The company was lively and talkative, the mood festive, on that summer evening in Milan in 1879. At the center of attention, Giuseppe Verdi, at 65 the greatest living Italian composer, basked in the admiration of his friends and joined in the chatter of gossip and news, mixed with the enjoyment of sublime northern Italian cuisine.
He noticed, however, that his young friend and business associate, Giulio Ricordi, the head of the powerful publishing house of Ricordi, and tireless promoter of opera and opera composers, seemed to be steering the conversation in a premeditated direction.
And with good reason. For Verdi, after decades of struggle and hard-won success, had been virtually silent (as a composer, not as a beloved elder statesman) in the five years since his Requiem premiered in Milan. The distant triumph of his AÇda in Cairo was now seven years in the past: an eternity in the world of live performance. And, like Gioachino Rossini before him, the earth's axis seemed to shift beneath the composer's feet at the peak of his career, as Europeans gradually fell under the northern spell of the dominant musical figure of the era: Richard Wagner.
Nevertheless, Ricordi perceived that Verdi was far from finished. Just days earlier, the composer had conducted his Requiem in a benefit concert at La Scala; a huge demonstration: of the sort reserved, in most countries, for presidents or military heroes: followed. Knowing that Verdi, the cheers still ringing in his ears, might be tempted to offer something fresh to a newly admiring public, Ricordi carefully turned the dinner conversation to the topic of Shakespeare, Verdi's favorite dramatist. The publisher mentioned Arrigo Boito, an upcoming composer and poet. Ricordi followed with a word or two about Shakespeare's great tragedy Othello, and a hint regarding what a fine subject it would make for an opera. He also carefully dropped the news that Boito happened to be working on an opera libretto based on Othello: not for himself: but for some more worthy composer to set to music.
"I saw Verdi stare at me with suspicion, but with interest" Ricordi told a biographer, years later. "He had surely understood."
Days later, the composer and librettist briefly met, yet Verdi refused to commit to a joint project. With barely a scrap of encouragement, Boito surged ahead to finish the libretto, trimming and refitting the plot for the operatic stage before turning his own translation of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter into the rhyming verse customary to the Italian stage. Ricordi delivered Boito's libretto, in sections, to Verdi. Playing coy, the composer placed them on his bedside table, next to a libretto for an operatic version of King Lear, which had been collecting dust for three decades.
Still, Verdi considered the bait. For the next two years, he sent notes to Boito, making suggestions and pointing out the improvements that he would demand, were he to set the entire text to music. Verdi finally deigned to accept the challenge and work began in earnest in early 1884. Following the completion of the initial draft, another year was spent on orchestration. Despite concerns about Wagner's immense shadow, Verdi: a musical genius in his own right: had learned a few tricks from the arrogant German, and was determined to achieve a consistent level of excellence beyond the sometimes-perfunctory instrumental practices of his earlier operas.
Otello premiered at La Scala in 1887, not quite eight years after that initial dinner table conversation (a foreshadowing of The Dallas Opera's long journey to the Winspear Opera House). When the curtain came down and Verdi stepped on stage to absorb the tidal wave of audience acclaim that night, he graciously (and, perhaps, knowingly) invited Boito to share the ovation.
Over 130 years later, opera goers readily recognize this magnificent work as Verdi's; however, side-by-side comparisons of Verdi's earlier librettos make it clear that Boito's contribution was critical to Otello's triumph. In an improbable sleight-of-hand, Boito's Italianate poetry doesn't merely serve the framework of Shakespeare's immortal tragedy; it uniquely preserves and, indeed, enhances this powerful tale from beginning to end.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.
Although it's unlikely Shakespeare ever traveled as far as Italy, Italian settings and characters are scattered throughout his canon. A fad for all things Italian pervaded Elizabethan England, and more than one observer has pointed out that Shakespeare's characters really are Italian, not just Englishmen with Italian names: hence the Italian affinity for Shakespeare.
The playwright drew his inspiration for Othello from the short story "Un Capitano Moro": possibly in French translation: by his Italian contemporary Giovanni Battista Giraldi, who seems to have been inspired by an actual incident in Venice. In Shakespeare's hands, the tale becomes a profound exploration of betrayal on several levels, built around the irony of murderous jealousy inextricably intertwined with deep love, possessiveness and attraction.
After its earliest performances in London in 1603, Shakespeare's Othello remained one of the most widely performed of Shakespeare's plays; however, it was during the nineteenth century that Shakespeare became a cultural icon across Europe. The intense humanity, the dark passions, the immediacy of emotion appealed directly to the romantic sensibility, and composers, as quick as any to fall under Shakespeare's spell, produced a body of Shakespeare-inspired works (such as Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream music and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture, to name two of the most famous) that continue to engage concert audiences today.
Opera composers were at the head of the line to steal, adapt, and adopt from the greatest dramatist of all time. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists over 270 operas and over 100 operettas and musicals based on Shakespeare; of these, Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and Verdi's three Shakespeare operas: Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff: are still the most frequently performed. Although it has rarely competed with Verdi's "big four" (La traviata, Il trovatore, Rigoletto, and Aida) in terms of audience recognition and box office appeal, many Verdians consider Otello to be the composer's greatest masterpiece.
Freed at last from the threat of suspicious foreign censors, with his epic battles behind him and plenty of time to work at his own meticulous pace, Verdi poured a lifetime of accrued musical and dramatic experience into this career-crowning achievement. More than ever before, Verdi's vocal parts emerge magically from the orchestra; which, in turn, has been liberated from its old role of accompanist to become a near-character in the drama, adding additional emotional weight to the sung text.
Adding to the considerable dramatic tension, Shakespeare's Othello is a "Moor," a term that was broadly applied to North African Arabs and black Africans by the Europeans of Shakespeare's time. White and black symbolize good and evil in Shakespeare's seventeenth-century drama, as well as in Verdi's nineteenth-century opera, where Othello is both ostracized and idolized, glorified and despised, and where his swarthiness is the visible, tangible sign of his marginalization.
Although, hopefully, the domestic and dramatic situations in Otello are more intense than most of us will face in real life (the final scene produces a body count hardly surpassed in the operatic repertoire), the dilemmas of jealousy, desire and betrayal are common to us all. In Othello or Otello, as with any great drama, it is our innermost selves that we recognize in the ranks of observers, appeasers, flatterers, perpetrators, protectors and innocent victims brought vividly to life, to sing Verdi's impossibly beautiful music in this treacherous moral landscape.
Generally speaking, we are neither angelic Desdemonas nor devilish Iagos, but mere men and women: like Verdi's protagonist: who must struggle daily against our own worst impulses or risk being utterly consumed by them.
For those who may never taste victory, but who: unlike Otello: have courageously conquered themselves: "Esultate!"
Otello plays at Dallas Opera through Nov. 8. For info and tickets, visit www.dallasopera.org
Wayne Lee Gay is a freelance writer and critic; he is currently completing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of North Texas.