Reflections: Verdi’s Otello

“Pacific Symphony Mounts a Surefire Production of Verdi’s Otello” — Voice of OC

For the 10th anniversary of Pacific Symphony’s opera initiative, Carl St.Clair conducted the orchestra, Pacific Chorale and a stellar cast of singers in Verdi’s greatest dramatic masterpiece, Otello. The audience cheered and critics raved.


“It’s luxury casting to have a full symphony orchestra play this music and St.Clair and the Pacific musicians sounded ready for it…Positioned in the loft above the orchestra, the recently Grammy-winning Pacific Chorale gave a fit and trim account of the extensive parts for chorus…Tenor Carl Tanner reprised the title role that he sang at the Metropolitan Opera in a commanding performance…Baritone Stephen Powell clearly enjoyed singing Iago, not with a villainous twirling of mustaches or overplaying, but by savoring the words and phrases as if they were evil chocolate morsels…Making her debut in the role, soprano Kelebogile Besong provided a fragile and vulnerable account of the doomed Desdemona. Her tones shimmered, her phrases filigreed.” 

Classical Voice

A Powerhouse Otello…American tenor Carl Tanner gave the finest singing of the evening as the tragic moor Otello…Like the great Otellos of the past—Ramon Vinay, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo—Tanner successfully portrayed Otello as a great warrior and a romantic hero who tragically falls victim to blind jealousy…The Pacific Chorale sang and acted magnificently in the Act 1 storm chorus and the campfire drinking chorus, as well as the Act 3 assembly scene.”  

Click here for more information on Pacific Symphony’s opera initiative, Opera FOCUS.

Opera FOCUS Dinner
1) Gary Good welcoming opera-lovers to the OperaFocus Dinner. 2) Concertmaster Dennis Kim plays “Meditation” from Thais by Massenet in honor of Paul Musco and Carlos Mollura. 3) Ellie and Mike Gordon. 4) Music Director Carl St.Clair and Dennis Kim. 5) Assistant Conductor Jacob Sustaita, Stage Director Robert Neu and Volunteer Sonia Levitin. 6) Drs. Hana and Francisco Ayala, Ruth Ann and John Evans, chairman of the board. 7) Tawny Nguyen, Robert Neu and Mark Nielsen

Opera Performance
1) The opera begins with a fierce storm, but Otello steers his boat safely into the harbor of Cyprus. 2) Celebration over the arrival of Otello. 3) Otello (Carl Tanner) greets his wife Desdemona (Kelebogile Besong). 4) Sadistic Iago (Stephen Powell) plants a seed of jealousy in Otello’s mind. 5) Emilia (Margaret Lattimore) counsels Desdemona. 6) Iago rejoices and proclaims his belief in a cruel God. 7) Desdemona prays. 8) Otello confronts Desdemona, while she proclaims her innocence. 9) Final bows

Photo Credits: Doug Gifford

What’s Happening This Month: April 2022

April is upon us and that means we’ll be in Verdi mode for the next couple of weeks until April 12. Even though Otello wasn’t Verdi’s last work, people in his life still tried to find ways to encourage him to come out of retirement to work on this fate tempting project. All it took was Boito’s compelling first draft and a mutual love of Shakespeare prevailed.

Later in the month, the magic of cirque comes to the concert hall with Cirque de la Symphonie, April 22-23. There will also be two performances of Cirque for Kids on Saturday, April 23. We’re honored to be a part of the North American Premiere of Danny Elfman’s Percussion Concerto featuring British percussionist Colin Currie at Soka Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 24. The month closes off with Yang Plays Rachmaninoff Apr. 28-30 and Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings wraps up their 2021-22 season with It’s All About Strings! on Saturday, Apr. 30.

Thank you for joining us! Here’s your monthly update.

Verdi’s Otello • April 7, 9 & 12 at 8 p.m. PDT

Love, betrayal and jealousy – all trademarks of great tragic opera – Otello embraces these themes to the fullest. Written decades after going into retirement, Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale takes you on a journey through a passionate romance destroyed by one of opera’s most loathsome villains. This will be a semi-staged opera in four acts, sung in Italian with English supertitles. There will also be an intermission after Act II.

Our cast includes tenor Carl Tanner as Otello, soprano Kelebogile Besong as Desdemona and baritone Stephen Powell as Iago. Pacific Symphony will be under the baton of Maestro Carl St.Clair.

To learn more, please click here.

Cirque de la Symphonie • April 22-23 at 8 p.m. PDT

Beauty, thrills and majesty! This popular troupe returns with a show featuring a jaw-dropping fusion of fliers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers and strongmen who perform their cirque acts while Pacific Symphony provides a soundtrack of classical masterpieces and contemporary favorites. They’ll be performing to selections from Chicago, Flight to Neverland, Swan Lake and more! Pacific Symphony will be under the baton of Dr. Jacob Sustaita.

To learn more, please click here.

Cirque for Kids • April 23 at 10 and 11:30 a.m. PDT

Symphony + Circus = a spectacular show, created especially for kids! Experience a jaw-dropping fusion of fliers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers and strongmen who perform their cirque acts while Pacific Symphony provides a soundtrack of classical masterpieces and contemporary favorites. This fun and fascinating 45-minute concert designed especially for children 5-11. Pacific Symphony will be under the baton of Dr. Jacob Sustaita.

To learn more, please click here.

This video was produced by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sundays at Soka: Percussion Concerto by Danny Elfman • April 24 at 3 p.m. PDT

Danny Elfman brings to Aliso Viejo the North American Premiere of a brand new percussion concerto, co-commissioned by Soka Performing Arts Center at Soka University and the London Philharmonic, performed by Colin Currie – as one critic put it, ‘surely the world’s finest and most daring percussionist’. Additional pieces include Golijov’s Last Round and Wineglass’ Alone Together. Pacific Symphony will be under the baton of Maestro Carl St.Clair.

The Percussion Concerto is co-commissioned by Soka University and the London Philharmonic.

To learn more, please click here.

Yang Plays Rachmaninoff • April 28-30 at 8 p.m. PDT

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 is a work that leads you from gorgeous melodies to unforgettable themes, all without pause. Earlier in the evening, piano phenom Joyce Yang dazzles with Rachmaninoff’s tour-de-force of the keyboard, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. April is also a big month. Not only are we acknowledging Rachmaninoff’s birthday on April 1, Yang’s birthday is also on April 11. Pacific Symphony will be under the baton of guest conductor Maestro José Luis Gomez.

To learn more, please click here.

PSSS: It’s All About Strings! • April 30 at 1 p.m. PDT

Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings wraps up their 2021-22 season with a program of rousing and engaging works from many eras. From the ethereal beauty of Gerald Finzi to the brilliance and drama of Tchaikovsky, this program is sure to provide new and exciting musical vistas for all to enjoy! Admission is free, but tickets are required. Seating is general admission. Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings will be under the baton of Maestra Irene Kroesen.

To learn more, please click here.

What concert are you looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below!

Opera and Shakespeare

The problem with Shakespeare is that the music is already in the words…

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare.

Opera in America was revolutionized in the 1980s, when opera companies started projecting translations of the text over the stage. Now, instead of having to study a woefully inadequate synopsis before the performance, audiences know exactly what is being sung. That’s the upside; the downside is that audiences now know exactly what is being sung. Because the fact is that many operas succeed in spite of their librettos, not because of them, and many a popular opera is actually a musical silk purse made out of a veritable sow’s ear of a libretto.

            Still, composers have an obvious advantage if they start with a really good text, and it would seem logical to turn to the best playwrights. You might think that would make Shakespeare a fertile source, but the reality has not worked out that way. The problem with Shakespeare is that the music is already in the words, and there is virtually nothing a composer could add to make it more effective. It would be, to misquote the Bard himself, like gilding the lily. This is why operas based upon or inspired by Shakespeare plays virtually never use his actual text.

            Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) had his first crack at a Shakespeare story with the tenth of his twenty-eight operas, Macbeth (1847), in the melodramatic, blood-and-thunder style typical of Verdi’s early works. When he reviewed the score in 1865, he found “certain numbers that are weak or lacking in character, which is worse still”—a testament to the composer’s evolution during the half-century that he dominated Italian opera.

            Verdi’s musical development first culminated in what almost became his final opera, Aida, in 1871, and his definitive setting of the Requiem Mass that premiered in 1874. He then settled into a comfortable retirement, but some 13 years later he would return in blazing triumph to the opera stage with another Shakespearean inspiration, Otello.

            Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868), who ruled the world of Italian opera during the decades before Verdi snatched his crown, had composed an Otello in 1816. Although it bears only a fleeting resemblance to Shakespeare, it remained popular almost until Verdi’s version swept it into oblivion in 1887. By that time the sunny brightness of Rossini’s music had yielded to the brooding darkness of late Romanticism, a style far more appropriate to the tale of Othello and Desdemona’s tragic love.

            Verdi’s unparalleled gift for melody and mastery of orchestral colors ensured that his Otello would take its place near the top of the operatic heap. Certainly his score doesn’t lack for spectacular music gestures, from the explosive lightning bolt that starts the opera, to the lusty choral crowd scenes, the pageantry of the 16th-century Venetian court, and ultimately the brutal murder with which it concludes.

            Yet for all of its technicolor brilliance, Verdi’s drama is actually amazingly intimate; the true action transpires inside the protagonist’s head, where Iago plants the doubt and jealousy that eventually drive him to murder his beloved wife over an act of infidelity she never committed. Part of Verdi’s genius was the way he was able to expose and shine a light on the machinations of a deteriorating mind. So great were Verdi’s dramatic skills that he could make an imaginary event as vividly palpable as an actual one; you barely need the Supertitles to witness the process. It is this psychological complexity, coupled with the nearly impossible vocal demands Verdi makes upon the singer, that have made the title role the Everest of tenor parts.

            Of course Verdi didn’t do this all by himself. The fine text he set was brilliantly crafted by Arrigo Boito, who, as an aspiring opera composer himself, understood a composer’s needs. His only completed opera, Mefistofele, premiered unsuccessfully in 1868, but he earned more fame in 1876 as the librettist for Ponchielli’s masterpiece, La Gioconda. It was the prospect of collaborating with Boito on Otello suggested by the publisher Ricordi that finally lured Verdi out of retirement.

            Verdi’s only opera after Otello was another hugely successful Shakespeare-inspired collaboration with Boito, Falstaff, one of only two comedies Verdi ever composed. But for this listener, at least, Otello is the most brilliant jewel in the crown of the composer whose genius was so spectacularly detonated by the searing drama of Shakespeare’s tragedy. George Bernard Shaw quipped, “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.” If that’s true, the Bard of Avon must have had Verdi in mind.

John Schauer is a freelance writer who worked at San Francisco Opera for 13 years and spins his own bizarre operatic fantasies in his novel Chaste Goddess.

Verdi and Three Degrees of Separation

This photo features Tenor Carl Tanner as Otello. Photo Credit: Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera.

It’s hard to imagine that Verdi’s Otello might almost have never existed. The opera came about after a depressed Verdi was coaxed out of retirement by celebrity singers, genius librettists, socialites and even Verdi’s own wife. They hunted for tempting subject matter, planned “chance” encounters and even tried to make Verdi believe that the salvation of theater lay in his hands. All plots failed.

What finally did the trick was a night of wining, dining and sneaking Shakespeare—whom Verdi worshiped—into the conversation. The characters of one particular tragedy…Othello with the Moor’s jealous anguish and Iago’s malevolent schemes… proved too tempting for Verdi to resist.

The audience at the 1887 premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan had demanded 20 curtain calls. What they didn’t know yet was that the one who would carry on the magic of that performance to future generations was a cellist in the orchestra pit—the now legendary Arturo Toscanini.

The phenomenal career of this conductor began in a serendipitous way. A few months before the Otello premiere, Toscanini had been the principal cellist of an opera company whose South American tour erupted into chaos.

The company was set to perform Verdi’s Aida in Rio de Janeiro, but the local conductor had such a poor grasp of the score that the singers and musicians threatened to strike. The conductor resigned just hours before the performance, and both men who tried to replace him that night were chased off the podium by the audience. In desperation, someone remembered that Toscanini—a kid so young he had needed parental permission to join the tour—knew Verdi’s score by heart. Although he had no experience conducting, a 19-year-old Toscanini picked up the baton and became an overnight sensation.

Toscanini’s understanding of Verdi’s music was unmatched—an opinion held not just by audiences. The composer was notorious for grumbling at conductors for misinterpreting his scores. Toscanini was one of the few Verdi had praised.

Fast forward to the apocalyptic madness of World War II when Toscanini’s Swiss-born assistant Walter Ducloux pauses his career to become the personal interpreter for General Patton. Throughout campaigns that claimed countless lives, Ducloux did far more than just survive. He won five battle stars and a Bronze Star from the US Army and was awarded the Bronze Medal from the Italian government for his productions of Verdi operas.

Ducloux became a professor and music director at the University of Texas in Austin. When he advertised for an assistant, another bit of serendipity fell into place. You might even call it the force of destiny.

That’s because the person Ducloux hired wasn’t originally interested in becoming a conductor. He was a trumpet student looking for an apprenticeship that would pay for his studies so he applied to the only one he could find. But Ducloux needed only five minutes to recognize something special in the student, and so Carl St.Clair got the job.

St.Clair emerged from his years of study with Ducloux as a polished conductor. His final task before receiving his Master’s degree was to conduct Otello.

The final twist of destiny came into play when St.Clair and Pacific Symphony brought back opera to Orange County. In 2008, Opera Pacific fell victim to a wave of opera company closures that was sweeping the nation. But members of the opera-loving community rallied alongside St.Clair and worked tirelessly to fill that void with unique concert stagings of opera with Pacific Symphony.

The Symphony’s performances of Otello in April will mark the 10-year anniversary of opera’s return to Orange County. Good tickets are still available. You can find them here. And as you experience Verdi’s operatic masterpiece, keep in mind that Carl St.Clair conducts the work as someone who is only three degrees of separation from the great composer himself.

Guest blogger Sonia Levitin is a freelance writer and opera enthusiast based in Orange County.

The Otello Project: Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Pacific Symphony’s Opera Initiative

Our performances of Verdi’s Otello will feature Carl Tanner as Otello, Kelebogile Besong as Desdemona and Stephen Powell as Iago.

In three entertaining and enlightening Zoom webinars, Pacific Symphony Assistant Conductor, Dr. Jacob Sustaita, previews and introduces the upcoming performances of Verdi’s operatic masterpiece, Otello. Each online session will explore the opera’s depiction of jealousy and rage by examining the work’s psychological, musical and dramatic forces.

Don’t miss this opportunity to peek behind the scenes at how Pacific Symphony brings the dramatic pathos of this opera to the stage of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Shakespeare Reinterpreted: Verdi’s Otello • March 23 at 5 p.m.

Soprano Kelebogile Besong and Stage Director Bob Neu join Session #1 to discuss the innocence and determination of Desdemona, with a focus on her Act IV farewell and prayer before her death.

Iago’s CREDO: Naivety and the Complexity of an Evil-Genius • March 30 at 5 p.m.

Baritone Stephen Powell and Stage Director Bob Neu discuss Iago’s theatrical polarity, declamatory musical style, and dramatic characterization.

Otello’s Collapse: A Handkerchief, A Victim and A Murder • April 6 at 5 p.m.

Tenor Carl Tanner shares his experiences of preparing and performing this enormous role. Tanner and Sus­taita explore Otello’s challenges and complexities.

**Subject to change.**

HOW TO WATCH: Ticket holders will receive an email with a Zoom link 24 hours before each session. A recording of each session will be made available several days later for renewed viewing for up to one month.

COST: This three-session, online course costs $35 per household.

HOW TO PURCHASE: Please call the box office at (714) 755-5799 or purchase online using the hyperlinks above.

What’s your favorite part of Verdi’s Otello? Let us know in the comments below!


Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Plácido Domingo, 77, has sung his 150th role. …

Architect Frank Gehry has designed a new concert hall for L.A. Phil’s youth orchestra. …

The music director of the Long Beach Symphony adds the Portland Symphony (Maine) to his resume. …

The Philadelphia Orchestra is going to test drive new works by six young women composers. …

The Concertgebouw Orchestra has fired its celebrated chief conductor. …

George Walker, the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, has died at 96. …

At the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner gets a timely update. …

None other than Yo-Yo Ma offers a sampling of Bach for his Tiny Desk Concert. …


New subscription series: ‘Symphonic Voices’

Pacific Symphony has launched a new subscription series focused on the human voice.


Dubbed “Symphonic Voices,” the four-concert package is centered on the annual semi-staged production of an opera, which next season will be Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (Feb. 21, 23, 26).

To this is added the other opera on the schedule, Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges” (May 16-18, 2019); a semi-staged production of “My Fair Lady” on the Pops series, conducted by Richard Kaufman (May 31-June 1, 2019); and the season-ending performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand,” featuring the Pacific Chorale, the Southern California Children’s Chorus, and soloists to be announced (June 6-8, 2019).

Carl St.Clair conducts everything except “My Fair Lady.”

For those who sign up for the subscription in the near future, a fifth concert, “Bernstein @ 100,” celebrating the centennial of Leonard Bernstein (Oct.25-27, 2018), is added free.

Subscriptions to “Symphonic Voices” are available for $270. Call (714) 755-5799 for more information or to purchase. This offer is not available online.


An inside look at James Levine’s lawsuit against the Metropolitan Opera….

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony have a new contract, negotiated without rancor….

John Williams’ next “Star Wars” film will be his last….

Here’s a fresh idea for a classical concert — Poems While You Wait….

Several classical titles have been named to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, including Artur Schnabel’s complete recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas….

Zack Ferriday makes a strong case for ditching the term “Maestro”….

José Abreu, founder of Venezuela’s El SIstema, has died….

That time Philip Glass was in a whisky ad

“In the Spring of 1984, I had just finished writing Akhnaten and I was getting ready for a double opening at the Houston Grand Opera and at the Stuttgart Opera. I had already used up all the commission money to pay for the preparation of the conductor’s score and the piano reduction used by the singer’s for rehearsals. In addition, I had to pay for copying the parts from which the musicians in the orchestra would play, and for that I needed about fifteen thousand dollars. Before computers, this work, an intense amount of labor, had to be done by hand, requiring three or four copyists. Out of the blue I got an offer to do a print ad for Cutty Sark, and, miraculously, they offered me fifteen thousand dollars. I was overjoyed and didn’t hesitate. A photograph was taken of me holding a glass of Scotch whisky with musical notes floating in it. I took the money and had the parts done for the opera.” — from “Words Without Music” by Philip Glass

Director’s note for ‘The Magic Flute’

“The Magic Flute” is Mozart’s final opera and one of his last compositions. It premiered in Vienna in September 1791 and Mozart died a mere two months later. Despite being sick, hungry, broke and altogether miserable, Mozart’s music is some of the most joyous and beautiful he ever wrote.

The piece is technically termed a “singspiel” — meaning that it combines singing and spoken dialogue – and that means that it’s what we today call a musical. While on the surface “The Magic Flute” and its characters can be considered a bit silly, it is actually an endlessly fascinating work of art.

So many meanings have been attached to this opera: Is it about brotherhood? The meaning of true love? The method for achieving an honorable life? Some feel the work is a philosophical tract about the Age of Enlightenment, some believe it’s a commentary on the French Revolution, some accuse Mozart of purloining Masonic secret rituals. Others argue that it’s a political diatribe aimed against a conservative Austrian government headed by Maria Theresa. There are also theories that the work is inspired by tarot cards or even by the psychosexual beliefs of Carl Jung. (Obviously, the latter is historically impossible.)

Every one of these is fascinating to research but ultimately one has to tell this story in a way that will speak to modern audiences. We like the idea of approaching this largely as an adult fairy tale but with real characters experiencing real emotions. And one of the great advantages of producing opera with the Pacific Symphony is that the orchestra can be given its rightful place as a character in the piece. It really is perhaps the character of the opera. Mozart’s amazing writing not only has the orchestra supporting the singers’ emotions, but it oftentimes tells us things that words can’t express. And without giving away too many secrets, the beauty of Segerstrom Concert Hall gives a fantastic jumping off point to offer a feast for the eyes. And when all is said and done, there always is – and always will be – Mozart’s music. A beautiful hall; a world-class orchestra, cast and conductor; this opera; Mozart. What a privilege for every one of us — performers and listeners alike — to be a part of this!

Bob Neu

Tickets here