Sunday 17 April 2011

Verdi's Otello and the Sensuality of Communication

Seeing a concert performance of Otello in Manchester last night brought home to me the fundamental importance of those aspects of communication which we have no words to describe. I think more than in the play, the Verdi/Boito creation lets us peer into the latent passion behind Desdemona's pleas for Cassio (and how Otello might have interpreted them), together with the rabid mood-swings of Otello as he struggles to articulate what is buzzing though his mind. The only character to clearly articulate what is buzzing through his mind is Iago. All the rest are confounded by the sensuality of life, which Iago can only reason about.

I had a conversation with a friend before the performance where we talked about the duality of reason and sensuality in communication. Bruner's "Request Formats" present a way of thinking this through. Harre explains these as:
The famous example which I think demonstrates this most clearly is the mother, playing with a child, places a dolly in front of her and says "here's the pretty DOLLY". Similar phenomena are apparent when children are taught to read. Basically, some sort of sensual game is played.

Of course, in the context of an opera, this sensuality of communication is particularly noticeable. It often makes ordinary language sound ridiculous when it is sung "do you WANT a CUP of t-e-a...?" But opera's power is precisely because of this sensual power that it has. No other art form combines rationality with sensuality in the same way.

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