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'Otello' Preserves Past

By Alec E Jones, Crimson Staff Writer

Now in its 71st season, the annual Lowell House Opera (LHO) production premiered on Wednesday, March 4 with its rendition of Verdi’s “Otello.” The show is produced by an assembly of volunteers, including Harvard undergraduate and graduate students, classical musicians, experienced opera singers, and amateur opera aficionados from the Greater Boston Area and beyond. The opera promises to be an exciting experience for traditional opera lovers, fans of Shakespearean theatre, and newcomers to the world of opera alike. “Otello” will run through March 14 in the Lowell Dining Hall.

“Otello,” the second to last opera composed by 19th century Italian master Giuseppe Verdi, is one of his most famous pieces. The opera recreates the psychological tension and villainy of William Shakespeare’s play of the same title. Originally named “Iago,” the opera focuses on the vocal interplay between Othello and his traitorous ensign, Iago, who spends the course of the play engineering Othello’s downfall. According to Artistic Director and Conductor Channing Yu ’93, LHO’s production boasts a full orchestra to accompany this vocal interplay. The orchestra is comprised of a full rotation of 120 musicians, with about 80 represented in any given performance. Its score highlights the dramatic psychological dimensions of Iago’s sinister plotting as it unfolds on stage. “Verdi is so precise as a composer, no one instrument embodies anyone’s thought,” Yu says. “The orchestra shows the full range of Iago’s character.” The music of the orchestra is accompanied by an adult chorus, whose vocals are also complemented by a children’s chorus.

While the opera is based on the Shakespearean play, LHO’s “Otello” has bypassed the traditional convention of featuring 16th century English dress styles for a 15th century Mediterranean aesthetic. Stage director Anna Fisher, who works at the Huntington Theatre Company, refers to the set, which is modeled after actual ruins from the island of Cyprus, as having an “earthly aesthetic.” “‘Otello’ is a story driven by a villain,” Fisher says. “It’s a sneaky set, with lots of places to hide.” Iago takes full advantage of the set throughout the show; as he infiltrates Othello’s mind, he conceals himself with the many openings and holes littered across the stage. In addition, the scenery enhances the on-stage action, which includes a rowdy drinking song, a tavern brawl, and other scenes of violence reminiscent of traditional Elizabethan theater.

In keeping with the Mediterranean setting and plot, the costumes are a mix of old Venetian, Turkish, and Greek styles. Othello and Iago’s costumes, which abide by historical design, are cut from large pieces of fabric rather than stitched together from smaller pieces, a technique which Venetian tailors exercised in the 15th century to conserve material. However, costume designer Krystal Bly, a graduate from the New England Conservatory, explains that practicality and an appeal to the audience prevented LHO from being completely historically accurate, particularly in their choice of costume color. “Black was fashionable in the era, but we put people in different colors and women without veils,” she says. Othello’s costumes throughout the play are meant to reflect his descent into madness and self-deception. While at first his clothing is triumphantly colorful, it progressively darkens to red-black before becoming solid black.

LHO has taken steps to make the play easier to understand for those who have never experienced opera before, especially for people who enjoy Shakespeare but find Italian opera difficult to understand or unapproachable. LHO will host its Symposium on Verdi’s ‘Otello’ Saturday at 12 p.m. in the Lowell House Library. Among those individuals explaining the opera to attendants are Robert Honeysucker, an internationally recognized baritone and voice pedagogue, Helen Greenwald, professor of Music History and Musicology at the New England Conservatory, and Harvard undergraduate Matthew A. Aucoin ’12, a member of the chorus and “Otello” enthusiast.

—Staff writer Alec E. Jones can be reached at aejones@fas.harvard.edu.

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