Lyric Opera of Chicago
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  • by Giuseppe Verdi
  • In Italian with projected English texts.
  • Total running time: 2h 51m

Jealousy, betrayal, and murder—Shakespeare's drama finds new dimension in Giuseppe Verdi's blazing and revealingly expressive music.

Otello seems unbeatable on the battlefield, but he's powerless against his insidious henchman Iago, who convinces him that his innocent wife has been untrue.

Production of Otello by Sir Peter Hall, former director of Britain’s National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, and one of the world’s most revered directors of opera and theater.

Revival of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello generously made possible by Mr. & Mrs. Dietrich M. Gross, an Anonymous Donor, the Abbott Fund, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and the Mazza Foundation.

Otello Dedication

Lyric Opera is dedicating this revival of Otello to the memory of artistic director emeritus Bruno Bartoletti, whose artistry and wisdom enriched the company for nearly half a century.

The Otello performances are also dedicated to one of the most remarkable artists in Lyric Opera history, baritone Tito Gobbi, in the centenary year of his birth.

Gobbi was instrumental in bringing Bartoletti to Lyric Opera’s attention. Together they were true Lyric pioneers, whose commitment and achievements played an immensely important role in the company’s development and growth.



  • Johan Botha


    Johan Botha

    October 5–25

    Johan Botha's Otello “is simply stupendous—power...rare tonal beauty...a triumph of stylish singing.” Financial Times

  • Clifton Forbis


    Clifton Forbis

    October 29–November 2

  • Ana María Martínez


    Ana María Martínez

    Ana María Martínez is "fresh, radiant, and alluring...not for nothing does Lyric have big plans for her." Chicago Tribune 

  • Falk Struckmann


    Falk Struckmann

    Falk Struckmann's cunning Iago “ranks among the greatest of the past half century.” Opera News

Otello - Johan Botha

Johan Botha 
October 5–25

Otello - Clifton Forbis

Clifton Forbis
October 29–November 2

Otello - Ana María Martínez

Ana María Martínez

Otello - Falk Struckmann

Falk Struckmann

Otello - Antonio Poli

Antonio Poli*

Otello - Evan Boyer

Evan Boyer† †

Otello - Julie Anne Miller

Julie Anne Miller† 

Otello - John Irvin

John Irvin

Otello - Anthony Evans Clark

Anthony Clark Evans †

Otello - Richard Ollarsaba

Richard Ollarsaba

Anima Young Singers
of Greater Chicago

Otello - Bertrand de Billy

Bertrand de Billy* 

Sir Peter Hall

Original Director
Sir Peter Hall 

Otello - Ashley Dean

Revival Director
Ashley Dean*


John Gunter    


Aida - Joel

Lighting Designer
Duane Schuler


Chorus Master
Michael Black


Otello - August Tye

August Tye


*Lyric Debut
† current member, Ryan Opera Center
† † alumnus/ alumna, Ryan Opera Center

Otello - The Story of the Opera

PLACE: Cyprus

The ramparts outside Otello's fortress

During a storm, the Cypriots pray for the ship carrying the Moorish general Otello, their governor. Once he docks safely, Otello proclaims that the storm has helped him to triumph in battle.
Iago, Otello’s ensign, speaks with Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman unrequitedly in love with Desdemona, Otello’s wife. Suggesting that Roderigo bide his time, Iago confesses his hatred for the Moor, brought on by Otello’s promotion of Cassio to captain – a rank Iago feels is rightfully his.
The crowd enjoys a roaring fire (Chorus: Fuoco di gioia). When Iago invites Cassio to drink with him, the captain declines until Iago proposes a toast to the marriage of Otello and  Desdemona  (Brindisi: Inaffia  l’ugola!) Montano,  the  former   governor,  is  disgusted by the increasingly  inebriated Cassio,  and  the two begin  to duel.  Iago halfheartedly attempts to halt the fighting, which  spreads  to others inthe crowd.  All are silent when Otello reappears furious. He  questions Iago, who murmurs that everyone had been friendly until seemingly transformed by some evil force.
Awakened  by  the tumult, Desdemona appears just as Otello is demoting Cassio After Otello asks that Montano’s wounds be attended to and bids everyone good  night, he and  Desdemona lovingly  recall their courtshi (Duet: Già nella notte densa).

A hall of the fortress, looking out on a garden

Iago sends Cassio  to ask Desdemona to intercede for him with Otello. Once alone Iago reveals his own cynical view of fate and human nature (Aria: Credo in un Dio crudel).He mentions to Otello that he noticed Cassio speaking with  Desdemona. Iago begins to sow the seeds of jealousy in Otello’s mind, provoking a fury that is temporarily calmed  by the voices of Cypriots singing to Desdemona (Chorus: Dove guardi splendono raggi).
When  Desdemona asks her  husband to pardon Cassio, Otello responds with mounting irritation. She begs  forgiveness  if she has offended  him (Quartet: Dammi la dolce e lieta parola), as Otello laments his broken heart. Desdemona drops her handkerchief; and her maid,  Iago’s wife Emilia, retrieves it, but Iago snatches it from  her. Desdemona leaves sadly with Emilia.
Iago mutters that he must hide the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodgings. He suggests that Otello not preoccupy himself  with suspicion. Otello, however, is convinced that, even  in  their  happiest moments, Desdemona was thinking of Cassio. The Moor bids farewell to his glorious past  (Aria: Ora e per sempre addio).  Iago recalls Cassio’s dream, in which the captain cursed destiny for giving Desdemona to the Moor. To further enflame Otello’s jealousy, Iago cites the handkerchief  –  Otello’s  first gift of  love  to Desdemona – which  Iago  saw in Cassio’s hand.  Otello’s repeated vows of revenge are echoed  by Iago (Duet: Sì, pel ciel).


The great hall of the fortress

Otello’s herald announces that a galley of Venetian dignitaries is approaching Cyprus. Once alone with Otello, Iago explains  that he will speak with Cassio, and suggests that Otello eavesdrop  to observe  the captain’s behavior.
Desdemona greets her husband lovingly (Duet: Dio ti giocondi, o sposo). Initially Otello is gentlemanly towards her. When he asks for her handkerchief and she does not have it, fury overwhelms him He  insults her, and she flees from  him in misery. Otello realizes that he has lost  his only chance for joy (Monologue: Dio mi  potevi scagliar).  He is now desperate for certain proof  of Desdemona’s guilt.
At Iago’s urging, Otello hides as Cassio approaches. Iago gossips with him manipulating the conversation to have Otello believe the two are speaking of Desdemona (Trio: Vieni, l’aula  è deserta). Cassio pulls out Desdemona’s handkerchief – he has no idea who left it in his lodgings. As Cassio departs, a cannon signals that the Venetian delegation has arrived. Otello orders Iago to procure poison  to be used  that night. Iago suggests that Otello murder his wife in her bed.
Venetian diplomats and nobles  arrive, led by Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador. He  hands Otello the  Doge’s   message   before greeting the sorrowful  Desdemona. Iago explains that Cassio  is absent  because Otello is displeased with him. Desdemona hopes that Cassio will be restored to favor, but Otello silences her. He announces that he has been  recalled to Venice, and that Cassio is  his  successor in Cyprus. He adds that he will leave the following day. Suddenly he throws Desdemona to the ground. She yields to anguish  (Finale: A terra…sì…nel livido fango) as Emilia and  the Venetians voice their concern. Iago  persuades Otello to avenge himself  that very night, while also offering  his help to Roderigo in disposing  of Cassio. Otello dismisses everyone, curses Desdemona, and collapses  in  delirium. As the Cypriots outside acclaim “the Lion of Venice,”  Iago  sneers, “Behold the Lion!”

Desdemona’s bedroom

Desdemona sings a melancholy song  as Emilia helps her  prepare for the night (Willow Song: Piangea cantando). She bids Emilia a despairing farewell and then kneels to say the “Hail  Mary” (Prayer: Ave Maria piena di grazia).
After stealthily entering the room, Otello kisses the sleeping Desdemona. When she awakens, he accuses her of loving Cassio. Insisting she does not, Desdemona asks that he be sent for, but Otello tells her Cassio is dead. She begs to live long enough to pray. Shouting that it is too late, Otello smothers her.
Emilia brings terrible news: Cassio has killed Roderigo. Hearing Desdemona’s moans, Emilia rushes to her. Desdemona murmurs that she is dying innocent, and that she has killed herself.  
Asking to be commended to her lord, Desdemona is still. Otello declares that he killed her, and that Emilia should  ask Iago to explain. Emilia’s cries bring Iago, Cassio, Lodovico, and Montano. Otello cites the handkerchief as proof of infidelity, but Emilia says Iago tore it from her hand. Cassio remembers that he found  the same handkerchief  in  his  lodgings. Montano adds that the dying Roderigo revealed Iago’s treachery. Unable to defend himself, Iago rushes from the room, with soldiers in pursuit. Otello gazes sadly at his dead wife (Finale: Niun mi tema). Pulling out a concealed dagger, he stabs himself and, struggling toward Desdemona’s body to kiss her one last time, he dies.


The characters, though, are complex—especially the title character, to whom Giuseppe Verdi in his opera Otello assigned an Everest of a role. “My singing teacher always said, ‘If you can sing Pagliacci three times in a row in one evening, then you can sing Otello,’” declares South African tenor Johan Botha, who portrays the conflicted Moor in Lyric’s season opener.

Botha,Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Lyric (2012-13), has starred in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and several major German houses. Cast opposite him in the Lyric production is soprano Ana María Martínez, in her eagerly awaited role debut. “Desdemona is such a gorgeous role,” she says. “I remember being an undergraduate and not yet having a grasp on vocal technique, but wanting so much to perform this music. It’s so incredibly wonderful to sing, and to have it vibrating within you is a balm to the soul.” Martínez, Lyric’s Mimì in the company’s initial series of Bohème performances (2012-13), laughingly notes that all the ladies she’s played at Lyric die. “That’s one of the reasons my son has not seen me do those roles. He’s six, so he now understands that mommy is only pretending to be these characters. If he’d seen me do Pagliacci at age two, forget it—he’d have years of therapy ahead of him!”

The soprano sees a message in Otello: “It shows us the power that love has in our lives. And while love is a life force that at times can drive us to tremendous despair and madness, it remains our greatest fulfillment.”

Heightening Otello’s conflict and drama is Verdi’s orchestration, which is far more subtle than in his middle-period operas. As in Wagner,the orchestra is crucial to the drama, illuminating and shading what is portrayed onstage, butthe Verdian gift of melody is always present. “For me Otello is one of the best examples of balance between the dramatic and the intimate,” says French conductor Bertrand de Billy, who will make his Chicago debut conducting Lyric’s performances. “At the beginning, with the chorus onstage, it’s absolutely crazy. Verdi wrote fortissimo, tutta forza. It’s like a big explosion, but you still have tohear what happens onstage! In Act Three you have the Otello-Desdemona duet with their confrontation, and then Otello’s aria. In a way, Otello is the most complete of all operas, and the challenge in conductingit is to prepare it properly, so you can stay very deeply inside it as it moves from the dramatic to the very intimate.”

Lyric’s production by Sir Peter Hall opened the 2001-02 season. This revival is directed by Ashley Dean in his Lyric debut, with Iago sung by German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (who triumphed with Botha and Renée Fleming in this opera last fall at the Met) and the important supporting role of Cassio portrayed by Italian tenor Antonio Poli in his American debut.

In March of 1884, Giuseppe Verdi began composing Otello. His previous opera, Aida, premiered 13 years earlier and in the interim he’d composed no stage works. Otello’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, 29 years younger, was a composer in his own right, having written the well-received Mefistofele in 1867. A journalist and recognized poet, Boito had also furnished the libretto for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Already in 1881, when Verdi had him revise the libretto of Simon Boccanegra, Verdi found in Boito a true collaborator—a man of letters with immense musical knowledge who also understood opera’s theatrical possibilities.

“Verdi would spend months going over the libretto,” says Botha, “looking for just the right meaning in the text. If he wasn’t happy, he’d send it back to Boito, who would rewrite the whole thing. If you compare the Otello libretto with Shakespeare’s Othello, you realize that Boito really captures the spirit and nuance of the Shakespeare play. It’s amazing that Boito was able to put it in a nutshell.”

An Otello performance generally clocks in at two-and-a-half hours. But within that short space of time, the audience is taken on a journey that traverses human emotion from the heights of love and triumph to the depths of despair. The choice of this particular Shakespeare play for the operatic stage was inspired. It’s streamlined Shakespeare, with no confusing subplots and no episodes that detract from the central action. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of an Italian opera.” 

The play opens in Venice, where Iago reveals his hatred of Othello and plans to destroy him. Desdemona’s father finds that his daughter has eloped with theMoor and protests to his colleagues in the Venetian senate. Othello and Desdemona are summoned before them to justify their love. They’re soon dispatched to colonial Cyprus, where Othello is to combat theTurkish threat and serve as governor. That’s where Verdi and Boito chose to begin the opera.

Heroes are never interesting if they’re saints; in fact, the more flawed, the more appealing. “Otello is an insecure person,” says Botha. “There are people like that—extremely good at one thing while the rest of their life is a mess. Otello is one of those people—he’s extremely good at fighting wars for the Venetians, but he finds love and goes off the rails completely.”

Those insecurities are played on by the über-villainous Iago, who’s obsessed with control and power. For a time, Verdi considered actually naming the opera Iago. He didn’t, but he assigned the character one of the most complex roles in the baritone repertoire. 

Otello’s beloved Desdemona is his polar opposite. “Otello is very complex and needs someone uncomplicated,” Martínez says. “Desdemona’s strength is in her love and devotion. She’s Otello’s fountain of hope, his grounding energy, and his muse. Otello derives great inspiration from her. What happens is a tragedy, and all because of a misunderstanding.”

What happens is that Iago, Otello’s ensign, plants in Otello the seed of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity. From there, Otello descends into a sea of hate and jealousy. “You really have to pace yourself because the jealousy and hate are so real,” says Botha. “If you get too much into the emotions, you go out of control.That’s the danger of this role.”

When he was only 20, Boito had written the verses for Verdi’s “Hymn of Nations.” But a year later in 1863 at a reception for the composer/conductor Franco Faccio (who later conducted Otello’s world premiere at La Scala), Boito made a brief speech about the current state of Italian music. The speech was soon quoted in the Italian press: “Perhaps the man is already born who will restore art, in its purity, on the altar now defiled like the wall of a brothel.”

Verdi, an Italian composer with many triumphantly successful operas to his credit, read a newspaper account of what was said and was deeply insulted.The last librettist he would ever consider was Arrigo Boito! But eventually the appeal of the yet-to-be composed Otello drew Verdi in, and on November 18,1879, he accepted Boito’s finished libretto. He kept it next tohis bed for almost five years, and at the age of 70 started work on this extraordinarily dramatic yet intimate masterpiece.

“It’s haunting and it always stays with you,” says Botha. “There’s a little of Otello in all of us.”

Further Reading

Aspects of Verdi  by George Martin, Limelight Editions, 1993. An enjoyable general book; sort of a series of barroom conversations with Mr. Martin.

The Cambridge Companion to Verdi  edited by Scott A. Balthazar, Cambridge, 2004. Recent essays by distinguished Verdi scholars provide a broad understanding of the background of Verdi’s operas.

The Complete Operas of Verdi  by Charles Osborne, Da Capo Press 1988. A longtime favorite on the subject by one of opera’s master scholars.

The Life of Verdi  by John Rosselli, Cambridge University Press, 2000. An excellent shorter account of Verdi’s life.

The Operas of Verdi  by Julian Budden, Clarendon Press, 1992 (three volumes). The standard reference work on Verdi’s operas, magisterial and unsurpassed.

Verdi  by Julian Budden, Schirmer, 1996. Distills the essence of Budden’s incomparable threevolume study into a single affordable book and includes the author’s insights into the nonoperatic works.

Verdi: A Biography  by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Oxford University, 1993. The most complete, up-to-date source in English.

Otello Discovery Series

Shakespeare’s searing drama is made more intense by Verdi’s music. Enjoy this discussion with Johan Botha (Otello), Ana María Martínez (Desdemona), and conductor Bertrand de Billy. Moderated by dramaturg Roger Pines.

Download (right click and "Save Target As" / "Save Link As")

Otello Audio Preview

Lyric's renowned music director shares the synopsis and excerpts from Verdi's Otello.

Recordings used by permission of EMI Classics.