Dayton Opera stages first ‘Otello’

Scott Piper will never forget the phone call that his University of Michigan professor made to the Michigan Opera Theatre on his behalf decades ago.

“There’s a young tenor you should hear,” Piper’s teacher told the opera company’s David Dichiera. That call turned out to be life-changing. Now 44 and in the midst of a successful opera career, Piper returns to town for the eighth time as the star of the first-ever Dayton Opera production of “Otello.” The performances, slated for Friday, Feb. 26 and Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Schuster Center, coincide with the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare who penned the tragedy “Othello” on which the opera is based. Dayton Opera performers will be accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and joined by the Dayton Opera Chorus.

The story from Piper’s student days is a great example of the way in which professionals can aid those beginning their careers. “We all started that way so it feels natural and normal to continue the tradition of mentorship,” said Piper, who recently debuted the role of “Otello” at the Hessian State Opera in Wiesbaden. “Our art is about community and the next generation. We learn as much as they do and it’s always nice to see the enthusiasm reflected back that I have inside me for this art form. “

The upcoming production of “Otello” will blend seasoned performers like Piper and his Desdemona, soprano Danielle Pastin, with four Dayton Opera artists-in-residence. The program allows the young vocalists, selected from national auditions, a bridge from their university/conservatory educational experiences into the arena of a professional opera company. Those chosen for the 2015-2016 program are soprano Kasia Borowiec; mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti; tenor Zachary Devin and baritone Andrew Pardini.

Devin, whose earliest exposure to opera was Bugs Bunny cartoons, said he chose the Dayton Opera program because of its reputation. He’s excited to be part of “Otello.”

“The leading cast is incredibly talented and have had a lots of experience singing around the world,” said Devin who will play the role of Roderico. “I’m very excited to learn as much as I can from them and from this experience.”

Stage director Kathleen Clawson, who has been directing operas in Dayton 2009, serves as assistant director of the Santa Fe Opera’s apprentice singer program, the first such program in the nation. Every type of music has its own style, she said, and that you can’t know a particular style unless you’ve studied it. Classical music and opera are passed down from artist to artist.

“There are traditions and things about this art form that you can’t learn from looking at ink on a page,” Clawson explained. “Professionals will tell you that what they really needed to know about our profession, they didn’t learn in school. It’s on-the-job training. To watch someone professional incorporate the knowledge and stylistic traditions into a living breathing performance is one of the greatest educations one can get.”

More about “Otello”

Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who had retired after the huge success of his 1871 “Aida,” was eventually lured back to composing by his publisher and took 20 curtain calls when his opera, “Otello,” premiered in 1887.

The dramatic tale revolves around three characters: Otello, his beautiful wife Desdemona, and his unscrupulous rival, Iago, who gradually hatches a plot to make Otello unjustly fear that his beloved Desdemona is betraying him. Iago will be played by baritone Grant Youngblood and tenor Stephen Carroll, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, will portray Otello’s honorable captain, Cassio.

Clawson, whose father was a singer and actor who portrayed both Iago in the opera and Othello in the play, said it was through this opera that she came to love Shakespeare. “Great works of art have longevity because they have something to say to all of us here and now,” she said. “This is a human story about love and betrayal and trust and jealousy. Those are all things we experience in our daily lives.”

Clawson said ‘Otello” is a cautionary tale about what can happen if the fabric of trust is breached.” It also warns, she said, about being careful whom you trust.

Piper, who said he loves the cross-pollination of text and music in opera, said the role of Otello is one he had always wanted to play. “It’s the Mt. Everest of tenor roles,” he explained. “And as a multi-racial person, it speaks to me on many levels.”

Young performers involved

Artist-in-residence Melisa Bonetti, who received her Master of Music in Voice from CCM, will be making her Dayton Opera main stage debut as Emilia, wife of Iago and handmaid to Desdemona. “I’m looking forward to performing the role, especially the part in the fourth act towards the end of the opera when Emilia surprisingly stands up to Otello and calls him a murderer and unveils the truth about her evil husband’s plans!” she said. “It’s a very strong section and a small piece of dramatic singing that I get to be a part of in this masterpiece!”

Andrew Pardini will perform the role of the Herald; soprano Kasia Borowiec will understudy the role of Desdemona. “As a young singer, it’s been such a thrill to watch and learn from Danielle who sings the role with such passion and nuance,” said Borowiec who said she’s learned a lot by observing the ways in which the pros conduct themselves in the rehearsal room, how their pre-show rituals ensure better performances and how they treat one another.

Pastin, Dayton’s current Desdemona, remembers being in a similar position. “I got quite a jump in my career as a young artist at the Santa Fe Opera company when I was covering the role of Mimi in “La Boheme,” she relates. “Three hours before curtain time Ana Maria Martinez was sick and I was on! It can be a really big and important time, an opportunity to learn so much… but very stressful because you’re often covering major roles and performing supporting roles at the same time. You have to be ready to go on with a moment’s notice.”

Pastin, whose father was the leader of the Navy band and whose family also includes jazz and rock musicians, said she wanted to be a singer from the age of three but didn’t always like opera. One car ride changed her mind.

“When I was 17, my father and I were in the car coming back from a band rehearsal and “Tristan and Isolde” was playing on the radio,” she remembers. ” I was completely struck and obsessed by it. My dad left me in the car where I waited until the end of the opera and the next day he bought me the CD. I still have that CD.”

Desdemona, she said, is a wonderful role. “She’s quite a lady who goes against her family and society and marries a man she loves despite their racial and economic differences,” she explained. “She sticks by her man to the bitter end.”

That “bitter end” is one thing she loves about “Otello,” one of her favorite operas. “It’s got a fun death scene,” she said. “As a lyric soprano, things rarely go well for me on stage and I rarely live to see the end of the opera. I just closed ‘La Boheme’ and dying as Mimi is a lot different than dying at the hands of ‘Otello!”

Pastin, who said it’s important for opera singers at all levels to have cheerleaders and support systems, said she always welcomes the opportunity to work with young artists. “When we all have open access to one another, it’s great.”

Clawson said everyone remembers what it was like to be a newbie. “Dayton’s four artists-in-residence are learning not just notes and rhythms but how an opera comes to life on stage by watching Scott and Danielle and Grant,” she said. “I find it inspiring that I am part of that long line of knowledge that I got from my teacher and my teacher got from her teacher and that her teacher got it from…well..Verdi. We’re not that far removed from the people who created this great art.”