On February 5th of 1887, Guiseppe Verdi’s penultimate four-act opera Otello received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. Beginning at 8 pm in the evening, the audience (unlike the typical practice at the theater) were already in their seats by the time the opera began, with more than 5,000 audience members waiting outside wishing to score a seat in the theater for themselves.
After a harrowing and extremely stressful drafting period, the opera was finally completed on the first of November of 1886. Although on the verge of retirement (only one opera away), Verdi’s capabilities in creating a socially-aware and extremely exciting opera had audiences and performers alike dying to see it and perform its roles, although Verdi was very particular with who got to perform his operatic characters. Verdi was extremely fond of Shakespeare, and spent a considerable amount of his life setting his stories to music (three finished operas with many others planned but never completed). The opera’s libretto, written by Arrigo Boito, proved to be a massive task, as personalities like Iago and Otello are complex. Thus, the musical and textual life had to coalesce together in order for the story to be sold in a faithful manner. So meticulous was Verdi that he had personally coached the singers, helping Francesco Tamango (Otello) gain a far more palpable and realistic quality to his musical and dramatic performance (especially the ending).
The premiere at La Scala was not a streamline affair but rather one of secrecy. On the official posters for the opera, dates were not given as a way to allow Verdi to cancel the premiere at any time. Further, Giovanni Ricordi (founder of Casa Ricordi, the sole owner of the rights of Verdi’s works) and his firm was actively engaged in the premiere, helping with costume, set design, and appointment management in order to help the premiere shine. It was a help, in retrospect, that Verdi’s opera was being completed in sections, because as soon as the opera was completed the Ricordi firm wanted to publish a vocal score as soon as possible, ostensibly to capitalize on the attention that the opera was generating. During the rehearsals at La Scala, Verdi had routinely threatened to cancel the premiere if things were fixed, demonstrating just how serious each premiere was to the (by that time) national hero and symbol of Italy’s greatness.
One key point to understanding the premiere, however, is Verdi’s relationship with La Scala which, by all accounts, was a hearty and life-long one. His first opera (Oberto) and last opera (Falstaff) were performed there, and due to the closeness of director Bartolomeo Merelli with Verdi, and his operas would find refuge at the theater for most of Verdi’s life. For a time, he forbade his operas to be performed there due to his disagreements with the quality of the orchestra, although by the late-1860s (1869, the premiere of La Forza del Destino) to early 1870s (1874, the premiere of his Requiem which he conducted), things had seemingly tempered out. Despite Verdi’s reservations the premiere turned out to be wildly successful thanks to the aid of Ricordi and its influence. So popular in fact, that it’s recorded that the opera garnished 20 curtain calls.