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October 21, 2014

State Opera SA: Otello

‘The human condition’ is surely the most hackneyed phrase in arts writing, but hundreds of years ago when Shakespeare was penning plays and Verdi was turning them into operas, it wasn’t so unfashionable.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Ben McGee

Despite the derision post-modernists might apply to the timeless theme of human nature, works from the classical era endure – retaining a remarkable popularity that ensures audiences flock to remounts and happily wrestle with contemporary questions through the lens of age-old stories.


Otello plays from October 25 – November 1 at The Festival Theatre.

State Opera South Australia’s upcoming co-production of Otello brings the tragedy into a modern setting – placing military commander and tragically flawed hero Otello, his scheming second-in-charge Iago and beautiful wife Desdemona in the pressure-cooker situation of an aircraft carrier, complete with attendant CCTV, mobile phones and GPS guidance. 

Produced as part of a far-ranging collaboration that takes in three countries and six opera companies, the Simon Phillips-directed production has already shown in Cape Town, Perth and Brisbane. Many reviewers in these cities expressed initial reservations about the modernisation, but were ultimately won over – something Douglas McNicol, who reprsises the role of Iago in Adelaide after performing it in Brisbane, says is unsurprising. 

“The story has truth,” says Douglas, “in all sorts of walks of life. There’s little Iagos out there everywhere. There’s always somebody ready to trip you up in order that they might achieve their
particular goals whether it be professional, political or sexual.” 

“The creative expression – the new take on it from someone else’s personal life experiences is important. And I think Shakespeare allowed that… and I think Verdi had a reason for his pieces to be played long after he was gone too. I don’t think he wanted to always be the conductor, he wanted other people to take it and evolve it.”

Beyond the change in setting, State Opera’s Otello also looks to reassess one of the central themes of the narrative by removing racism from the equation. The seeds that give life to racism are – however – still well covered.


Getting dramatic in conversation

“What causes racism still exists in this universe,” says Douglas. “It’s the sinews of the evil really, and there are several people whose lives are doomed as the result of Iago’s actions.”

As he chronicles the depths of Iago’s evil, there’s no doubt that Douglas is relishing the character’s untempered darkness. The first clue is the shirt he wears during our interview – one made by a colleague especially for him that has ‘What would Iago do?’ emblazoned across the front. Another clue comes with the enthusiasm and lengthy philosophical consideration he has given to the nature of his character. 

This is not unusual for Douglas, who is often cast as the bad guy and says that Iago will now live as part of him forever “like all my roles do”. But there are some things that make this part stand out from his previous roles. 

“Why is the music so good? Because Verdi chose a Shakespearean play to develop.”

“There’s beautiful lyricism in contrast with the evil of the man – I think it actually strengthens the evil because the person who is going to be more dangerous is the one who doesn’t look dangerous,” he says. 

“So when Iago sings beautifully, he’s setting someone up. There is a time when he doesn’t sing beautifully but that’s when he’s alone and he expresses his creed of life. There’s also subtle violence in some of his musical communications, but it’s all borne of the text and the text is fantastic. 

“So – why is the music so good? Because Verdi chose a Shakespearean play to develop. Shakespeare just knew things. He just had observations of life that your common writer didn’t I suppose, and I think Verdi captures that.”


Not at all scary in real life

Be it on an aircraft carrier or in a more traditional setting, the story of Otello resonates just as strongly with modern audiences as it did with historical ones, and strong performers like Douglas McNicol can only strengthen that connection.

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