"This is not going to be the 'Otello' you see in the Metropolitan Opera," Caine said during an interview from Munich, where he is performing with the Bedrock Trio, his jazz group.
He describes "The Othello Syndrome" as a musical concert, with "discrete numbers, like a show." With about 15 numbers, it is largely instrumental, with two singing roles and room for improvisation on clarinet, trumpet, piano and other instruments. Some pieces feature Verdi themes. Others are entirely original.
Meanwhile, Othello is no Placido Domingo in dark makeup, but African-American R&B singer-composer Bunny Sigler, who puts his own stamp on the songs. His bride Desdemona is Josefine Lindstrand, a jazz singer who is Swedish and blonde, with a wispy voice. Stanford drama and classics professor Rush Rehm will take on the non-singing role of the duplicitous Iago.
In addition, Rehm and drama students will present excerpts from Shakespeare's "Othello" to complement Caine's composition. The opening act, part of a new student-programmed series created by Stanford Lively Arts, was organized by Ph.D. student Heidi Lee. Three of Rehm's students in the summer theater program will appear.
"Of course, my first love is Shakespeare," said Rehm, who played Othello as a young man. "I'm quite excited about what Lively Arts is trying to do, bring back (the musical composition) into the world of what people at Stanford know," which is Shakespeare.
One of the differences between the drama and the opera is that Verdi's Iago "knows he's evil ... in a world that is meaningless," whereas Shakespeare's cites "too many reasons" for his behavior.
Another is that Shakespeare's Othello is "more of an outsider and in some sense a man who is out of his world — the world of the battle. "Iago plays on his innocence."
Caine agreed. "We're dealing more with the Othello story as told by Shakespeare, (addressing) what is honesty, what is betrayal, what is jealousy, (what is the position of) the warrior (who is) outside of society. I'm not sure that Verdi was as obsessed with that. With Verdi, it was more about jealousy. Shakespeare's Iago talks more about an explicitly racial situation."
To some extent, Caine added, the story "reflects the racial tensions in the United States. Even though people say this (tension) is in our national past, it's clearly not in the past for so many people. In such a big country, these kinds of contradictions will exist."
Such contradictions parallel the Othello story, as presented by Shakespeare. Othello, the "exotic outsider, full of charm, runs away with Desdemona," Caine said. On the one hand, because he is a warrior, he's applauded. But, he said: "Society uses an outsider to do the dirty work (soldiering), but when that person decides to enter society through marriage, suspicion of the outsider comes in."
He added: "People who are part of the majority culture don't think about (fitting in). They take it for granted." With "a minority, an immigrant group, at a certain level, they want very badly to assimilate," said Caine, whose music includes themes from his own Jewish background. "But in other ways, they're reminded that they can't assimilate. ... I'm not sure if Verdi even addressed that."
What Caine addresses in "The Othello Syndrome" is Othello's increasing paranoia. "The music becomes more agitated. The group improvises more wildly, projecting a sense of chaos" that contrasts with the stillness of Desdemona's "Ave Maria" aria.
Caine, who is at home in both classical and contemporary jazz milieus, has been creating adaptations of classical works for some time, including Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations." His "Mahler Remix" was presented at Stanford in 2008.
"If people can accept that you're taking these pieces, which to many are sacred masterpieces ... if they can look at them as jazz musicians telling a story," then they will enjoy the adaptations, he said.
"The Othello Syndrome," which was originally commissioned for the 2003 Venice Biennale and performed in other venues in Europe, was recorded in 2008, receiving a 2009 Grammy Award nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album.
A native of Philadelphia (he has since moved to New York), Caine was familiar with Sigler's "Philly Sound," and invited him to collaborate on "The Othello Syndrome." Sigler, who produces, writes and sings, has worked with such artists as Lou Rawls, the O'Jays and Patti LaBelle. His latest album is "The Lord's Prayer." In addition to singing the role of Othello, he co-wrote several songs for "The Othello Syndrome," including lyrics for "I Am a Fool," a soulful piece not based on Verdi.
"I can sing like Pavarotti and like Marvin Gaye and like a gospel singer. I do all three," Sigler said during a phone interview from Philadelphia. In his club acts, he said, "I sing everything: Jewish, Italian, French, cowboy songs, gospel, calypso."
He added, "I've been singing opera all my life," noting that he has recorded "Be My Love," popularized by Mario Lanza, and sung "Here Comes the Night," an adaptation of the love aria from "Samson and Delilah." Sigler is a tenor who has never studied voice but did get a few pointers on how to tighten his gut to hit a high C.
The main challenge, he said, is: "You never know how they like it until the end and they say bravo. ... When I did ("The Othello Syndrome") in Venice and held a long note, people started clapping. I was shocked because they were quiet the whole show. In Germany, when I did the end of the part when I die, I did it so good the people really thought I hurt myself. I was prepared to stay there 20 minutes until they realized I was OK."
As far as the performance at Stanford, he said: "I'm so glad that we're finally doing it in America. Maybe this will be the spark to send it to New York." After Stanford, the next concert is in Vienna.
While familiarity with Shakespeare or the Verdi opera may help, Caine said, concertgoers do not have to be conversant with either.
"If you know the Verdi, it's a parallel to the Verdi. If you don't know the Verdi, then it should exist on its own as something that is musical and emotional. My intention is to be playing off the Verdi but sometimes more so or less so," he said, because jazz involves improvisation and the musicians add their own interpretations. "I like working in that continuum."
What: "The Othello Syndrome" with the Uri Caine Ensemble
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, 471 Lagunita Drive, Stanford University.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10.
Cost: Tickets are $34-$38. Stanford students pay $10, and half-price tickets are available for those ages 18 and under.
Info: Go to livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.
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