at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, April 27 and 29, as a component of this year's Rossini Festival, which will fill downtown on Saturday, April 28.
At the heart of "Otello" is a story that could be taken from today's newspapers anywhere in the world, especially those that cover news about honor killings and other related situations in certain segments of the Islamic world.
Understanding why religion is at the center of both Shakespeare's great play "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice," and the opera based upon it requires only a quick look at the world of 1622 when "Othello" was written.
James I is on the throne in England and the formation of the United Kingdom is in its infancy. The Catholics and Protestants are still at each others' throats over which group will control the kingdom. James dissolves Parliament in February 1622.
There is religious conflict in Turkey.
The Christians and Muslims are at odds in Spain and the Indians are destroying English settlements in America.
As well known as the story of "Otello" is, it's probably not a spoiler to say that Otello kills his beautiful wife Desdemona because he believes she has cheated on him. As a Muslim, he is justified is doing so.
"As a great warrior and general, Otello has managed to weave his way between the religions in his battles. He knows how to work within Christianity," said tenor Michael Austin, who will sing the role of Otello.
"But he knows nothing about being in love. He's naïve. He has no experience," Austin said.
"When Otello is convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Otello loses sight of his political skills of maneuvering through situations and reverts back to his religious upbringing."
"Desdemona doesn't know she has to be careful," said Kassandra Dimopoulou, the beautiful Greek soprano who will sing Desdemona. "She is young and she just goes for it. She has been sheltered by her family. But because Otello and her father are friends, she gets a chance to be out from under the security blanket for the first time. She just wants to live. She is more naïve than Otello."
"Otello has been so caught up in being a warrior with the battles and political ins and outs for a long time. But when he sees how beautiful Desdemona has become, he believes he is in love after 40-50 years of not giving a thought to romance," Austin said.
Though the disastrous relationship between Otello and Desdemona may be at the forefront of both the opera and the play, the drama really belongs to Iago.
Sung by Scott Bearden, Iago, one of Otello's subordinates, is the character whose anger at Otello for not promoting him provides the motivations for his obsessive manipulations.
In the end, like most conflicts of whatever kind, no one really wins.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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