Opera North's Otello Comes to Belfast

'There will be blood, there will be thunderbolts, there will be Verdi's stirring music' when Ronald Samm arrives in Belfast on March 6

Three years ago the Trinidadian tenor, Ronald Samm, opened a fresh page in operatic history. The setting was an abandoned engineering works in Birmingham, the occasion a site-specific staging of Verdi’s opera Otello, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Othello.

And the history? That had been a long time coming: 120 years after Verdi’s masterpiece was premiered at La Scala in Milan, Samm was the first black singer ever to perform the title role in a UK professional production.

It’s a startling statistic, and I ask Samm whether he ever gets weary of having it drawn to his attention. ‘No, I don’t,’ he laughs. 'It wakes me up again!’ While understandably proud of his achievement in breaking the colour barrier, Samm sees nothing sinister behind the fact that it took so long for it to happen.

‘It’s a great honour to be the first black person to do it, I think,’ he says. ‘But Otello is a funny role to cast. You have to be a dramatic Heldentenor voice, and those voices are rare. You don’t get them very often in a generation, so it’s really lucky to have this voice type.’

Samm accepts, though, that being black does make a difference when he sings the part of the Moor, at least to those who watch and listen. ‘I have been told it does by people who’ve seen the opera before,’ he comments. ‘But I think that’s because of the novelty of it in some ways.

‘I am just a tenor who sings the part, and that’s what I have to keep in mind, not bring any other aspects into it. The race thing is blindingly obvious, but I can’t let that get in the way of doing the best job I can, by giving myself extra stresses and strains.’

The strain of the part itself is, according to Samm, more than enough to be going on with. ‘It’s very draining emotionally,’ he observes, adding that doing a Daniel-Day Lewis on it, and staying in character when he is off-stage during a run of performances, is absolutely out of the question.

‘After the first time I did Otello I realised I can’t take it home with me. I’m not one of these method people. The adrenaline stays in your blood for a number of hours, of course, but you just have to pick yourself up and do something else afterwards.’ Such as? ‘Well, you either hit bed, or you go to the pub!’ he laughs heartily.

Samm also points out that Otello is not the only hugely demanding part in the opera, nor possibly even the most interesting. That accolade, he argues, goes to Iago, the villainous ensign who fixes the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity in Otello’s head, and cultivates its poisonous influence.

Samm finds no difficulty in understanding how Otello, a victorious military general, is brought so low by the mean, wheedling insinuations of a junior officer. ‘I know people like that,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘People who are so full of pride, and quite jealous, and you can actually see where that type of vulnerability comes from.’

Otello is one of two parts that Ronald Samm has always dreamt of singing. The other is Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, which he did in an Everyman Theatre, Cork staging that has recently scooped this year’s Irish Times Award for Best Opera Production.

Samm’s experience of Belfast is a little more distant, and confined to a single visit. ‘It was at least 18 years ago when I sang a production of Britten’s Curlew River in Greyabbey. But I’m really keen to see it this time, because I’ve got two good mates in Belfast, and I want to see what it feels like now that times have changed a bit.’

Accompanying him when Otello comes to the Grand Opera House on Wednesday, March 6 and Saturday, March 9 will be Welsh baritone, David Kempster (see video below), who plays Iago. The character seems pure evil – ‘primordial slime’, as Iago himself puts it – but Kempster insists that getting inside the skin of this contemptibly manipulative creature is actually an enjoyable process.

‘It’s great,’ he smiles. ‘The character is so multi-faceted, there’s so many twists and turns in the plot that he is the architect of. He’s the engine of the piece really. It’s like free therapy, you know – you can get all your demons out in the rehearsals, then close the door at the end of your six hours a day!’

There are even, claims Kempster, ways in which you can actually start admiring Iago, the more you study his byzantine wiles and machinations. ‘You have to admire the guy’s intelligence,’ he muses. ‘The way he focuses it, the way he channels it. As a Machiavellian plotter he’s up there with the best of them. I think there’s something of the devil, something of the night about him.’

The evening I see Otello at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, Opera North’s hometown platform, Kempster is greeted at curtain-call by a volley of cat-calls and booing. Not, one hastens to add, for his singing – which, as one distinguished critic put it, is ‘mesmerising’. Is Kempster, I wonder, getting the pantomine villain treatment at every performance?

‘I am. I’ve done Iago once before, and Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. And I think with those three roles if you don’t get a boo you haven’t done your job.’ So is he expecting a bit of healthy booing when Otello hits the stage in Belfast? ‘Oh yeah. A couple of cheers would be good as well!’

In the orchestra pit for the two Belfast performances of Otello will be Opera North’s music director, Richard Farnes, whose dynamic conducting of Verdi’s masterpiece has attracted universal plaudits (‘a master in his prime,’ raved the Daily Telegraph). Farnes has no doubt that Otello stands at the absolute pinnacle of Verdi’s operatic achievement.

‘It’s almost as if he entered a slightly different hemisphere,’ he comments. ‘With Otello I find that the musical language is on a slightly different level. It’s got the conventions, it’s got the big chorus scenes. But it’s got this fluidity to it, it’s very different to anything Verdi had written before, pushing it on to a higher musical plane.’

Farnes is looking forward to the special intimacy of Belfast’s Grand Opera House setting, where his magnificent orchestra and chorus are set to make an explosive sonic impact when the curtain rises on Otello’s tumultuous opening moments. There will be blood, there will be thunderbolts, there will be Verdi’s gloriously stirring music: for Northern Irish opera lovers, it’s an unmissable event in this year’s operatic calendar.