Opera Australia Blog

Cheat Sheet: Otello

Shakespeare and Verdi meet in the middle of a masterpiece. Here’s everything you need to know.

Who was the composer? 

Giuseppe Verdi.

You know you’re listening to Verdi when you hear: wonderful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. You know you’re watching a Verdi opera when you see brilliant drama – Verdi was incredibly demanding with his librettists, seeking real human stories and realistic characterisations.

The composer was born in small village in Parma, Italy to a poor family. By the time he died, more than 80 years later, his fame was such that 28,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay their tribute.

He wrote many operas and was always on the look out for a strong subject, often turning to the theatre for inspiration.

Today, his operas regularly appear on the bills of opera theatres around the world. He is most famous for Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Don Carlos, Aida, Falstaff and Otello.

What happens in the story?


This is a truncated version of Shakespeare’s famous play.

The brave, noble general Otello is married to the beautiful, spirited Desdemona – but there is someone who would come between them.

Enter Iago, the moor’s ensign. Bitter towards his master and jealous of the world, especially the recently promoted Cassio, Iago determines to discredit Cassio and destroy Otello.

With a silver tongue, Iago questions Desdemona’s fidelity, planting seeds of doubt in his master’s mind. He sets a trap, Otello’s torment grows and the innocent souls caught up in his scheme come together in a riveting final Act.

Who are the main characters?

Claudio Sgura as Iago and Simon O'Neill as Otello. Photo by Branco Gaica.

Claudio Sgura as Iago and Simon O’Neill as Otello. Photo by Branco Gaica.

Otello – Governor, war-hero, moor.

Iago – Otello’s ensign, bitter and twisted. Verdi gives us a fabulous aria, in which Iago explains why he’s such a jerk.

“I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.
From the cowardice of a seed
or of a vile atom I was born.
I am a son evil because I am a man;
and I feel the primitive mud in me.
Yes! This is my faith!
I believe with a firm heart,
so does the widow in the temple,
the evil I think
and proceeds from me,
fulfills my destiny.”

DesdemonaOtello’s beautiful and devoted wife

Cassio – Otello’s Naval captain, and the object of Iago’s jealousy

Emilia – Iago’s wife

What’s the big hit?

Desdemona’s stunning “Willow Song”

Something to listen out for

The orchestra paints a clear picture of a storm approaching as the opera opens. The organ holds three discordant notes throughout the scene, while the woodwinds play rapid rising and descending scales, representing the blustering wind. The brass and percussion provide bursts of thunder and lightning from the pit, and the organ keeps holding those uncomfortable notes. As the storm calms, the woodwinds do too, and at last the organ releases its notes and the storm has passed.

Listen out for the “kiss” theme as Otello and Desdemona sing their beautiful love duet at the end of Act 1 – and see if you can catch it reappearing as the opera draws to its dreadful close.

This production is … ?

Photo by Branco Gaica

Photo by Branco Gaica

A striking treatment of Verdi’s masterpiece that concentrates the drama onto a single set: a massive black and red staircase that immediately introduces the themes of status and power.

Legendary German director Harry Kupfer first staged this production for Opera Australia in 2003, not long after finishing a 20-year-tenure at Berlin’s Komische Oper. His production, set in the mid 20th-century, highlights the intimate tensions between Otello, Desdemona and Iago. “You have all the problems of the world in these three characters,” he said.

A little history

Special issue of the periodical Illustrazione Italiana, dedicated to the premiere of Otello by Giuseppe Verdi, 1887

Verdi had retired from opera-writing when two of his longtime friends conspired to drag him back to the manuscript. Verdi’s publisher, Ricordi, a conductor, Faccio and the librettist Boito invited themselves to dinner at Verdi’s homestead and brought up the idea of a new Shakespeare opera. Ricordi said later “At the mention of Othello I saw Verdi fix his eyes on me, with suspicion, but with interest. He had certainly understood, he had certainly reacted. I believed the time was ripe.”

It took eight years for the opera to come to fruition, but it is now considered Verdi’s greatest tragedy. At its premiere in Milan in 1887, a rapturous audience brought Verdi out for 20 curtain calls.

Conversation starters

A few trivia tidbits in case you get stuck for a topic in the queue to the bathroom.

  • During the composition and revision years, Verdi and his friends referred to the opera as “the chocolate,” and each year for Christmas, his publisher sent him a cake with a chocolate figure of Otello on top.
  • Verdi was fascinated by Iago’s two-faced character, and initially wanted to name the opera after him.
  • Rossini had already written a setting for Otello when Verdi began his opera, which takes place in Venice, reduces Iago to a less significant role and elevates Roderigo. He even wrote an alternative happy ending!

Want more?

Read an interview with our Otello, acclaimed heldentenor Simon O’Neill.

Opera Australia’s production of Otello plays the Sydney Opera House from July 5 – August 2nd. For tickets and more information, click here.

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