Reinventing “Othello” for a 21st Century Audience

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Two Desdemonas: Actress Rivka Borek and soprano Ashley Galvani Bell will both portray the character in "Othello: The Opera and Play Enmeshed."

By Michelle Trauring

Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare wrote a play about jealousy and betrayal, misplaced trust and exclusion, revenge and repentance. Nearly 300 years later, Giuseppe Verdi set the story to music, reinterpreting it as Italian opera.

Together, and centuries apart, the two men inadvertently set the stage for director Antón Armendariz Diaz and soprano Ashley Galvani Bell to join forces and imagine their own version of “Othello” — leaning on the variations that had come before them.

Over the past year, the longtime collaborators stripped down the pair of classics and reassembled them to create “Othello: The Opera and Play Enmeshed,” a mix of theater, opera and dance from Divaria Productions that will stage on Saturday, September 14, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

“The play is four hours and the opera is two and a half hours, so obviously we can’t do all of it,” explained Bell, founder of Divaria Productions. “It was a very difficult process to decide what to take out, because everything by Shakespeare is amazing — you don’t want to cut anything — and the same with Verdi. He did the opera so well and so true to Shakespeare, in many ways.”

Their tale also remains true to the original story — Othello, an army general, is tricked into suspecting his wife, Desdemona, of adultery — with a contemporary twist, according to co-directors Armendariz Diaz, artistic director of La Rioja Lirica opera company in Spain, and Andrew Bell, who is Ashley Galvani Bell’s brother.

Actor Leland Gantt will play “Othello.”

“We’ve grounded our staging of Othello in World War II, a period where heroes abound, and unexpected villains lurk on every corner,” the two directors said in a statement. “It’s an uncertain time period where one’s ethnicity divides and one’s loyalty is always being put to the test. Religion historically was more of a driving force in skirmishes of yesteryear, but it is in the dark days of World War II, where one’s identity is under assault and determines one’s fate.”

With a cast and creative team of 12, the main characters — Desdemona, Othello and Iago, his trusted but traitorous ensign — are each portrayed by both an actor and a singer, while the more minor characters exist strictly through Shakespeare’s text.

“I really like the story of ‘Othello’ in the play — how Shakespeare is able to express the feelings of the characters and the manipulation of Iago against everybody else, that for me has been really thrilling in many ways,” Armendariz Diaz said. “And then on the other hand, for me, this is not only a play or an opera. It’s characters, and it happens that a genius creates the play and a genius creates an opera. The idea of mixing both is really interesting because we can study all the characters and the main three characters from different points of view, and to create a new production off of these two masterpieces.”

Soprano Ashley Bell.

“Othello: The Opera and Play Enmeshed” will weave the Italian music and Shakespearean text together, interspersed with dance, to transmit the essence of the story through different mediums and different languages, the director explained.

“The actors represent the bodies; they represent what any of us want to show to the rest of the people,” Armendariz Diaz said. “And the singers are the souls. The singers are the real emotion. In music, sometimes when the singer or the character is saying something, the music drives you to the right idea of the meaning. This is what we’re doing: enmeshing both the play and the opera, the body and soul.”

With the Shakespearean context, Bell has tapped deeper into her singing role as Desdemona, one of the purest and most innocent characters the Bard has ever penned, she said.

“I really like working with Antón a lot, because he helps me really go to deeper sides of the character than I normally would think of, in terms of just being a singer,” she said. “Working with him has been really exciting and fun to stretch myself to not only sing the notes beautifully, but to have each note have a different meaning — when I’m laughing, or when I’m jealous, or when I’m scared, or when I’m suffering.”

As a producer, Bell said she strives to tell deep and important stories that feel timely and relevant. And with Armendariz Diaz’s vision for their production of “Othello,” she feels confident they will.

“Having a fabulous set and fabulous props and costumes and so on, that’s nice, but for me, a play or an opera has something much more important, which is the emotions,” Armendariz Diaz said. “For me, any kind of art is about emotion and we have to work. The people who see our shows, we have to move those people and we have to make them think about what we’re saying and how it’s related to our world today.”

In the six months that they worked intensively with the play and the opera, the process drew Bell even closer to the work, “just because of its importance in today’s society,” she said.

Actress Rivka Borek.

“We feel that this show and this story are so important today, perhaps even more so than it was 400 years ago when written by Shakespeare,” Bell said. “We feel that, especially in times of strife and violence and everything we’re living in our world today, that the characters of Othello and Iago, although they do have dark sides, they should be seen as people that we can relate to, not just people foreign to us.

“In order to avoid problems in our future, we need to understand what drives people to these desperate acts and what makes them act in dark ways,” she continued. “And they should be seen as people that we could see part of ourselves in.”

Divaria Productions will present “Othello: The Opera and Play Enmeshed” on Saturday, September 14, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets range from $25 to $50. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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