True Love Collides with Appalling Evil in Otello
It’s easy to typecast Marc Deaton. Tall, blonde, handsome, he’s the kind of guy who walks into a room and immediately becomes the leading man.
As a heldentenor, he’s also the kind of guy, who, during the course of his singing career, was often cast as a hero. Still, as someone who has felt like an outsider for most of his life, he says he is drawn to opportunities to play the outsider and the outcast.
And so he’s particularly excited to play Otello in Madison Lyric Stage’s upcoming production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, an opera in four acts with a libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare’s play Othello. It will run Friday and Saturday, June 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 25 at 5:30 p.m., a grand opera produced in the intimate setting of the North Madison Congregational Church, 1271 Durham Road, Madison, complete with supertitles, an orchestra, internationally known stars, local community members, and a powerful story to tell.
“Otello is an outsider no matter how hard he works to be accepted,” Deaton says. “Because of his religion. Because of his cultural background. Because of where he comes from. No matter what he does, he is still not one of them. And I think that’s something that people can relate to, and something particularly relevant today. Maybe it’s someone’s ethnicity. Their sexuality. Maybe it’s a handicap. Or someone is shy. They come from a different socioeconomic background. This play isn’t really about a specific difference. It’s about what happens when you feel like you are different and you are different.”
Otello is particularly compelling because the tragic outcome is ensured by the words and actions of someone Otello views as a brother, Iago, who has been passed over for promotion. A brilliant warrior and leader on the battlefield, Otello is also blissfully in love, having won the hand of the beautiful and kind Desdemona, a match that provides Otello with the promise of community, family, and the acceptance he has always craved. Iago’s thwarted ambition and jealousy drives him to destroy everything Otello holds dear.
Marc Verzatt, the director, is drawn to Otello now because it’s about “alienation, and to that extent, it’s extremely relevant given the current political situation.” He says Iago is a compelling character because he is so appallingly evil, not only because he seeks to destroy Otello, but also because while doing so he takes the audience in as collaborators.
“He makes the audience feel as though they are part of his evil when he works out what to do next,” he says.
Otello yearns to be folded into the community represented by his wife, Verzatt says.
“He believes he can have it all with this wife,” he says. “And that yearning is part of what becomes his undoing” with the help of Iago’s schemes.
Anyone who has ever been manipulated, or who has tried to manipulate someone else, will be able to relate to Iago, says Glen Cortese, the conductor.
“Part of that character is very much a part of us. Watching Iago comes from the same impulse that prompts us to slow down on the highway when there’s an accident, Cortese says, “but in this case, we watch to see the grotesque part of ourselves that we cannot resist.”
Deaton, Verzatt, and Cortese are working long hours in rehearsal, along with the rest of the cast, to make sure they fulfill the promise of staging such complex emotions and drama.
“This opera has beautifully crafted text, and with the music you create an emotional reaction that’s bigger than the text itself. This is one of the top five opera composers ever with one of the most talented librettists, working from one of the greatest authors who ever lived,” Cortese says. “It has the best of everything in opera. It’s the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top, all in one.”
It also is a first in many ways for Madison Lyric Stage, which already has several very successful seasons under its belt. This is the first time it will use a full orchestra. This is the first time using supertitles. The chorus has been cultivated over a period of years to make sure it is up to the demands of this production.
There will be plenty of star power, including Deaton, who has appeared with leading opera companies and orchestras throughout the world in roles that include Tristan, Siegfried, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer, Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos, and Der Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Verzatt also brings with him an international reputation directing opera, operetta, and musical theater in the United States, South America, and Europe. Cortese, an award-winning composer and a conductor, likewise has a long and impressive résumé. Planning and putting together this production has taken more than two years.
And, while there are many firsts, Otello will include many elements that its shoreline audience will find familiar. Mary Strieff of Guilford will once again work her magic when it comes to costuming the characters. A celebrity in her own right, she has worked on a wide range of productions from world premieres at Long Wharf in New Haven to The Great Muppet Caper movie.
“She’s been with us since the beginning,” says Deaton. “She is the general manager. She’s the chairman of our board. She’s worked for every theater around here. For 20 years she dressed Miss Piggy. Mary’s our Dom Perignon.”
Deaton, who has directed and produced many of Madison Lyric Stage’s shows, says he’ll turn to Streiff, for example, and say that a character “needs to be bathed in Chanel” couture, “and she’ll go to T.J. Maxx and get on amazon.com and she makes it work on a limited budget. She just gets it.”
Like a Family
Brionna Ingraham from East Haven, the stage manager and assistant director, has likewise made herself essential over the course of many productions, Deaton says.
“She just graduated from West Conn [Western Connecticut State University], she wants to do technical theater, and she’s become part of the family. It’s like a family, what we do. Like a very small family. And she’s just terrific. She really wants to learn and to learn how to do it right.”
In turn, Ingraham is bringing others into the family, including Savannah Rivera from New Haven, who will serve as assistant stage manager in this production. Working with young people like Ingraham and Rivera is all part of the plan at Madison Lyric Stage, which also serves as a professional arts collective for the Connecticut shoreline, cultivating young artists.
There will be other members of the local community participating as well, including James Latimer, the pastor of North Madison Congregational Church, who will be a chorus member in Otello. The pastor at North Madison Congregational since January 2013, Latimer is also a singer.
“He’s studied voice, and he sang with a small opera company in San Francisco. Since he came to Madison, he’s been wanting to sing again, but wasn’t interested in joining a local chorus because he wants to act as well,” says John Johmann, the co-founder of Madison Lyric Stage with Deaton, his husband. “He said he’s been keeping an eye on MLS and had been wanting to reach out to Marc, but kept putting it off. He said he was amazed this spring when Marc walked through the door and asked if we could use their space for Otello. He thinks their church is a perfect place for Otello, they’re proud to have it, and they see it as a service to the community and a sign of their commitment to the arts.”
While Deaton and the others welcome opera aficionados, who will read the libretto beforehand and come ready to make comparisons with other productions of Otello, they are confident first-time opera goers will find this production something to love as well, at an affordable ticket price.
“For the audience goer, the idea that they have to be prepared for an opera, well you don’t have to be. The music is just so beautiful. We are creating a space for people to relax and be part of this experience with other people. It’s important to us for people to have the space to explore this with no pressures or demands,” says Cortese.
“We want our theater to be accessible,” he says, adding people are welcome to come as they are. He evokes the spirit of opera houses in Europe, where the elite, middle class, and working class alike come together to enjoy an evening of entertainment. “We are not going to water it down and dilute it. We won’t insult our audience, but this is something where people can come as they are, no preparation necessary, and simply enjoy.”
To find out more about Madison Lyric Stage, visit www.madisonlyricstage.org. To read the full libretto of Otello, visit www.murashev.com/opera/otello_libretto_english_italian.