My Otello Story
On July 29, 2011, the second chapter of my personal Otello story was written with Dorset Opera. A few years have passed since I became the first black tenor to sing this role on a major international operatic stage. Despite the public acclaim at the time, there has been continuing reluctance by many major houses to admit that a black man might sing any of the roles in the dramatic tenor repertoire including, quite poignantly, the Moor. I hope very much that sharing my story will inspire others to let their lights shine.
In 1987, after participating in the Verdi Voice Competition in Busetto, Italy my teacher Madame Marie-Henriette Dejean and I stopped off at Casa Ricordi in Milano before flying back to Paris. While there, she picked up a score of Otello and started thumbing through it. As she looked at the score (and as she tended not to take lightly any opinion she had formed), she almost shouted that I had to sing Otello – that it was made for me – and proceeded to buy the score. I laughed nervously and thought it more than pretentious on my part to even entertain the idea. After all, I was at the beginning of my career. So it was even more embarrassing on the flight to Paris in heavy turbulence that she continued to exclaim ever more loudly, still perusing the score, that I would sing Otello! For the next year we would sing a phrase or bits of a scene per day until we had covered the entire opera. Ultimately, even I became convinced that it was a role I could do quite well. Indeed the opening lines of the duet between Otello and Desdemona became my “warm up”, predicated on the idea that with no more than these phrases I could sing anything.
Fast-forward to 1994, when I went to Nice, France with then agent Molière Athalys, to audition for their forthcoming production of Otello. After singing the “Esultate”, the two arias, and the finale of “Niun mi tema”, I went to sit and wait in a foyer while Molière spoke to the artistic team. Some 15 minutes or more afterwards he came out looking somewhat “shocked”. There was good news and bad. The good news was that they liked what they heard. The bad news was that they couldn’t hire me for Otello because I was black. Molière argued that if they were so worried about this problem then they should make me up white and then make me up black. I found this to be absolutely hilarious and laughed out loud. Apparently the administrators at Nice did not find Molière’s barb to be very funny. Molière, himself a black man, couldn’t believe that his countrymen, fellow citizens of La Belle France, famous for its “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, could harbor such blatant racism, especially after he had just experienced the same type of racism from an American agent with whom he’d tried to have me work. But I said, “don’t worry – when they least expect it something will happen and they will have to come to me.” Of course I didn’t bother to look at the Otello again since I had no reason to do so.
In June of 1995, I was staying with my colleague mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sebron anticipating an audition at Columbia Artists Management when I received a phone call from Molière at 7:00 am local time on a Saturday morning. He wanted to know if I could sing Otello for the Opéra de Nice, at the afternoon matinee the next day? He found the last seat on the Concorde from New York to Paris and one of the few remaining seats between the two cities – it was the height of the summer tourist season after all – and so it was off to the airport with a stop at a music shop to grab a score.
The flight on the Concorde was an event unto itself and only added to my excitement. Upon arrival in Paris I stayed overnight at an airport hotel since my flight to Nice left at 7:00 am the next morning. Arriving in Nice I was taken to the theatre where I met the stage director, conductor and a few friends who happened to be involved in the production. My “staging” consisted of being shown and imagining a basic outline of where I was to go while looking up at the previous night’s set (for a different opera), which was in the process of being struck. Otherwise there was no other rehearsal and just the refitting of the costume.
The performance was spectacular with people cheering wildly when it was finished and several curtain calls. As this was the last performance of the season and municipal elections were taking place, no press were in attendance and no recording was made. And surely, few of those present had realized the historic value of this achievement, not to mention the personal story behind it!