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Limmie Pulliam: Missouri’s New ‘Otello’

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera has a long history of problematic casting choices, but Springfield Regional Opera gets “Otello” right.

By Arts & Culture

Image courtesy of Limmie Pulliam.

Limmie Pulliam will take on the role of Otello for the second time in his career this fall with the Springfield Regional Opera in Springfield, Missouri. For Pulliam, a tenor, this is the dream role he has always wanted to portray.

“It’s known as the most difficult tenor role in the repertoire just by means of the stamina necessary to sing the role but also for its dramatic aspects as well,” Pulliam said during our interview. “It’s a role that I find kind of near and dear to me. It’s a role that I’ve always looked at and hoped for and a role that I can relate to in the sense of Otello being a person of color in a situation where he’s basically on his own and no one else looks like him. He’s a black man in a white world.”

“Otello” is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi based on the Shakespearean play, “Othello.” It’s a tragic story of jealousy, distrust, racism, and moral dilemma. Classic Shakespeare. The basic plot line starts with the people of Cyprus eagerly awaiting the return of their governor, Otello. While he was gone, Roderigo showed up and fell in love with Otello’s wife, Desdemona. One of Otello’s officers, Iago, secretly hates the governor for promoting Cassio over him so he decides to insight a terrible plan to help Roderigo win over Desdemona and basically cause a huge mess in the city of Cyprus.

“Throughout the opera Otello is manipulated by Iago into believing that his wife is having an affair with Cassio so you slowly watch as his mind is twisted and he’s overtaken by jealousy that turns into rage to the point where he decides that if he can’t have her, nobody else can so he does the unthinkable and kills her,” Pulliam said.  

Jennifer Forni — an Oberlin alum who made her Metropolitan Opera House debut in 2013 in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal — will be playing the role of Desdemona.

“Desdemona is genuine, she’s honest, she is the victim in a cruel sadistic game and her death is the result of ego and insecurity,” Forni said. “It’s hard because in a way you almost feel bad for Otello because the deceit is extreme and you can see why he believed she was guilty, but at the end of the day, a man has killed a woman over what he perceives to be adultery and no matter how far he was pushed we need to remember it is never ok to hurt somebody, even if they’re doing you wrong.”

The opera addresses themes that remain relevant to this day, including the issue of depicting race in a theatrical setting. Tenors have been darkening their skin to play the part of Otello since it’s premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1887 and have continued to do so for the role. This has been part of an ongoing debate among singers and performers in the opera world and was most recently addressed by Alison Kinney for The Guardian in her article, “Otello: opera, identity politics and blacking-up.”

Kinney writes: “Otello in 2017 raises an issue at once visual, ethical and extrinsic to the plot: the number of tenors capable of singing the virtuosic lead role has always been small. To this day, that list remains overwhelmingly white. How should the Royal Opera depict the “dusky” man whom Iago calls a “murky,” “thick-lipped savage,” when the white tenor’s skin evokes the “lily fairness” of Desdemona?”

The debate as to whether Otello should be cast as a black actor or allow the audience to dig deeper and understand his character as an “other,” a role more open to interpretation is one that continues to surround the part.

“There’s been a huge debate as of late about the hiring of white tenors and darkening their skin with makeup,” Pulliam said. “Some people are offended by this and they see it as blackface. There is a difference in this and what we consider historic ‘blackface’ makeup. This is not a situation where it is a minstrel act but Otello’s skin color is extremely important to the story line in the opera and without that it loses a lot of the innate tension that’s there based on the fact that this is a man of color who is the only one who looks like him in this region.

“I think that the skin color aspect of the role is important to the opera. I don’t think it’s necessary to do away with that and  some companies are no longer darkening the skin of their tenors and I think some of those productions are lacking because you lose that distinction of Otello being alone despite the fact that he’s surrounded by many many people.”

Ronald Samm was the first black tenor to sing the role on stage in the UK in 2009, directed by Graham Vick. David Alden’s 2014 production of “Otello” for the National English Opera was the first to do away with darkening makeup altogether. His approach to the role was to play up Otello’s “otherness” and isolate him as a character rather than to focus on the physical darkness of Otello.

The most recent depiction of Otello was of course Jonas Kaufmann who made his debut as Otello on June 21, 2017 at the Royal Opera House in London. Kauffman is German, and noted for his versatility and confidence. Zachary Woolfe’s review of the opening night  for the New York Times notes that, “While his (Kaufmann’s) singing was nearly flawless, he didn’t convey — not on the first night, at least — the part’s sheer intensity.”

Woolfe goes on to say that while the director’s staging does emphasize Otello’s isolation there were too many moments grasping for “old fashioned passion” to convince him that the lead’s tendency toward coolness was intentional.

One has to wonder if that intensity might have been intensified and more honestly felt were the character played by someone who can relate to the role of Otello on a more literal level.

“The whole outsider aspect is what sets him apart from everyone else. From where the opera stands you hear that there aren’t many black tenors who can sing the part but there are those of us out here that can, it’s just getting companies to hire us. This is a tough topic,” Pulliam said.  “We still deal with the difficulties of companies who will hire us when it’s time to do Porgy and Bess but you don’t hear from them when it’s time to La Bohème because some in the industry have a hard time seeing men of color in romantic roles and I think it’s time we get past that because the opera world is being robbed of so many wonderful voices and they aren’t receiving the exposure they deserve.”

Pulliam studied at Oberlin but was in a different graduating class than his co-star Jennifer Forni. He sang professionally for a few years before taking a twelve year break. He worked as a bodyguard before taking a job working on a presidential campaign where he was asked to fill in to sing the National Anthem. It was during those appearances that he noticed some changes in his voice that made him want to take up singing again.

“I started working on my own rebuilding my technique and I made the decision after 9 months of working with a  teacher to make the dive again and see what would happen,” Pulliam said. “Most people don’t get a first chance at their career and I feel lucky to have had two chances. It was then after working with my teacher that I entered a competition to gauge how things were going and ended up winning the competition. From there it’s been competitions and auditions and getting in front of as many people as I could.”

The Springfield Regional Opera’s “Otello” will debut at Juanita K. Hammons Hall in Springfield, MO on October 7th, 2017. The SRO will be the only opera house in the United States putting on Otello in 2017.

“Otello is my dream role. It’s a role I don’t think I’ll ever tire of singing and it’s a role that I hope to continue to sing for many years to come,” Pulliam said. “For many tenors it’s the pinnacle role that they hope to one day be able to sing and I consider myself blessed and lucky to have the opportunity to do it.”

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