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WGO Opens Season with Verdi's Otello
When Wichita Grand Opera opens its new season on January 19th (at 7pm at the Century II Concert Hall) Wichita opera fans will be treated to their first-ever production of Verdi’s Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello. While arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Othello is not performed as frequently as many of the Bard’s other works. The simple fact is that few actors can handle such a complex role, exploring conflicting layers of honor, love, jealousy, vengeance, and racism. The same is true in the opera world.
If you look back at the most highly-regarded theatrical Othellos of the last 50 years you encounter names like Sir Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and Sir Patrick Stewart. With a list like that, it seems as though a knighthood is virtually a requirement to attempt such a role.
Verdi’s take on Shakespeare’s play is even more demanding. The dramatic difficulty is equal whether the title is spelled with or without the H, but Verdi requires his Otello to sing. In fact, Otello is one of the most difficult roles a tenor can attempt, but the reward for mastering the role is equally great. Laurence Olivier once saw a performance of Otello starring Plácido Domingo and jokingly complained, “He plays Othello as well as I do, and he has that voice!”
WGO General Director Parvan Bakardiev recently said, “You can count on one hand the number of singers in the world right now who can truly handle the role of Otello, simply from a vocal standpoint. Then, ask how many of those combine the voice with the acting ability, the looks, the charisma… You’re left with just two: Plácido Domingo and Martin Iliev.”
Tenor Martin Iliev, who will be singing the title role in WGO’s production, has made huge waves in the European opera scene over the last several years. He is singing the most difficult tenor roles (like Otello, Siegfried, Manrico, Don Carlo, and Radames) and Europe’s leading opera publications – from Germany’s Opernwelt and Das Opernglas to Italy’s l’Opera – can’t stop talking about him.
In his U.S. debut, Martin Iliev appeared as Cavaradossi in Wichita Grand Opera’s production of Tosca. A record-setting audience of over 4,000 filled Century II’s Convention Hall to see Samuel Ramey’s professional debut in Kansas that night. They expected a thrilling performance from Mr. Ramey. What they weren’t expecting was to hear a superb young tenor who, in just a few years, would be one of the most highly-regarded voices in Europe.
Mr. Iliev began his opera career singing baritone roles – a lower voice type than a tenor – but critics started to take notice once he brought his powerful voice into the tenor range. He’s certainly not the first opera singer to make that transition successfully. In fact, we mentioned another great example just a few paragraphs ago: Plácido Domingo.
As big a role as Otello may be, Otello is anything but a one-man show. Otello’s aide, Iago, begins the opera furious that Otello has promoted the young, handsome Cassio to the rank of Captain, in spite of Iago’s years of loyal service. Iago sets out to destroy Otello for revenge, beginning by tricking Cassio into a scandalous brawl with another soldier. Otello strips Cassio of his rank, but Otello’s innocent wife, Desdemona, attempts to intercede on behalf of the unfortunate former Captain. Seizing the opportunity, Iago leads Otello to suspect that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. To avenge his honor, Otello murders Desdemona, and then takes his own life once Iago’s plot is uncovered.
European sensation Zvetelina Vassileva returns once more to Wichita Grand Opera to star as Desdemona. Known internationally as a Verdi specialist, Ms. Vassileva is one of the world’s premiere Desdemonas, performing with Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and many other prestigious houses. WGO favorite Michael Nansel, a frequent guest at Washington National Opera, will take the sinister role of Iago. Rounding out the principal cast, tenor Dustin Peterson of Opera Colorado, Lyric Opera Kansas City, and the Eutiner (Germany) Festspiele definitely fits the bill as the young and handsome Cassio.
Even with immensely talented artists such as these, it can be a daunting task to mold nine principal artists, a chorus of nearly 50, an orchestra of over 40 members, and an army of technical and backstage personnel into a cohesive, artistic performance. First, an overall concept for the production must be created, covering everything from set designs, costume designs, props, and characterizations, to decisions such as whether to stick to a “traditional” time period and setting for the production or to re-imagine the story in a different setting.
For WGO’s Otello, Artistic Director Margaret Ann Pent will create the production concept and design. Ms. Pent has designed and directed many of Wichita Grand Opera’s best productions, including Carmen on the Lake (2003), Tosca (2007) and Faust (2008), both starring Samuel Ramey, The Merry Widow (2011), and Il Trovatore (2012).
Otello’s sets will be created by internationally-renowned scenic artist Stefan Pavlov. Over the past 10 years, the WGO’s most spectacular sets have been created by Mr. Pavlov, who will be in residence for WGO’s entire season, also creating sets for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Pasquale later in the year. He is also currently designing a new production of Verdi’s Nabucco for the Opera de Massy in France, as well as several productions that will be seen throughout Germany, France, and Spain. Costumes for WGO’s Otello are being provided by Malabar, LTD – one of North America’s most-respected costume shops.
Once the cast arrives for rehearsals, stage director Shayna Leahy takes charge of shaping the action onstage. Ms. Leahy previously directed WGO’s outstanding productions of Il Trovatore (2012), Madama Butterfly (2010), and Aida (2009). After the lights go up and the curtains open, her duties end and Maestro Martin Mázik is on his own to guide Wichita Grand Opera’s artists through a thrilling performance. Maestro Mázik is the Principal Conductor of the Slovak National Opera, and is one of Europe’s busiest conductors, leading a performance every other night year-round, on average. This will be Maestro Mázik’s tenth appearance with Wichita Grand Opera since his U.S. debut in 2004’s Don Giovanni.
Verdi had retired following the stunning success of Aida, at the absolute peak of his artistic powers. It took his publisher 16 years to convince him to write Otello – by then Verdi was nearly 74 years old! Fortunately, his talents had not diminished in the slightest. At Otello’s premiere, the audience called for Verdi to take more than 20 curtain calls, and a cheering mob accompanied the composer back to his hotel at the end of the evening.
On January 19th, Wichita’s audience will have a chance to see Otello, the opera that made Arturo Toscanini exclaim “Fall on your knees and say Viva Verdi!” WGO’s season continues with Don Pasquale at the Wichita Orpheum on February 9, and The Marriage of Figaro on March 16 and Swan Lake on May 1, both at Century II. Tickets start as low as $35 each, and are available through the WGO Box Office at 316-262-8054, or at SelectASeat.com.