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Verdi's greatest challenge? The pressures and delights of tackling Otello

As he prepares to stage a new production of Verdi's late and great opera, director Keith Warner delves into the piece's dark and difficult themes.

By Warwick Thompson (Classical music journalist)

3 March 2017 at 2.56pm | 12 Comments

‘I refuse to be lectured on this,’ says Keith Warner about his new production of Otello coming to The Royal Opera in June 2017 (and starring Jonas Kaufmann in a to-die-for role debut, alongside American tenor Gregory Kunde). I’ve just asked him the straight-to-jugular question – will there be blacking-up? – and it gets him immediately into a cheerfully pugnacious mood. ‘I’ve employed anybody of any colour for any role all through my working life. I would never dream of asking a black singer to put on a white face, so why ask a white singer to black up? That’s not the kind of theatre I’m interested in, and it’s just not necessary: it’s about the audience making an imaginative leap. And on top of all that, it’s of such offence to the black community in London and elsewhere. Why do it?’

So far, so firm. But then a glimpse of the collegial and anti-tyrannical figure, adored by singers for his responsiveness to work in the rehearsal room, shines through. ‘It’s not an edict. It’s not set in stone. Anything can change in rehearsal. But sitting here now, I just can’t see it. I’ve spoken to Jonas about it too, and he’s very sensitive to the issue.’

It’s this willingness to adapt, this delight in questioning everything – even his own dearly-held beliefs – which have made his previous Royal Opera productions so memorable. His Olivier Award-winning Wozzeck (2002) was a miracle of cool insight and gallows humour. His staging of Rossi’s Orpheus (2015) in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was both engaging and moving. Speaking about his 2007 Ring cycle, he once said, ‘There is no true success in a Wagner production. Only degrees of failure.’ It’s a phrase that charmingly and modestly undersells its spectacular merits. Who could forget that joyous, doomed leap of the incestuous lovers at the end of Act I of Die Walküre?

Now he turns his attention, for the first time in his career, to Verdi’s late, great masterpiece. It’s getting him excited, as much for the chance to work with his old friend and frequent collaborator Tony Pappano, as for the opportunity to explore the psychological depths of this great work. Indeed, his approach will be to treat the piece as something of a psychodrama, with the issue of identity crucial to the protagonist’s breakdown. ‘In Shakespeare’s time the word Moor had a wide connotation. I can relate this to my childhood, growing up on a council estate in North London, when anybody who came in – Pakistanis, Hindus, Africans – were called “blacks”, usually disparagingly: Moor was a similar catch-all phrase.’ So are Otello and the Venetians confused about his identity?

‘I think so. I’ve also been reading an excellent collection of essays in Shakespeare and Race [edited by Catherine Alexander and Stanley Wells], one of which suggests that Othello/Otello might have been one of the devşirme of the Ottoman empire.’ These were young Christian boys, taken by Muslims from conquered countries as a kind of tax, then sent to Constantinople to be educated as leaders, and then returned as men to be governors of their former homes. ‘Quite a few of these men would turn traitor, and return to their original roots. Could that be Otello’s story? If he’d been taken, and then escaped, and was now working for the Venetian state, the piece becomes about his confusion over who he is. He’s continually hearing attacks about his identity, in which the colour of his skin is really the least important thing.’ It promises to be a memorable interpretation, given Kaufmann’s star quality and Kunde’s deep and unique experience in the title role.

This production will replace Elijah Moshinsky’s traditional, period-costume staging, which has been doing sterling service from 1987, in which year Plácido Domingo sang the title role. How does Warner hope to realize his psychodrama concept visually? ‘I want to give the impression that everything turns against Otello. He’s a great hero, and then his whole world collapses, bit by bit, until it comes down to the size of a tiny handkerchief. That’s what I’m after: to start outwardly and go internally. The set will be a huge symbolic play of black and white, moving from light and love into the dark prison cell of his mind. I’d like the audience to feel that it can’t quite define the space any more when we get to that point. I think Jonas will be able to act this breakdown in a way that very few other Otellos have.’

The costumes also promise to riff on this notion of instability. ‘The designer (Kaspar Glarner) and I have tried to find a kind of look that will use an Elizabethan/Jacobean framework and take it into a modern context. In one sense it’ll be “period” and in another not at all. Materials might be Elizabethan, but the cut not – or vice versa. I hope it will have a kind of universality.’

The production will present yet another opportunity for Warner to work with his dear friend Tony Pappano, with whom he has a relationship going way beyond mere professional respect and shared artistic goals. They regularly go on holidays together and their families know each other well. They met in Vancouver in 1989 when Warner’s English National Opera production of Werther was being revived by the Canadian Opera Company. It was Pappano’s first major operatic job, but Warner was instantly enthralled by the conductor’s energy, musicality and instinct for drama.

‘I went home to my wife that night and said: “I have just worked with the greatest conductor in the world,” because it was immediately clear he was going places. And we hit it off within ten minutes. We started going on holiday together after that, and then visiting one another wherever we were. I was best man at his wedding, and we’ve had more Christmases together than Father Christmas and Rudolf. We’re just great mates.’ But he never loses sight of the extraordinary musicianship and roar-of-the-greasepaint instinct that makes Pappano such a great opera conductor. ‘He really leads a production from the dramatic side, and has totally sure instincts about the drama. When we were doing the Ring, for example, we wanted to put him down in the programme as “Violence Consultant”, because whenever anyone got killed on stage, you could really see that Italian side of him that’s fascinated with the Mafia bursting out. It was fantastic.’

Since there just happen to be one or two gory deaths in Otello too, his consultancy skills will no doubt come in handy again. But opera, of course, is always about the sum of the parts, never just either great conducting, or beautiful singing, or insightful direction. It’s the circle that so rarely squares, but when everything comes together, it beats anything you could ever hope to experience in a theatre. Warner agrees.

‘Tony and I share this idea that opera is actually incredibly close to circus. It’s not for nothing that Verdi makes the role of Otello so absurdly difficult. It has hugely loud passages, but demands sophisticated lyricism too, and it’s utterly remorseless. So part of the enjoyment for an audience is like being at a circus and having that delicious feeling of suspense: is the singer going to fall off the tightrope? Can he hit the high note? Tony understands that in his bones, and I love that. We always feel that we’ll risk everything when we work together. And why not? What would be the point otherwise?’

This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.

Otello runs 21 June-15 July 2017. Tickets go on sale to Friends of Covent Garden on 7 March 2017 with General Booking opening on 28 March 2017.

The production is generously supported by Rolex and staged with generous philanthropic support from Lord and Lady Laidlaw, Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Alfiya and Timur Kuanyshev, John G. Turner & Jerry G. Fischer, Ian and Helen Andrews, Mercedes T. Bass, Maggie Copus, Mrs Trevor Swete, Beth Madison, John McGinn and Cary Davis, the Otello Production Syndicate, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and an anonymous donor.

By Warwick Thompson (Classical music journalist)

3 March 2017 at 2.56pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Antonio Pappano, by Keith Warner, cinema, history, Keith Warner, Otello, Othello, Production

This article has 12 comments

  1. Elizabeth Valois responded on 5 March 2017 at 7:45pm Reply

    Great article...! Just thrilled to see what Jonas Kaufmann will do with this so demanding part...

  2. penelope simpson responded on 6 March 2017 at 4:44pm Reply

    Me too, if I can get a ticket!

  3. Patrick Hagglund responded on 7 March 2017 at 9:54am Reply

    As much as I would love to see Kaufmann, I will not be booking until I find out what Warner has done with his production. I am absolutely fed up with new productions that fly in the face of the composer's and librettist's intentions in our age of regietheater. A concert perform,ance is far better than some of the productions we are presented with currently. Let us see ... or not, as the case may be.

  4. georgeF responded on 10 March 2017 at 1:31pm Reply

    i agree 100 percent with Patrick

  5. LAURENT CHRISTIAN responded on 11 March 2017 at 1:25pm Reply

    Great article.if i can get 2 tickets?

  6. JOHN TYDEMAN responded on 14 March 2017 at 5:46pm Reply


  7. JOHN TYDEMAN responded on 14 March 2017 at 5:47pm Reply


  8. Anastasia Dionissiou responded on 14 March 2017 at 6:42pm Reply

    You say that Jonas Kaufman is preparing
    for the production of Othello at the Royal
    Opera in June 2017. But I do not see that
    production offered for purchasing tickets.
    Do you mean 2018?

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 16 March 2017 at 11:28am

      Hi Anastasia,
      Otello is being performed at Covent Garden this Season. However, general booking begins on 28 March.
      You can find out more here.

  9. JohnAyton responded on 16 March 2017 at 10:57am Reply

    Oh dear! Let's hope that the sets and costumes from the previous production haven't been put out for the dustmen, the chances are they'll be needed again before too long.

    This interview has all the buzz words of a true 'regie' interpretive production. I'm surprised that the majority of characters aren't ducks with Othello as a (slightly pallid) moorhen, set in a large frying pan which gradually turns into a wok to symbolise the futility of... Well, you get the idea.

    One can only feel sympathy for Kaufmann, Kunde et al. I have no doubts that musically the production will be superb with these wonderful artistes, with Pappano's interpretation and the house band in the pit providing their usual terrifically high standard of support.

    However, a sense of dread creeps over me having read the psycobabble that Warner spouts. Sadly this isn't helped by his inability to distinguish between racial and religious bias "...anybody who came in – Pakistanis, Hindus, Africans..." Warner is simply looking to waste the ROH's very limited budget for new productions by warping Shakespeare and Verdi to his own limited mindset. It would carry more authenticity if he were to replace Venice with his childhood council estate and set up the protagonists as, perhaps, two rival gangs that are vehemently opposed to each other... Oh, hang on a mo...

    I was lucky enough to see one of the final performances of the last production and cannot praise it too highly. This production had all of the spectacle and grandeur that the drama and the music demands with the ability to focus tightly on key moments of tension and human tragedy.

    Typical of this kind of production the director/producer seems to have no faith in the source material and believes that if he twists, squishes, dissembles, obfuscates and mangles enough then he will reveal the true clarity and uncover what the composer and dramatist really meant but weren't clever enough to realise without his help.

    Warner states, "There is no true success in a Wagner production. Only degrees of failure." If this is the best defence of his pathetically weak Ring Cycle that he can come up with then Kaufmann, Kunde and the rest of the cast might do well to find some previous engagement lurking in their diaries as this new Otello sounds as if it has the hallmarks of a drubbing writ large all over it. I can only hope I'm wrong and that this lasts for more than one outing.

  10. Brendan Quinn responded on 24 March 2017 at 12:30pm Reply

    Just read this article as I have to plan travel from Ireland for all performances and getting tickets for this was a bun fight on the website my tickets flights and hotel are booked. I am already concerned by what I read. What the hell is going wrong at the ROH? Meistersinger was a miserable dull and boring evening at the theatre destroyed by Mr. Holten - let us just hope this new production doesn't take a fabulous cast and destroy their efforts with a distracting production which the audience simply does not want to see. I can only hope for a new golden era at the ROH when Kasper Holten is gone

  11. Steve Bryant responded on 25 May 2017 at 12:30pm Reply

    Brendan, don't hold your breath on a golden era returning any time soon

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