It all came down to a handkerchief. A simple scrap of embroidered white cloth was all it took to trigger tears, tantrums and tiffs, murder and suicide.
But what would opera be without exaggerated drama? Particularly when it’s aided and abetted by a Shakespearian tragedy, a story of love, revenge and a tragic error of judgment.
In a nutshell, it’s late 19th Century Cyprus with the brave, noble general and Governor Otello (Yonghoon Lee) married to the beautiful, spirited Desdemona (Karah Son). Enter Iago (Marco Vratogna), Otello’s ensign, a bitter and twisted manipulator, jealous of the recently promoted naval captain Cassio (Virgilio Marino). A smiling assassin, dripping with charm, Iago questions Desdemona’s fidelity, not only planting seeds of doubt in Otello’s mind, but planting that damn hankie, (a gift from Otello to Desdemona), in Cassio’s cabin. The trap is set, Otello’s torment grows and the hullaballo begins, ending predictably in tragedy. (Hollywood it ain’t!)
Clearing the elephant out of the room, I’ve never been a huge fan of opera. In fact, I’ve never been allowed to forget announcing to an Opera Australia publicist many years ago that “I love the costumes, the sets, the drama and the stories, it’s the singing which gets in the way.”
For me, it takes too long to move the conversation on. While we’ve got the gist in seconds, opera loves to labour the point. Even when someone dies, (they tend to do that a lot) and you think they’ve taken their last gasp, up they pop to warble again. (Admittedly, it’s very handy with the English surtitles translating the Italian. It takes so long to sing a sentence you can easily keep up with the drama. A squiz at the cheat sheet offered online by Opera Australia beforehand is also handy.)
Now, before you opera aficionados get your arias in a twist and shout ‘philistine’, I totally understand the singing is your priority, but let’s encourage those who assume opera is definitely not their thing, those who who wouldn’t include it on their Spotify playlist and probably never will. Experiencing an opera is a marvellous tick off the bucket list, particularly in Sydney where you get to walk the steps of our magnificent Opera House and share drinks on the terrace before absorbing the splendour of the Joan Sutherland Theatre. That’s worth the trip alone.
In my very humble opinion, Otello is a great production for beginners. It’s a simple story, not too many characters prancing around and confusing the plot, but still offering the grandeur of a splendid set and stupendous costumes, and of course those voices to raise the roof. I shan’t pretend I recognise a good operatic voice when I hear one, but I do recognise power and performance and the South Korean powerhouse vocalists Lee and Son, (the latter’s Willow Song is heart rending) are mesmerising. (Extraordinarily, they are also currently starring in Opera Australia’s season of Turandot.)
Our own Sian Sharp as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, often forced into silence playing the smiling, empathetic listener, takes off beautifully when she sings. Watch out for her as Carmen when it comes to Cockatoo Island in November this year.
If you’ve never experienced opera before, go see Otello. I still don’t know my way around my vibratos and verismos, but I do know my ‘bravos’ and this one gets the gong.
Location: Joan Sutherland Theatre Sydney Opera House
Date: Until March 19
Tickets: From $79 @ opera.org.au
Proof of full vaccination or medical exemption required