In Verdi’s day, as in Shakespeare’s, there was no question of a black Othello. Black singers did not exist in 19th-century Italy, any more than black actors in Elizabethan London. Even when, within living memory, Placido Domingo or Jon Vickers bestrode the stage, no one raised eyebrows when they “blacked up”. What mattered was how they sang a part that is as much about inner psychology as skin colour.
Times have changed. In our sophisticated 21st-century society, while race supposedly no longer plays a role in public life, the opera world shows an increasing preference for a black tenor in Otello, as Opera North does for its new production. Does it matter? Yes and no. There are plenty of black singers today (usually to be found singing roles stereotypically written for whites), but when they tackle Verdi’s Moor, a racial outsider, they have higher hurdles to jump. They must prove they have been cast on merit and not race.
Almost like Otello himself? The “Lion of Venice” has earned promotion because of his prowess as a warrior, but he sticks out in a way that makes him feel insecure. The vulnerability that leads to his downfall is directly related to racial prejudice. That is why it can be more realistic to have a black Othello – though that is not the only reason Ronald Samm justifies his place in Opera North’s cast. He uses his physique powerfully and, while no Verdi stylist, he has all the notes. He also fits the modern subtext of Tim Albery’s staging, set in a US naval base in the 1940s – when African Americans were gaining their first significant promotions in military life, despite discrimination in other areas of US society. By virtue of Albery’s consummate stagecraft and Leslie Travers’ easy-on-the-eye sets and costumes, the concept works.
David Kempster’s Iago is almost too good to be a villain. Elena Kelessidi’s Desdemona sounds some way past her best, but her very fragility makes for an exceptionally moving Willow Song and Ave Maria. What gives the show a touch of international class is Richard Farnes’ conducting – a classic Verdian combination of tender lyricism and dramatic largesse.