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Lyric Opera Falls Victim to the Curse of Otello

The high-profile cancellations in Lyric Opera’s production look like part of an eerie pattern in Verdi’s adaptation.

Otello, played by Johan Botha, sings during the Lyric Opera dress rehearsal of Verdi’s Otello in early October.   Photo: Adam Wolffbrandt / Chicago Tribune

Almost as familiar as “break a leg,” the old-as-the-braes theatrical superstition about Shakespeare’s play Macbeth spooks even skeptical actors to refer to it as “the Scottish play” to avoid invoking the curse that has supposedly led to a real stabbing onstage, a Lady Macbeth sleepwalking off the set, and Charlton Heston’s tights catching fire after someone soaked them in kerosene.

Giuseppe Verdi turned Macbeth into an opera, and the curse seems to have followed, instead, to another of his Shakespearean operas—Otello. Verdi’s second of three adaptations of the Bard (the third is Falstaff) finishes its run at Lyric Opera on November 2, having suffered two withdrawals from the hyped-up cast.

The tenor Johan Botha, Lyric’s Otello, bowed out of the last two performances because of severe back pain. He is replaced by Clifton Forbis, whom some might remember, sand Otello with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia in 2005. At Lyric’s season opener, in the performance before the black-tie Opera Ball, the bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, playing Iago, withdrew after the first act, citing severe allergies. His understudy, Todd Thomas, finished the premiere, and Struckmann has returned for the rest of the performances.

(Lyric declined to comment for this article.)

And it’s not just Lyric’s production that seems cursed. Last year’s Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, also starring both Botha and Struckmann, weathered similar trials: Botha claimed allergy problems in the opening performance and suffered a cold that caused him to miss several performances. 

Or maybe it’s Otello on opening nights. The very first performance of the Los Angeles Opera in 1986, then called the Music Center Opera, slated Plácido Domingo as Otello and Rosalind Plowright at Desdemona. Plowright canceled three months before the opening. Her replacement, Daniela Dessi, collapsed at the Milan airport four days before the premiere. And in what would be too obvious a symbol if it were fiction, the curtain got stuck and rose late.

Three years earlier, the San Francisco Opera’s opening night, Carlo Cossutta canceled with laryngitis only hours before curtain. The opera called Domingo and flew him on a private plane from New York. The gala dinner was served early, and the show went on at 10:30 p.m., ending at about 2 in the morning.

It could also be some alchemy with Lake Michigan. After getting banned from Lyric for a cancellation record that makes Riccardo Muti look like Cal Ripken Jr., Luciano Pavarotti returned to Chicago to sing his debut as Otello in a concert version with the CSO in 1991. He bombed. “The sound was forced, constricted, innocent of vocal nuance and verbal point,” wrote the Tribune’s John von Rhein.

Of course, every good curse needs some magical language, like the taboo on saying the title of Macbeth. “The Moorish opera” is obvious. Better would be a knowing phrase:

Opera Lover 1: Are you going to the opera? You know the one I’m talking about.

Opera Lover 2: Say no Moor.

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