LoftOpera never shies away from its edgy adaptations. In its upcoming production of Rossini’s Otello—based on Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name—the challenge lies not in an overt modernization but in the score’s groundbreaking and complex music, and in the fact that this opera has not been produced in New York in more than 40 years. Loft’s reimagining of the classic tale of otherizing and political upheaval—themes still grappled with today—will play at LightSpace Studios (1115 Flushing Avenue) from March 16–27. We had the chance to speak to four-time Loft director John de los Santos and conductor Sean Kelly, a specialist in the bel canto technique.
GP: How have rehearsals been going?
JdlS: It’s an incredibly challenging piece but I’m very lucky to have Sean, the cast, and the incredible musicians, so it’s been going well.
SK: No one has sung this opera before, so it’s new for everyone, which is exciting. The Otello (Bernard Holcomb) we’ve technically been working with since September/October to prepare musically for the role.
GP: Rossini’s Otello has not been seen in New York in decades. Why this piece now?
JdlS: The last piece Sean and I did for Loft was Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and we had a great success with that, so it’s great to be working on one of his tragedies. This piece was an evolvement for him in his music as he was trying out some new things and really trying to push his audiences to accept and deal with topics that were pretty controversial in this period. Everybody’s familiar with the Verdi version of Otello and this one’s 70 years older. I think this version is superior; there are several things he does better than Verdi.
SK: It was a really influential piece of music in its time; it was pretty groundbreaking and a popular opera back in its day. I think the reason it’s not as common now has nothing to do with Verdi having also done a version that’s popular but because it’s very difficult to cast. There are three lead tenors—Otello, Iago, and Rodrigo—and they’re very different singing styles and they can’t sound the same because there are three tenors in the same show. Plus the music is very difficult.
GP: LoftOpera is known for modernizing its centuries-old operas and putting edgy twists on them. Can we expect the same from this production?
JdlS: The opera takes places during the Italian Renaissance, but we’re setting it in the late 50s, which actually for Loft is pretty long ago. I found that the political climate in that period hit the story really well. In the late 50s Italy was finally recovering from World War II and was trying to flush out all the remnants of fascism, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity when a foreign general would be able to lead an army by the Italians and win and be accepted as a citizen, but then there would be all this corruption, bigotry, and racism underneath their veneer of liberalism that would drag him down. In 1957 when we’re setting this piece the Treaty of Rome was signed, Italy was trying to become this global connection between countries, and yet other nations, other Fascists, were still there trying to influence the government.
We wanted to shine a light on immigrant issues—setting it in 2017 felt too on the nose, but these problems were happening back then too, and not just in America. These are problems all governments face.
GP: The venue, LightSpace Studios, seems like it may be more intimate than some other Loft locations. How does that affect the opera’s production?
JdlS: The thing is Otello is very different from Le Comte de Ory and Barber of Seville. For me it’s a much more intimate, character-driven story. There are no crazy acrobatics (as seen in our Ory); it’s more centered on the psychology of characters and their motivations, and really exposing a problem we have with nationalism, xenophobia, and prejudices. I think that because the LightSpace is intimate the audience is going to deal with those things in a much closer level—it’s a great space to tell the story.
SK: Every venue has an impact in some way on my responsibilities with the music. In this case it is a very intimate setting—it’s still a factory—but it’s smaller than other venues and the opera itself is is pretty intimate. It doesn’t have those grand, bombastic scenes the Verdi Otello, so it really does work that the audience will be so close, and it’s Rossini so there’s a lot of filigree in the music. The singers are singing very quickly and lightly.
GP: What else can we look forward to?
JdlS: I’m very excited that Sean Kelly and I have been able to cast singers who are appropriate for the show. We have a black Otello, and the thing is, regardless what race he is, he’s a fabulous, incredible singer. We’re so glad that the stars aligned at a time when he could do it because appropriate casting is important and of course another topic people are talking a lot about in this business.
SK: I’m just thrilled to have a chance to do this production. It’s an opera I’ve been in love with and the chance to do a full production of it is super exciting.