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Telaio: Desdemona


photo Telaio: Desdemona - operatic soliloquy (40')
soprano, string quartet, harp, piano, percussion

Commissioned by the American Artists Series
funded (in part) by the National Endowment for the Arts
Premiere: April 2, 1995, Cranbrook Aud. MI
Susan Botti, soprano, members of the AAS
Joann Freeman, Artistic Director

goview an excerpt from the score

Telaio: Desdemona is an operatic soliloquy - a character study of Shakespeare's Desdemona from Othello, the tragic story of jealousy and betrayal. Set in Venice and on the island of Cyprus, the play depicts the intense love between the exotic Moor, Othello, and the Venetian lady, Desdemona, their subsequent elopement, and finally the unraveling of their love through the manipulations of Othello's standard-bearer, Iago. Unable to tolerate Iago's insinuations about Desdemona's fidelity, Othello strangles his wife despite her protestations of innocence.

The soloist performs two "roles": the narrator and "Desdemona." The narrator, in recitatives, describes Desdemona through a collage of texts from Othello which are second-hand descriptions of her personality, words, and/or actions (originally spoken by other characters in the play). In arias, the character of Desdemona speaks through the poetry of an Italian Renaissance woman, Gaspara Stampa, and in traditional Italian folksong.

Other versions of Telaio Desdemona available are:
Telaio: Desdemona (concert version) (35')
- soprano, string quartet, harp, percussion & piano
Arias from Telaio: Desdemona (20')
- soprano and string quartet

For the recitatives, the music is driven by the words, and the instrumentation focuses on the piano, harp, and percussion. In contrast, the arias are more emotional and lyrical and are accompanied by the string quartet.

The Italian word "telaio" literally means "frame"- as in the frame of a loom used for weaving. Telaio: Desdemona explores this image in several ways. First, the entire piece serves as a frame within which threads of the character of Desdemona are woven, and out of which her portrait emerges. Secondly, I have used the traditional forms of recitative and aria to serve as a series of smaller frames within the overall structure. Lastly, the word "telaio" is a pun - in Shakespeare's Othello, Desdemona is in essence "framed" by Iago.

Telaio: Desdemona was commissioned by the American Artists Series of Detroit and was premiered in a concert version as part of their 1994-95 season with Susan Botti as the soloist. A fully staged version was presented in NYC at the NY Society for Ethical Culture in 1997 with Ms. Botti as soloist and director, lighting design by Michael Chybowski, costume/set design by Leslie Taylor, and musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby.

An instrumental piece, Prelude for 7 Instruments, may be played as an overture.

Telaio: Desdemona is included on a recording of Susan Botti's music, listen, it's snowing (CRI 802)


"...striking emotional music ...Botti sang with a honeyed soprano, equally golden in declamation or in soaring tessitura... The structure of this operatic soliloquy is canny... the irony is acute: ragingly masculine, sexist at times, Desdemona is characterized as lustful, degraded womanhood. But in her own words, Desdemona lives a more real, fuller emotional life. The writing for instruments is as honest and compelling as the vocal line - restrained, but exploiting the potentials with jazz elements, dissonance and much melody. This is a major piece of work in Botti's developing chamber opera canon."
   -- Michael H. Margolin, Opera

"...One edgy, darkly compelling recitative finished with a dangerously agitated coda. It raced into a sorrowful, Italianate aria --- but we were still shaking off the impact of the previous number. Such twisted emotion accumulated through the hourlong performance. An innovator on the New York contemporary music scene, Botti scored her quasi-operatic monologue for a hip chamber ensemble of seven players... honest emotion and creativity... exquisite theater..."
   -- Pierre Ruhe, Atlanta Journal

(Feb, 2017) "Botti is a rarity in the classical world - one of a few musicians who compose and perform their own music. As a singer, she possesses a wide technical and emotional range, so conspicuously revealed in the execution of her "Telaio: Desdemona." Premiered in 1995, the work is scored for soprano and seven instrumentalists who contrast and illuminate the intensity and turmoil experienced by the Shakespearean character from "Othello."
Botti is not a powerful soprano in the operatic sense, but one who adjusts acutely to her surroundings. Reminiscent of great purveyors of 20th century vocal music such as Jan de Gaetani and Cathy Berberian, she is direct and powerful yet can recede to eloquence and intimacy. That takes great acting skills, which were in full force here as she fluidly shifted between two roles - the narrator for partially-spoken, partially-sung recitatives, and Desdemona for arias. A large hoop skirt served as a stationary costume for Desdemona, a black leather jacket for the narrator.
The score's musical language ranges widely. Close, lush string harmonies, pointillistic textures, drones, and outbursts of grating, percussive dissonance set the stage for Desdemona's visceral passion. Carlos Izcaray conducted the ensemble, which performed brilliantly, and with all the sensitivity and skill this music deserves."

   -- Michael Huebner, ArtsBHAM (complete review)


"Susan Botti is a superb musician in every way: as a composer of startling creativity; as an interpretative artist of depth and immense musicianship; as a soprano whose supple and rich voice is used to great dramatic ends... the text, drawn from Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry, creating an atmospheric and mesmerizing work that completely enthralled the audience... Working with Susan Botti has been a beautiful, creative and, thoroughly satisfying experience."
   -- Joann Freeman, Artistic Director, American Artists Series

"Botti's Arias from Telaio: Desdemona in which Botti used her ravishing, pure soprano - and her subtle acting skills - to create snapshots of the doomed heroine of Shakespeare's Othello. Both music and performance delved deep, to simple, wrenching and beautiful effect."
   -- Susan Isaacs Nisbett, The Ann Arbor News

"...Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings featuring Susan Botti, Birmingham Unitarian Church, Bloomfield Hills, April: The gifted composer and silvery soprano joined DCWS in excerpts from her operatic soliloquy, Telaio: Desdemona, an alluringly and witty work showcasing her distinctive pan-stylistic blend of classical composition, literary sources and music theater."
   -- from "Ten concerts I'd pay to hear again" by Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press

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