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.

VOICE OF OC

“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

Tenor Carl Tanner Tackles Otello

Photo Credit: Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera

From trucker and bounty hunter to world-class tenor, Carl Tanner’s backstory reads like a movie script. In fact, there were even plans for Michael Keaton to direct and Stan Chervin (Moneyball) to write the script for a biopic at one point. Tanner has had an interesting past and an even more exciting present. As a singer, he’s always been a natural. After a neighbor heard him singing the shower, Tanner decided to try out for high school choir. He went on to Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1985 without any aspirations to sing professionally. After college, he got his commercial driver’s license and became a trucker. A friend got Tanner into bounty-hunting for a while where he made 172 arrests in 190 pursuits.

Fate intervened when he was driving his big rig in Washington, D.C. singing along to opera on the radio. A woman in a convertible pulled up alongside him and asked if what she heard was him or the radio. “Because if it’s you,” she said, “you’re missing your calling.” His boss had been telling him the same thing, so he decided to go to New York to try his luck. He took voice lessons and got a telemarketing job to pay for them.

During that time, he wandered into a restaurant where he had heard opera music playing. The proprietor asked Tanner if he could sing. When he did, the force of destiny struck again. Two customers in the restaurant were top administrators at Santa Fe Opera. They offered him a summer apprenticeship in Santa Fe in 1992, and the trucker-turned-tenor was on his way.

Tanner has established an international performance career and appears regularly at the world’s most prestigious opera houses including Teatro alla Scala, The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, Washington National Opera, the New National Theatre of Tokyo, Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro Real de Madrid and Liceu de Barcelona, among others.

Tanner first performed Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 to rave reviews. And now Orange County audiences will have a chance to hear him in Pacific Symphony’s semi-staged production of Verdi’s greatest masterpiece (April 7, 9 & 12).

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.