Springfield Regional Opera Presents Verdi's "Otello"

Oct 6, 2017

Dramatic tenor Limmie Pulliam portrays Verdi's Otello for Springfield Regional Opera this weekend.
Credit (Photo courtesy Limmie Pulliam)

It’s hard to believe, but Springfield Regional Opera has been in operation for 36 years.  And to open their 37th season, SRO is producing an opera I, frankly, never expected them to attempt, but have always wished they could produce: Verdi’s Shakespearean masterpiece Otello.  But they’ve found a cast that can sing the work—particularly the problematic title role—and a way to perform it as economically as possible: in a semi-staged concert version, with the orchestra on the stage.  And they’re only doing one performance: Saturday October 7th at 8:00pm in the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts on the Missouri State University campus.

Springfield Regional Opera Artistic Director Michael Spyres explains the thinking behind opening their season with such a blockbuster.  Acknowledging that an opera such as Otello might seem beyond SRO’s reach, he says “If people need to know that ‘big opera’ is here, we should do it. Christopher (Koch, SRO’s Music Director/Conductor, as well as conductor of the Springfield-Drury Civic Orchestra) were talking about the possibilities of certain pieces, and then we found the right singers. And I said, ‘We’ve got to do Verdi’s Otello’—and Christopher said, ‘We can do it! We can find the orchestra, we can get it all together.’ And it’s going to be something spectacular that Springfield’s never heard.”

“We’re so excited about this,” adds Christopher Koch, “not only because it’s an amazing piece, and truly one of the masterworks of the opera genre, but we’re on the path to bringing a second staged opera back to Springfield. And this”—a semi-staged concert performance of a complete opera—“is sort of the intermediate step in that direction for us.” SRO has had to cut back to one fully-staged opera and one or more concert performances in recent years due to budgetary restraints.

Michael Spyres emphasizes the “community effort” required to present a fully-staged opera production. “And it really takes chorus, orchestra, big amounts of people on the (company’s) board (of director).” 

“And it’s expensive,” I whisper.

“Exactly,” says Spyres. Opera is widely recognized as one of the most expensive art forms to produce. “It’s so massive of a production to put on, and you have to have so many working parts. To do an opera of this magnitude, the sets and things like that, it doesn’t really make sense unless you have substantial coffers in your pockets.  We do have the Juanita K. Hammons Hall, an amazing place that would be perfect for opera.  But to do a full-scale opera on this level is just completely out of the question for the next couple of years. But that’s our goal.”  Springfield Regional Opera’s single performance of Otello, while not utilizing full costumes, sets and lighting like a fully-staged production, will offer around 300 people on-stage, including a nearly 90-member Springfield-Drury Civic Orchestra, the Drury University Chorale, the Springfield-Drury Girls’ Choir, and the Boys’ Choir of Springfield, not to mention all the soloists.  “That’s the exciting part, but that’s also the difficult part about the logistics.”

“A lot of people forget that opera was the original blockbuster entertainment. It was the most spectacular thing you could see. And it still is. It just does it without all the technology. But that means it’s incredibly complex and difficult.”

The difficulty of presenting a work like Otello can perhaps be understood when you consider that SRO’s production is one of only TWO in all of North America during the 2017-2018 season.  (The other is actually taking place the same night, October 7—again in a concert version, interestingly enough—by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.)  Aside from the scenic and overall personnel demands, it’s ridiculously hard to find a tenor whose voice, stage presence and personality are truly up to the heroic demands of the title role.  Says SRO Artistic Director Michael Spyres, “There are only two places this season in all of North America that are putting on Otello—and we’re one of them. And it’s because we actually have the voice for it.

Limmie Pulliam from Kennett, Missouri is literally one of the greatest voices I’ve actually ever heard in my life.”  (This, from a tenor who himself has been called “one of the greatest singers of his generation!”) “He (Pulliam)’s just come back to singing after a long hiatus, and it’s just amazing. I know we’re going to hear some audible gasps, like ‘I didn’t that was possible to come out of a voice like that!’  That’s how I was when I first heard him live—it made me cry in the auditions.  He’s really an incredible musician.”

Spyres is perhaps most proud of the fact that all the singers in the major roles of Otello, Desdemona and Iago are from the state of Missouri. “And they’re some of the best people that I can imagine for these parts.” Baritone Dr. Richard Todd Payne, Associate Professor of Voice at Missouri State University, sings the evil, duplicitous ensign Iago; and Jennifer Forni, who recently joined the voice faculty at Evangel University and has performed in Parsifal and Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera, is Desdemona.  “We have so much local talent,” says Spyres, “and the great thing is, many of these people are just in the infancy of their international careers.  So if you want to come hear some incredible music—and really world-class voices—we actually have them right here, and they will be onstage for you to hear on Saturday.  It’s just a hair-raising experience hearing them sing.”  

Since the orchestra is on the stage with the singers rather than being defined by the size of the theater’s orchestra pit, SRO has been able to augment the Springfield-Drury Civic Orchestra to nearly 90 players in order to fulfill Verdi’s requirements for Otello, according to Music Director Christopher Koch.  “This opera calls for mostly doubled winds—four bassoons; percussion instruments with names like ‘Thunder’ and ‘Cannon’!”

Michael Spyres goes into some of the history behind Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello with librettist (and fellow composer) Arrigo Boito. “The reason that Verdi wrote his Otello was because of Rossini’s Otello that came 50 years before, which was the greatest masterpiece and everybody was so excited about it.  Verdi grew up hearing this music, and wanting to compose (his own version).  But he didn’t want to do it an injustice, and that’s why Verdi spent nearly 10 years (working on the score).

In fact, he came out of retirement to produce Otello, says Christopher Koch.  It was his second-to-last opera; his last opera was also a Shakespearean adaptation: the comedy Falstaff. “It’s ironic that one of the greatest of all Italian opera composers has given us our greatest English literature-based operas.”

I couldn’t let Michael Spyres go without having him talk about his latest audio and video recordings to hit the market. “Of the recordings that came out (in the) last year, I had a very obscure opera from Giovanni Mayr called Medea in Corinto, an amazing piece. That one’s on DVD and CD. And there’s Lobegesang (the Symphony No.2) of Mendelssohn, one of the greatest pieces I’ve ever gotten to record, because it was with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) with their label LSO Live.  That just came out and it was a dream to do.  Also with Decca, it was Dvorak’s Stabat Mater.  That was particularly an incredible piece because the late Jiri Belohlavek—the conductor for decades of the Prague Philharmonic—this was his last project.  It was such a moving experience to be able to work with him on his last major recording, of Dvorak, in Prague with the Prague Philharmonic—and me being one of the soloists.  I’m truly living a bizarre dream, because this is everything that I wanted to do.”

His latest CD, “Espoir,” is a solo album for the British firm Opera Rara, a company dedicated to “recovering, discovering, recording and performing the forgotten operatic heritage of the 19th century.”  Spyres has participated in numerous productions and recordings for the company, and this is a rare solo recital CD for them.  It consists of arias made famous by, and specifically written for, one of the leading French tenors of the 19th century, Gilbert-Louis Duprez.  It includes three pieces that have been unperformed since they were first heard 180 years ago. “It’s so exciting, because there’s still so much good music to be found, new things to explore, and new repertoire for audiences to find out. It’s bizarre, coming from a town, Manfield, Missouri, just down the road from Springfield, and hoping and dreaming to fly outside of the United States someday. Now I live around the world all the time”—and dreams of getting back home more often!  Spyres  has only been back in Springfield seven weeks during 2017.  Now that’s a busy career for a singer!

Tickets for Springfield Regional Opera’s one-time-only performance of Otello are $27 and $37 and available through Missouri State Tix: 836-7678 or www.missouristatetix.com.  For more information call Springfield Regional Opera at 863-1960 or visit www.sropera.org.