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Chapter Twelve— What Makes Otello Work?
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Chapter Twelve—
What Makes Otello Work?

The composition of Otello was a much less Shakespearean feat; for the truth is that, instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera. It is quite peculiar among his works in this aspect. Its characters are monsters: Desdemona is a prima donna, with handkerchief, confidante, and vocal solo, all complete; and Iago, though slightly more anthropomorphic than the Count di Luna, is only so when he slips out of his stage villain's part. Othello's transports are conveyed by a magnificent but senseless music which rages from the Propontick to the Hellespont in an orgy of thundering sound and bounding rhythm; and the plot is a pure farce plot: that is to say, it is supported on an artificially manufactured and desperately precarious trick which a chance word might upset at any moment. With such a libretto, Verdi was quite at home: his success with it proves, not that he could occupy Shakespeare's plane, but that Shakespeare could on occasion occupy his, which is a very different matter.

Shaw on Verdi (1901), even at such length, is irresistible. He is also at least partly irresponsible. He was promoting Wagner by putting down Verdi, and G. B. Shaw by putting down Shakespeare. A substantial portion of his reputation is based on such clever and outrageous half-truths.

Of course, Verdi's opera is not Shakespeare's play, any more than Shakespeare's play is Giraldi Cinthio's story. In fact (although I am about to do it myself), I find it tiresome that people keep writing more and more words about the enigmatic Englishman's play when they pretend to be writing about Verdi's opera.

My guess is that several thousand words have been written about Othello -with-an-H for every one devoted to Otello . Shakespeare's 283-year head start has a lot to do with this—and the fact that words seem to be better suited to the analysis of structures made out of other words than to those made out of musical notes. Verse


drama, moreover, has a longer pedigree and a loftier academic prestige than mere opera.

But beyond that, apart from musical analysis, Boito/Verdi seem to have left the critic who wants to comment on something more than particular singers, conductors, and sets relatively little to talk about. They so strip-mined and refined their original that most of the endlessly fascinating questions Shakespeare's 25,000-plus words give rise to simply don't exist for the reader or analyst of the 6,500-word libretto (not counting repeats) that Boito writes and Verdi sets to music.

When Othello lost his H, Iago became Jago, and Desdemona began accenting the second syllable of her name, all three changed utterly. They awoke, in fact, in a totally different world: different because it was made out of music; because it was operatic; because it was Italian; because it was, in imaginative terms, Boitan and Verdian; and because it was a world conceived and brought to life in the 1880s rather than the early 1600s.

One gross example of the difference between their two worlds: Othello is one of the most savagely and explicitly sexual good plays ever written. I am referring not to coy bawdy jests or to traditionally safe literary euphemisms (hot blood, wanton sports, the rites of love). I mean compellingly vivid references to, and images of, sexual intercourse:

an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe . . .

Your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse . . .

making the beast with two backs . . .

The gross clasps of a lascivious Moor . . .

     the general camp,
Pioners, and all, had tasted her sweet body . . .

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on,
Behold her topp'd? . . .

Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
as salt as wolves, in pride . . .

     and then kiss me hard,
As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots,
That grew upon my lips, then laid his leg
Over my thigh . . .

     to be naked with her friend abed,
An hour, or more . . .

Lie with her, lie on her . . .


All of this, and so much more like it, has proven fertile ground for literary and psychological analysts of the play. But there is not one word of it in the opera. The word whore (repeated ten times in the play) is softened to vile courtesan —and even that parola orrenda appalls Des DE mona down to an E-flat shudder. The homoerotic leg-over-thigh image from Cassio's supposed dream is neutered into "as if kissing the internal image with tender anguish."

(George Marek has attributed this bowdlerization to Verdi's own "Italo-Victorian" tastes. Marvin Rosenberg has written of (and defended) similarly emasculated versions of the play that were being edited for young English female ears during the same century. My point is simply that a good deal of the ripest, juiciest source of interest . . . is gone.

Italo-Victorian or no, Arrigo Boito is regarded as a poet of some distinction. Scanning his libretto for repeated, musically accented words in search of some sort of poetic pattern that might explain the opera's power, I discovered about twenty words that recur again and again. Listening to the opera sung (even if one knows no Italian), one may find these repetitions weaving a kind of visionary emotional world.

Evviva! and Vittoria! are hard to miss. But then they're likely to crop up in the chorus of any Italian opera even vaguely related to war. Otello the hero is characterized by full-voiced war words such as tremendo and trionfale . His color (nero, rosco, tenebre, oscure ) is contrasted to Desdemona's ivory hand and white brow (eburnea mano, candido, giglio della tua fronte ). Jago is partly conjured up by diabolic diction (demonio, Satana, inferno ) and the evil adjectives he evokes (crudel, atroce ). Set against him, the two nineteenth-century Italians posit a Catholic paradiso of Dio, angeli, Madonna .

Ciel here means "heaven," and more. It is Otello's stock angry oath, as well as the starry sky that once signified his love. Notte means "night," but also his and its blackness, and their lost night of love.

The words one hears over and over begin to tell a story of their own. These Mediterranean nights, and the citizens who dwell under them, are forever shot through with sparks, fire, lightning (fulgor, fulgido, fulmini, ardente, fuoco ). Horror and its derivatives (orror, orrido, orribili ) are on everyone's lips. And lips—labbra —form the most constant physical image. Bacio (kiss) three times triggers the opera's most poignant motif, but it is also used in many uglier contexts. Credo, prego, giuro, temo (believe, pray, swear, fear): the four oft-asserted verbs tell half the plot. Onesta (honest) and cieco (blind) are perhaps unavoidable, given Shakespeare. But all of the mud, blood, and tears (fango, sangue, lagrime ) seem to be Boito's. The opera begins with una vela (a sail) and moves through Jago's velen (venom, poison) to vel, velo, veli, velami (veils and mists, handkerchiefs and fogs).

This analysis is still skeletal, unfinished; it is not yet enough to elicit much


response. I have said that Otello's new world is operatic as well as Italo-Victorian and Boitan. By this I mean not simply that it is drama set to music, but that, for all its austere innovations, it respects certain operatic conventions that may or may not contribute to a successful total effect.

I am overwhelmed with admiration for Verdi's ingenuity in forcing some of these conventions to make great dramatic sense. Suffering females' prayers are a stock-in-trade of sentimental operatics. And all Ave Maria isn't even all original prayer. But never has that prayer ("at the hour of our death"), or any other prayer in an opera been tuned to a higher intensity of precise dramatic meaning. Scene-setting music is often obvious and cheap—but not when it hurls us so bodily into the action as the opening of Otello . Everyone in opera repeats lines at the end of an act. But when has a repeat been more horrifyingly right than Jago's seizing up of Otello's oath at the end of Act II?

Among Shakespearean scholars, there is a theory that Iago represents (among other things) Othello's inner self, that what he is doing is only speaking aloud, or bringing to clear consciousness, his master's unconscious fantasies, fears, and demands. As I watch Verdi's pair at the end of Act II—Jago forcing Otello back down onto his knees so they may swear vengeance as one—the stunning harmony of these two voices, often singing an exact octave apart, seems to justify this idea, which in turn feeds all the more power into the musical moment.

Other operatic conventions don't come off so well. One can make a case for them (Boito does) as necessary light interludes, and the opera is sewn together well enough around and through them. But I could live without the bouncy Act I fire-lighting chorus, and those simpering maidens and mandolins in Act II. I almost wish Verdi had been courageous enough to scrap the very idea of artificial ensembles, as he scrapped so much other dead wood in Otello . I want to hear Jago arguing with his wife in Act II, not have their lines swamped by Otello's and Desdemona's. And the louder-and-louder Act III closing septet (quintet, really, with voice-unders; Otello mutters only ten words) has always struck me, for all Verdi's efforts, as more operatic convention than music-as-drama.

And yet a good Otello (which one is actually more likely to find than a good Othello )—its poetry stripped bare, its eroticism censored, inflated by operatics—can still move us in profound, complex, and serious ways. Why?

Reviewers, like operagoers, tend to concentrate on stars first, producers second, and (if we're lucky) conductors and orchestras third. But in looking over a lot of old reviews, I discovered a few that began to hint at one reason for Otello 's enduring power.

One is Horst Koegler's astonishing review, in Opera magazine, of Walter Felsenstein's 1959 production at the Komische Oper of East Berlin. This critic thought it the most powerful Othello, opera or play, he had ever seen—even though it was inadequately sung. The director had "liquidated" asides and other conventions.


Hanns Nocker, according to Koegler, outplayed Laughton, Welles, Robeson, and Bondarchuk—even though "one could scarcely hear" his singing.

Then there was a French reviewer, at the Orange Festival in 1975, who insisted that Jon Vickers would be a great Otello "even if he lost his voice." This reminded me of a Friday evening in San Francisco, November 1970, when James McCracken did precisely that. Kurt Herbert Adler, the company's general director, came on stage before Act IV to inform us that the celebrated tenor had lost his upper voice, but that he had agreed to sing out the opera even so. We all applauded gratefully. But in fact, dummy that I was, I had been quite moved by the thin falsetto of McCracken's high notes at the end of Act III. It had seemed to me a creepy, convincing, dramatic innovation, a means of communicating uncontrol to the brink of madness.

Verdi himself says (and I almost believe him) that the whole of Jago's role can be sung successfully mezza voce. Some of the most powerful "arias" in the opera (Otello's harrowing Act III monologue is one example) are really better acted—gasped and choked, whispered and sputtered—than traditionally and beautifully "sung."[1]

What all of this adds up to is a hint of one possible source of the opera's persistent, non-Shakespearean power. Of course, there's still the whole Joseph Kerman, drama-in-the-music aspect to consider. But the emerging point is that this opera, like no other in the classic Italian repertory, is an opera for actors. What potency it has inheres in those three characters—what Otello, Jago, and Desdemona can be made to mean for us, do to us, evoke in us in terms of a vision, a statement, a complex of emotions.

This has something, but not very much, to do with logic. Much of what these three characters do and say, like their nonsinging 1604 counterparts, doesn't make real-world sense. By cutting Shakespeare's Act I, Boito and Verdi actually gain a small increment of credibility, if that matters. At least we aren't obliged to believe that Otello and Desdemona go to bed together for the first time ever during the opening act, and that he murders her about thirty hours later. Although some critics and producers interpret the love duet as a "wedding night" symbol, the

Since the ultimate goal of Iago is nothingness, he must not only destroy others, but himself as well . . .

To convey this to an audience demands of the actor who plays the role the most violent contrasts in the way he acts when Iago is with others and the way he acts when he is left alone. With others, he must display every virtuoso trick of dramatic technique for which great actors are praised, perfect control of movement, gesture, expression, diction, melody and timing, and the ability to play every kind of role. . . . When he is alone, on the other hand, the actor must display every technical fault for which bad actors are criticized. He must deprive himself of all stage presence, and must deliver the lines of his soliloquies in such a way that he makes nonsense of them. His voice must lack expression, his delivery must be atrocious, he must pause where the verse calls for no pauses, accentuate unimportant words, etc.


libretto allows and even encourages one to imagine any number of weeks or months of similar bliss back home in Venice.

Even so, if you test the action against mere reason it will seem absurd. Roderigo is persuaded to pick a fight with, and later try to kill Cassio for less than no cause. Jago teases Otello down from blissful loving faith to Miseria mia! in just seventy-nine bars. If a conductor were to follow Verdi's tempo markings exactly, the Moor's whole moral collapse would take exactly three minutes and eight seconds. And I don't think you can learn as much about Jago as some people think just by reading the words of his Credo . By that standard, he may well appear a mere stock nineteenth-century Mephistopheles of no particular human interest.

For me, the potential excitement in Verdi's Jago lies in the quality of the baritone voice each singing actor brings to the role. In a way, Verdi was never more humble, more the selfless servant of his librettist and of imagined future productions than when he scored the words for this extraordinary part. Jago's melodic line does not order the singer how to sing or even (considered by itself) evoke much in the way of a performance. Instead, it invites a great baritone to do what he can; then gently, deftly, but with exquisite self-assurance underscores and punctuates the part. (Sandra Corse has suggested that Jago's vocal line as written—the recitativelike declamatory bursts, the unpredictable musical emphases, the rapid changes in dynamics and irregular pauses—does "suggest obsession." But that still leaves a great deal for the performer to add.)

The role of Desdemona, too, "works" only if its interpreter can make it work. She has all of the lilting lyrical opportunities any prima donna, or easily pleased audience, could wish for. But she is also asked to be, indeed must be strong, made of ductile steel. Brabantio's daughter is much more mature, much more her own woman, than Rigoletto's.

And Otello's jealousy, rapid, illogically induced, and operatic as it may seem, can also be made real enough to hurt very deeply. Much of the reason for this, I believe, lies in the fact that the surface of it is appallingly authentic.

The kind of morbid sexual jealousy that leads to murder has been frequently studied by criminologists and psychiatrists. According to R. R. Mowat in Morbid Jealousy and Murder , delusions of a lover's infidelity were the major factor in at least 12 percent—in some tests, as high as 23 percent—of British murder cases available for study—and that leaves out the one-third of murderers who also killed themselves, and hence weren't available for study.

It doesn't "explain" either Shakespeare's Moor or Verdi's to say that he "fits the pattern" of real-world jealous murderers. But I think much of the potential power of this role is related to the precision with which his behavior conforms not only to actual cases, but also to what Freud saw as a near-universal impulse in normal people—in Othello's case, an impulse yielded to so spectacularly that our own healthily repressed instincts may well be touched.


VERDI Otello , Victoria de Los Angeles and James McCracken, San Francisco Opera, 1962.
Photograph by Carolyn Mason Jones. Courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

Your average insanely jealous murderer is a man in his late forties ("declined into the vale of years"), considerably older than those who murder for other causes or who are judged sane. ("Age itself predisposes to a paranoid development and jealousy seems only a too natural reaction for the unhappily married husband.") Eighty-five per cent of the time, he kills, not the supposed rival ("Cassio lives?"), but his wife or mistress. ("The rival is in a way a delusional presence who has little real existence and is therefore difficult to attack.") Sixteen percent have prior assault convictions (note the blow in Act III). Ultimately, 66 percent confess ("I killed her"), and almost 50 percent attempt suicide ("He stabs himself").

Why do they kill? Psychiatrists generally agree with Karl Jaspers that there is almost inevitably some "primary" delusional experience, some antecedent cause, since the actual evidence of infidelity is usually pathetically slight, even self-created. "Almost anything will serve as evidence of the presence of another, and it is usually concluded that sexual intercourse has taken place. The jealous man sees a handkerchief on the floor"—un fazzoletto! —"a hair on the bed, a wet cloth in the bathroom, newspapers in a ditch, and attaches to all the same import, and is again convinced." The morbidly-jealous man needs to believe his wife is unfaithful. "The vast major-


ity of cases cannot be corrected by new experience or instruction," writes E. P. Bleuler, "as long as the condition which gave birth to them continues."

In many of the cases studied, an intervening, if not primary, condition is sexual impotence. For whatever reason (age—"the young affects / In me defunct"—alcoholism, disability, nervous block), the man cannot perform. Unable to bear the shame of blaming himself, he blames his wife ("How could I touch anything so foul?") and begins to imagine good reasons for not touching her. If not that, the root cause is often seen to be some other form of injured pride or self-esteem in an overly possessive, hypersensitive, secretly insecure male. She is to blame for all that happens to him . (Otello is recalled to Venice, and slaps Desdemona.)

The French psychiatrist Daniel Lagache, in La Jalousie amoureuse , thinks a paranoid jealous man likely to be one who, perhaps because he has known no women before (had Otello?) and is slightly afraid of sex, has formed an impossible feminine ideal to which he expects his spouse to conform (la gloria, e paradiso, e gli astri ). When she betrays the first sign of even civil interest in another man, he leaps to the worst conclusions. If she is not perfect (this is a Freudian, mother-related formulation), then she must be unspeakably foul. "The rival commonly suspected is a friend," according to Lagache, "someone regularly associated with the household . . . a dominant person with superior social and economic standing." Elaborate, paranoiac spying rites then alternate with vile accusations, slaps, threats, and attempts to force out foul confessions. Out of private need, the man imagines erotic promiscuity, and projects his imaginings onto the woman.

Otello's behavior, in other words, is exactly that of hundreds of modern murderers studied in England, France, Sweden, Germany, and the United States. The murder, when it finally comes (more likely by bludgeoning or beating than by strangling or smothering), is commonly regarded by the man as an act of justice ("Confess! . . . Beware of perjury!") as well as a means of ridding his world of an intolerable presence.

Well, enough of this. Otello is a role in an 1887 Italian opera, not the hypothetical creation of a modern French psychiatrist, let alone some whimpering 1960 paranoiac in the Broadmoor Asylum for Criminal Lunatics. Intriguing as such parallels may momentarily be, they have a dangerously reductive tendency. Otello is obviously a conception much grander and more open than any real-life, morbidly jealous murderer. Otherwise the role could never go on, year after year, affecting so many people so deeply. But I do believe that the first catch, the first painful hook or hold he gets on us, may derive from the superficial authenticity of his awesome emotions.

Let me offer one last, private suggestion as to a possible source of this opera's power. Verdi's score is not all orrore, notte, tremendo , not all drenching sea storm, sinister evil, and strangled declamation. There are also a few brief moments of


heart-catching beauty—moments usually triggered by a rising vocal or violin phrase that leaps to one single lovely note and then descends.

Like most operagoers, I suspect, I love these rare bits, and I tried to track them all down. Almost every one, I found, made musical-emotional reference, not to joy now, but either to hope of joy to come (the Act I duet), or to an agonized, Proust-like remembrance of joys past:

O: Now and forever, farewell, sacred memories. . . .

D: But it was with this hand that I gave my heart.

O: But oh grief, oh suffering! They have robbed me of the vision that kept my
soul content. . . .

D: And one day on my smile
Hope and kisses bloomed. . . .

—and, of course, the final "un bacio . . . un bacio ancora."

At first, reading or playing these splendid, silvery moments again and again, I thought the impact was wholly musical; I was yielding to some trick of tonality and orchestration. But the effect seemed too sure and too lasting for that.

Then I thought it might be only "Verdian." Perhaps he could not face up, as Wagner could, to full-out Love Present. Because of some inner weakness akin to Otello's, Verdi had to hide behind a fiction of love remembered or yet to come.

And then I remembered fourteen of the strongest and truest lines Shakespeare ever wrote. And I wondered whether both of these great men in the end might not have been onto the same awful secret:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme,
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe.
Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the Heaven that leads men to this Hell.



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