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INTERVIEW: Ashley Bell And Andrew Bell On "Othello: The Opera & Play Enmeshed" At Bay Street

T.J. Clemente

Ashley Bell. (Photo: Carlos Keyes)

In an interview with Ashley Bell and her brother Andrew Bell, we discussed their upcoming project for Bay Street on September 14th; Divaria Productions Presents Othello: The Opera & Play Enmeshed that is an exploration of this timeless classic through theatre, opera and dance.

The performance will feature selections from Verdi's opera in Italian (singers, string quartet, pianist, stage director), parts of Shakespeare's text with professional actors, and dancers, all three of which will transmit the essence of the story through different mediums. The story of Othello concerns themes of jealousy, misplaced trust and exclusion, all of which, though crafted 400 years ago, are extraordinarily relevant today. Obviously no small undertaking, yet very much in the wheelhouse of these two intellectual innovative forward-thinking students of the past.

I have had both the pleasure of hearing Ashley Bell's phenomenal opera voice, as well as witnessing a collaboration with her brother Andrew as they presented Don Giovanni in New York last year on the Bay Street Theater Stage. So, when I was conversing with them both, I already understood the breadth of their talents.

Ashley started by explaining the genesis of this Othello project, relaying, "I wished to tell a story that had Shakespearean actors and opera singers. So we [Andrew and I] decided on Othello because a lot of its themes are very relevant today. The story translates to a lot of things going on today and can be told through various different mediums, with actors, with opera singers and dancers as well."

Andrew, who is directing the project, then explained why he thought this project is relevant today. "We set it in a World War II environment, where the world is sort of divided. Nationalism is on the rise. In our version, we are looking at how Othello was consumed with the idea of trying to prove his loyalty to a culture where he didn't belong."

Ashley relayed that the project started gaining steam last September as they began to apply for grants. "The part of Othello was very difficult to cast, so we had to really get on that," she noted. She wanted both the singer and Shakespearean actor to be of African descent, so that added to the difficulty of the search. Ashley and Andrew also lamented on the process of trimming a 2 1/2 hour opera and a play that is hours long into a 2 hour show with an intermission.

What both Bells mentioned a few times is the challenge they felt personally to present the material from the opera and the Shakespeare play in one forum with dancing without upsetting the opera purist and the Shakespearean purist. Ashley shared, "We are very nervous about that. We are trying to thread the needle."

Although Andrew admitted he is a bit "terrified" by the scope of the project, he is also confident that "the project has merit worth the challenge." He explained that he enjoys "taking art forms hundreds of years old" and importing them into the 21st century with this production. He hopes his and Ashley's vision to incorporate the living art forms they treasure into one production will help revive the art forms in a relevant way moving forward. They understand the risks, but they believe they have the right cast, the right time and a great venue to unveil their Othello: The Opera & Play Enmeshed.

I for one am very excited to be able to go see it.

Divaria Productions Presents Othello: The Opera & Play Enmeshed will take place on Saturday, September 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $50.

Bay Street is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.

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