I don’t claim to be an expert on opera, far from it. My only reference points for opera are an obnoxious moustachioed insurance salesman, a busty Aryan in a Viking helmet, and Pavarotti. My New Year’s resolution is to try new things and force myself out of my comfort zone, so when Culture Vulture and Opera North offered free tickets to see Otello, I thought “why not?”
Before the performance, we were shown around the backstage area, and got to meet the villain of the play: the dastardly Iago (who I presume was named after the parrot in Disney’s Aladdin), performed by David Kempster. It gave me a fresh perspective to the proceedings, and allowed us to see the theatre from the vantage point of the performers.
Set on an American naval base sometime around the Second World War, Otello is about the excesses of ambition. Iago is the master manipulator, with many of his misdeeds ending in tragedy. He uses passive-aggressive cunning to plant doubt in the mind of Otello about the purity of his wife, Desdemona, as a means to increase his own power.
The vocals were performed in Italian, and I wouldn’t have been able to follow the story if there hadn’t been the English subtitles that were projected on either side of the stage. I’m sure that some Opera purists would have seen these as a distraction, but they helped to make the show more accessible to someone who doesn’t speak Italian, or have an in-depth knowledge of opera lore.
What surprised me most was the effect of the performance: it was incredibly physical. While backstage before the show, David Kempster explained that there are no amplifiers in traditional operas; that every sound is made by either the orchestra or the power of the human voice. Without having to rely on the speakers, there was a bizarre sense of three-dimensional sound that I hadn’t experienced at a live performance before. When the chorus was on stage, for example, there were dozens of vocal parts weaving in and out of each other and washing over the audience. There was also the strange detached effect of singers backstage being heard from a distance. Whereas a live rock band may create a wall of sound that bombards you with its loudness, live opera created something more subtle and engaging. Of course, this effect could never translate to a recording.
By the penultimate act I was completely immersed in the performance. In the scene, a broken and distraught Desdemona gave an incredibly fragile and moving vocal performance that was heartbreaking. As the music dropped, a handful of people began to clap. This was met by a few dozen tuts and shushes which took me out of the performance. The show wasn’t ruined by spontaneous appreciation from a few moved patrons; it was spoiled by a vocal minority of eye-rolling, snobbish elitists. I’m sure that the people who were uncultured enough not to be aware of an arbitrary convention of the genre went away with a bitter taste in their mouths – I know I did.
And here we reach the crux of the problem. Production companies can spend months crafting a performance that is heartfelt and powerful; organisations like Opera North can try new and innovative ways to engage new audiences and make opera more accessible, but the one thing that they can’t change is the one thing that remains opera’s biggest barrier: the minority of the audience who make the rest of us feel unwelcome.
I was only at Otello because of an innovative outreach programme by Opera North to target local bloggers and attract new audiences. The experience laid to waste many of my preconceptions about opera, and for that I applaud Opera North’s efforts. I really enjoyed the show, and I was pleased to have been taken out of my comfort zone, but something really needs to be done about the shushers and tutters.