Love, ambition, jealousy and betrayal will abound at Century II on Saturday as Wichita Grand Opera opens its new season with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello.” Based on the popular Shakespearian tragedy “Othello,” the production offers four acts intended to transport audiences back in time to the late-1400s isle of Cyprus.
Producers of the show say that a standout cast, a talented chorus and orchestra, and a skilled crew will bring the story’s timeless themes of war and peace to life in a powerful way.
“The Wichita Grand Opera is known for three things: being in the forefront of unique entertainment, bringing in the biggest stars, and doing grand productions,” said Parvan Bakardiev, the opera’s president and CEO. ”Unlike several opera companies who do smaller works, we decided that for the 200th birthday of Verdi, we would take on this grand production.”
The performance will be sung in Italian with English supertitles projected above the stage. Bakardiev said presenting “Otello” in its original language helps it stay true to the period and allows for maximum flow. It’s also the reason the “h” has been dropped, giving the title an Italian spelling.
Bakardiev said the score, set and costumes will all reflect the period. The set was designed by the opera’s artistic director, Margaret Ann Pent, and created in-house by internationally known scenic artist Stefan Pavlov, who has been building sets for the opera company for 10 years. The costumes are being imported from Canada because of the high cost associated with creating them, he said.
“We want an authentic production,” Bakardiev said. “A lot of other opera companies, for financial reasons or other reasons, can save money by updating some of the costumes or such, but we stay traditional.”
Another element that is central to Wichita Grand Opera’s vision for “Otello” is the authenticity of the acting, said stage director Shayna Leahy. She said it’s like magic when the ideas she has for the characters manifest in the actors, and she relishes her role helping pull the emotions out of them.
“Our goal is to be the most honest production,” Leahy said. ”Often times, you see the attempt to put a unique slant or mark on the production. You don’t see our stamp on the stage; our stamp is on the performers. That’s what makes it unique. We are behind the scenes ultimately.”
Conductor Martin Mazik is charged with guiding the voices that audibly tie in all of the visual elements. He’s regarded as a maestro in his field, one of Europe’s busiest conductors, who averages leading performances every other night throughout the year.
“There are a million levels of emotions every second,” Mazik said. “We have to find a way to get those emotions out. The genius of Verdi is the music, and every second there is something different. A small change in emotion means a small change in the orchestra. Over a two-hour production that is so colorful, that happens all the time.”
Verdi was actually called back from retirement to write “Otello.”
After completing “Aida” in 1871, he was the most popular and wealthiest composer Italy had known. Yet, he gave up his pen while at the pinnacle of his artistic power. Believing this was a waste of talent and potential profits, a leading music publisher sought to coax him back to work by fanning his fascination with Shakespeare. The campaign paid off 16 years later. At the age of 74, Verdi debuted “Otello,” which has been an opera staple ever since.
The story centers on love and betrayal. Otello is the handsome governor of Cyprus and a general in the Venetian army totally taken by his wife, the beautiful Desdemona. His aide, Iago, opens the opera, furious that Otello has promoted the young, attractive Cassio to be a captain, overlooking Iago’s years of loyal service. Iago sets out to destroy both. He seeks revenge on Otello, beginning by tricking Cassio into a brawl with another soldier that prompts Otello to strip Cassio of his rank. Desdemona naively intercedes on Cassio’s behalf. Iago convinces Otello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. To avenge his honor, Otello kills Desdemona, then takes his own life when the truth is revealed.
“Jealousy, betrayal, love and ambition are all elements that are very much happening today, as they happened hundreds of years ago,” Bakardiev said. “Because of this, the story is, in so many ways, very modern.”
Bakardiev is quick to point out that few actors can handle the complexities of exploring the conflicting layers of love, jealousy, honor and vengeance. “Otello” is famously one of the most difficult roles a tenor can attempt, he said.
“From a vocal standpoint, you can count on one hand the number of singers in the world right now who can truly handle the role of Otello,” Bakardiev said. “Then, ask how many of those combine the voice with the acting ability, the looks, the charisma. … You’re left with just two: Placido Domingo and Martin Iliev.”
Iliev will play the title role for this production. The young tenor said he was drawn to the role of Otello because it pushed his abilities professionally.
“The music is so powerful, and my personality is such that when I feel the music, I begin to feel like Otello,” Iliev said. “It’s not so difficult to transfer myself from being Martin to Otello because I get so inspired by the music that I identify with the character.”
For Zvetelina Vassileva, the soprano in the role of Desdemona, making an emotional adjustment was her biggest challenge.
“She’s very different from me,” Vassileva said. “I have some elements in my personality of Desdemona, but I did have to make an emotional leap and an artistic adjustment.”
Michael Nansel also had to make a jump in his portrayal of the nefarious Iago.
“He’s unapologetically bad,” Nansel said. “I felt conflicted coming into the role as an actor because I feel fundamentally that evil characters in general don’t know they are evil. They may accept that they are bullies or pompous or arrogant, but they feel justified in those emotions. Iago feels justified, but he feels justified because he actually believes he is evil.”
Also starring are Sarah Kraus as Emilia, Dustin Peterson as Cassio, Michael Morrow as Roderigo, Vincent Connor as Lodovico, Charles Turley as former Cyprus Governor Montano, and Terry McManis as a herald.
“Ultimately, what makes this story relevant is that those characteristics we see in the characters are universal characteristics,” Leahy said. “Whenever you fall in love — whenever you have a relationship — there is the potential for that moment of doubt. There is potential for the loss of that love, and there is the potential for the people around you to exploit that weakness.”
Bakardiev said that opera is an important piece of our cultural fabric and that there are even elements of it in all of today’s popular entertainment, from music to commercials to television. He said he hopes people will come to see “Otello” and appreciate the quality of the performance being offered.
“The chorus is amazing musically, and visually it’s a feast for the eyes,” he said. “It’s a spectacle, with a cast that is just A-plus.”