Rockin' Operas

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Othello has long been a great vehicle for actors (Emil Jannings, Paul Robeson, Orson Welles, and Lawrence Olivier are just a few of the great actors to play the part) but Shakespeare's tragedy has also inspired a fair number of musicians.

otello.jpg Verdi's opera, Otello, is one of the very few works of art based on a Shakespeare play that not only does justice to the Bard's writing, but actually improves it. Verdi and his librettist condensed the action from 5 Acts to 4 and in doing so, streamlined the action; yet also somehow managed to keep the emotions and themes in tact. Otello seen live is stunning theater -- and it's made more special by the fact that it's rarely performed. For a while Angelinos were treated to Otello every few years, thanks to Placido Domingo. Sadly, Domingo no longer sings the role; but this season (after a 13 year absence) Otello is back at at L.A. Opera.

A new production by John Cox replaces the old Götz Friedrich staging and British tenor Ian Storey steps into Domingo's shoes as the Moor of Venice. Forget comparisons, neither really stands out in their own right. Storey substitutes pouting and strutting for acting and Cox's production is simply bland and "European." Luckily, Shakespeare's drama and Verdi's music retain their strength, largely thanks to James Conlon and the orchestra. This production makes it difficult to see how Otello advanced the operatic art form, but its innovation and power can at least be heard.

Passing Strange, the new indie-rock opera/cabaret show that opened last week on Broadway, also uses Othello as key reference. The title, Passing Strange, comes from a line in Act 1 of Othello:

    She gave me for my pains a world of sighs
    She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange.

The show's director, Annie Dorsen, suggested the title because Passing Strange, like Othello, is about a Black man trying to make his way in a white world—although instead of a warrior in 16th century Venice, it's about a singer/songwriter navigating the 1980's art scene.

passing_strange2.jpgPassing Strange's narrator, Stew (leader and founder of the LA-based band, The Negro Problem) recounts in story and song the wanderings of his own youth (played on stage by Daniel Breaker) struggling with his identity in South Central L.A. only to leave in the attempt to find himself in Europe. Its "portrait of the artist as a young man" set-up is entirely familiar, but the way that Stew paints this portrait with catchy songs and quick asides (which sound offhand, but often are in meticulously rhymed verse) leaves a lasting theatrical—as well as emotional—impression.

The real reason to exalt Passing Strange is that it shows that it's a stirring reminder than pop music can (when properly used like 1998's Hedwig and the Angry Inch) create stimulating musical theater. Like Otello, which opened up the dramatic possibilities of opera, Passing Strange (in its modest way) similarly pushes the American musical in new and meaningful directions. It's also really fun. While Passing Strange does contain more pathos than some operas, attending the show feels more like going to a rock concert.

passing_strange3.jpg My only regret is that everything about Passing Strange, its music, attitude, sense of humor, not to mention its South Central settings, is so L.A. It would fit perfectly on the Taper stage and is exactly the type of show our local companies should be producing. That this LA-centric show premiered in Berkeley and moved to New York—and as of yet has no plans to play here—passes beyond strange and moves right on into tragedy.

Passing Strange continues its open-ended run on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre; Otello runs through this Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Jenny Lawton