The green-eyed monster

Dayton Opera’s premier of Otello at the Schuster

By Eric Street

Love may be the most powerful force in the world, but jealousy exerts a dark power all its own. For drama and passion set to music, come to the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center when Dayton Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello.

“What a thrill it is to be presenting Dayton Opera’s first-ever production of this amazing masterpiece, particularly in the 400th anniversary year of the death of the great playwright William Shakespeare,” Artistic Director Thomas Bankston says.

Though Shakespeare’s “Othello” has held the stage since 1603, Verdi’s Otello nearly didn’t get composed. At the height of his creative powers, Italy’s foremost composer Giuseppe Verdi retired after the huge success of his 1871 Aida. It took a decade for his publisher, Ricordi, to lure Verdi with a libretto so powerful he ultimately could not resist. Boito’s recasting of Shakespeare’s drama set to Verdi’s music has been hailed as a masterpiece ever since Verdi took 20 curtain calls at its 1887 Milan premiere.

Otello turns on three characters—the forceful Otello, his beautiful wife Desdemona and his unscrupulous rival Iago. The orchestra fully participates in the drama, and the orchestral writing reveals Verdi’s growth in the silent decade following Aida. Opening with a dramatic orchestral storm that foreshadows what follows, Otello sweeps along as the evil Iago hatches his plot to convince Otello his beloved Desdemona is unfaithful.

The dark opening mood turns despairing and sinister in the final act as Desdemona sings farewell and prepares herself with prayer. Iago’s dastardly manipulations are fulfilled when Otello’s rage erupts. Stricken with remorse upon learning her innocence, Otello kills himself, ending the opera in truly tragic Shakespearian fashion.

“[It’s] a thrill to celebrate the American debut of Dayton Opera favorite tenor Scott Piper in the demanding title role,” Bankston says. Back for his eighth Dayton appearance, Piper recently debuted the role of Otello to critical acclaim in Germany.

Danielle Pastin debuts as his wife, Desdemona.  Praised for her “lovely demeanor and irresistible creamy timbre” by Opera News, fast-rising soprano Pastin performs with opera companies from coast to coast, including the Metropolitan Opera.

Tall, dashing Grant Youngblood, baritone “with a robust sound with ringing top notes,” returns as the scheming Iago. Stephen Carroll debuts as Cassio, while Adam Fry and Errik Hood return as Lodovico and Montano. Three Dayton Opera 2015-16 artists-in-residence also appear: Melisa Bonetti as Emilia, Zachary Devin as Roderico and Andrew Pardini as the Herald.

Stage Director Kathleen Clawson returns for her ninth time to direct this Verdi masterpiece. She has directed operas with Dayton Opera since 2009, including The Elixir of Love, La Traviata, Faust, Fidelio, La Bohème, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida and The Magic Flute. 

Dayton City Paper had the chance to sit down with Clawson and discuss the Dayton Opera’s debut of this masterpiece.

Why is Verdi’s Otello such a perennial with opera audiences?

Kathleen Clawson: Different people love Otello for different reasons. I love it both for the Verdi of it and the Shakespeare of it. It’s a great opera for someone who loves Shakespeare, especially for someone who’s ‘opera-curious.’ Likewise, for the person who’s afraid of Shakespeare, it’s a wonderful introduction to “Othello.”

We’d be remiss not to mention Boito’s libretto. It’s such an interesting story, the intricate dance between the publisher Ricordi, the writer Boito and the composer Verdi that brought it all to fruition.

Why is Verdi’s Otello so gripping?

KC: At this late point in his career, Verdi completely expresses the drama in the music. It’s really all there in a way that no one can compare. More than anything, it’s compelling storytelling. I prepare the sur-titles for the production—Boito translated Shakespeare’s English into Italian, and I’m translating it back. At times Boito takes Shakespeare’s text into Italian opera style, but other times, it’s absolutely Shakespeare.

I was first introduced to the piece in high school. My father, who was both an amateur actor and singer, acted and sang the roles of Othello/Otello the same year! Like most Americans, I met Shakespeare through reading it in class. But I came to love the Shakespeare through the opera.

It takes a while to train your ear to Shakespeare, but Boito and Verdi give us everything we need through the words and music. I’m glad I met them both because they make each other so much richer.

Are there particular challenges to staging Otello?

KC: Challenges? [laughs] After Aida with its cast of thousands, this is simpler! Of course, there are still big choruses. But like Aida, it really comes down to a strong story of just a few people. It’s a remarkable cast, and I know they’re going to be spectacular. We also have Neal [Gittleman] to look forward to, leading the orchestra!

How’s the physical production?

KC: It’s beautiful, with grand sets from Cincinnati and beautiful period costumes. It promises to be quite an extraordinary production. For anyone who got their first Verdi through Aida, it’s time to come on back!

What should the audience know before coming to Otello?

KC: In Otello, there’re not as many tricks and turns as you sometimes find in opera plots. The story is quite easy to follow. Let the music be your guide—it’s one of the most important characters of the opera. Some people see Shakespeare and opera as things they can’t fathom, but jealousy—now that’s something everybody can relate to!

Otello will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Meade Theatre in the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton. The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra provides the score under the baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman. Jeffrey Powell directs the Dayton Opera Chorus. Tickets are $38-$94 with senior, student and military discounts available. For tickets or more information please visit or or call 937.228.3630. 

Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at

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