Ever since at least Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-made Man, his 1970 biography of Richard Nixon, Garry Wills has been an indispensable historian, political analyst, cultural critic and journalist. The author of nearly 40 books, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, and his writing on religion, and especially the Catholic Church, has been hugely influential.
Rare among public intellectuals these days, Wills has a lively interest in the performing arts, and his latest book, Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater, delves into the three Verdi operas — Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff — that are based on Shakespeare's plays.
With Sarasota Opera staging Otello, which opens next weekend, I put in a call to Wills to talk about the opera, reaching him at his home in Evanston, Ill., where he is emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University.
"In grade school, I listened to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts," said Wills, 77, who grew up in Adrian, Mich. "The first opera to catch my fancy was The Magic Flute, so I went to the library in Adrian to check out the records. The Magic Flute was such a huge pile of 78s, I had to bring them home in two trips. I couldn't ride my bike and had to walk them home."
Wills listened to lots of opera recordings at the Jesuit boarding school he attended in Wisconsin, but it wasn't until he was in graduate school at Yale in the 1950s that he and his wife, Natalie, also an opera fan, started going to performances on a regular basis at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"We would go — first of all when we were engaged, then when we were married — and stand at the Old Met for the afternoon and evening performances," he said. "Then later on, when we got married and she got pregnant, she couldn't stand for two (performances), so she would stand for one of them, whichever she preferred that day, and I would stand for both, then we would catch the late train back to New Haven. So it all began that way."
In Verdi's Shakespeare, Wills displays a deep knowledge of singers, often citing esoteric old recordings, reflecting his many hours poring through stacks of LPs in thrift stores (he still has a turntable). His favorite Otello recording, for example, is from 1938 with the Italian lyric tenor Giovanni Martinelli in the title role.
In live performance, his milestone Otellos include Carlo Cossutta in the title role and soprano Margaret Price as Desdemona at both the Met and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "Of course, (Placido) Domingo is a great Otello, both on DVD and record, though I've never seen him in it in an opera house," Wills said. "On record, Rosa Ponselle was my all-time most wonderful Desdemona, in excerpts, because she never recorded the whole thing."
Wills' discussion of the transformation of Shakespeare's Othello to Verdi's Otello — by the composer and his librettist, Arrigo Boito — pays homage to an earlier operatic version of the tragedy by Rossini. Rossini's Otello gave Verdi and Boito the idea to eliminate the setting of Venice that takes up the first act of Shakespeare's play. But they had to find a way to establish their protagonist as a commanding presence, which Shakespeare does in Venice.
"Verdi had to accomplish what Shakespeare did in the first act in a very quick way, and he does it by fusing Otello with the forces of the storm that bring him on stage," Wills said. "So you never doubt that he's a giant figure, because the music is giant. It's one of the most brilliant things that he and Boito did. And I'm not sure Boito would have made that brilliant stroke if he hadn't been tipped off by Rossini. So the storm scene is like the Dies Irae from the Requiem. It's a universal crisis, and Otello rides over and through it."
Verdi and Boito worked on Otello for a long time, and until about a year before its premiere in 1887, they were thinking of titling it after Shakespeare's diabolical villain Iago — Jago, in Italian — who manipulates Otello into killing his wife, Desdemona, and then himself. How does he bring a noble figure like Otello down?
"Of course that's a puzzle in the Shakespeare as well as the Verdi," Wills said. "Coleridge famously said that Iago has a motiveless malignity. But I argue that his motive is a kind of disappointment at the universe, that he himself is a ravaged soul, not a mocking, chuckling, diabolical figure. He's not just a devil, but a tortured soul himself."
It's probably a sacrilege, I told Wills, but in a lot of ways, I find that Verdi's Otello plays better than the Shakespeare play, and he agrees. "It often does, depending on the performance," he said. "I think, for instance, Desdemona comes across more powerfully in Verdi, even than the best Desdemonas in Shakespeare. And of course this is even more true of Falstaff. I think Verdi's Falstaff is much greater than Shakespeare's. Not only greater than the one in Merry Wives of Windsor but greater than the one in Henry IV."
One of the things I've always wondered about Verdi was the nature, if any, of the composer's spirituality. Wills, with his masterful work on Catholicism, which has taken him to Italy many times, has his own ideas.
"Well, first off, he was anticlerical, of course, which you almost had to be in the Italy of his day," Wills said. "He certainly didn't believe in organized religion. He attacked it in Simon Boccanegra and especially Aida, which really savages religion. I think he had the romantic idea that there's something in the soul of man that transcends time, but I doubt that he put it in any theological rationale. He certainly wrote beautiful spiritual music. As he joked to Boito, he wrote five different Ave Marias and maybe that would get him into heaven."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.