An Otello who's solidly moored

Times Staff Writer

When Angelenos first see Ian Storey this week in the title role of Verdi's "Otello," he'll be standing nearly 35 feet in the air, borne aloft majestically on a giant ship's mast. With a victorious flourish, he'll exhort the soldiers and sailors below to rejoice -- the enemy has been defeated! The chorus, in turn, will salute their general ("Long live Otello!") as he hurls the opposition's flag into a fiery pit.

Riding high on a sea of acclaim is something Storey is getting used to these days, both onstage and in real life. The English tenor is in the midst of a career-changing season that has seen him go from a respected but rather obscure leading man to an international opera star.

The opening Saturday of Los Angeles Opera's "Otello" will mark his U.S. debut. And in December, he scaled opera's highest summit, starring in "Tristan and Isolde" at the opening night of La Scala in Milan, Italy. He was a replacement for another singer and had only a few months to prepare the notoriously demanding role.

Still, in conversations at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where he is rehearsing "Otello," as well as earlier by phone from his home in England, Storey, 49, described his career ascent with a sense of bemused detachment.

"I feel no different than I did three months ago, really," he said. "It's true I've had a lot of people asking to do interviews. And I'm fortunate to be in the position I'm in. But ultimately, opera is just what I do as my job."

It would be easy to dismiss this workmanlike attitude as false modesty, except that Storey has actually lived the unglamorous workman's life. The son of a coal miner, he grew up in the rural county of Durham in northeastern England before studying furniture design in college. His first career was in furniture and cabinet making, which he practiced in New Zealand for several years. A basketball injury he sustained at 30 compelled him to join a local choir to pass the time. The director noticed his talent and encouraged him to pursue opera.

Physically, Storey is a rarity among tenors. He stands 6 feet 3 and boasts a brawny, muscular physique. In the love scenes in "Otello," he towers almost a foot over soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas, who plays his ill-fated wife, Desdemona.

That imposing stature means he's often been cast in heroic man's-man roles. He has played more than his share of Wagnerian protagonists apart from Tristan, including Siegfried and Tannhauser. Most of his singing career has been spent in Italy, where he's performed regularly in Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice, with frequent trips to such other European cities as Berlin and Madrid.

Vocally, Storey describes himself as a dramatic tenor. "I had a very light voice when I started my career," he said. "I was a light lyric tenor. About two years later, my voice changed and I became a spinto tenor, and then I became the full dramatic tenor. I'm always wondering where it will go next. "

His deeper range makes him ideal for Otello, a role that demands a strong middle and lower register as well as a few brilliant high notes.

"This is one of the world's hardest roles to sing," said L.A. Opera music director James Conlon, who will conduct "Otello." "You come out onstage and without any warmup, you've got to pull out a high B."

The tenor most associated with the role in our time is Placido Domingo, who played Otello in L.A. Opera's inaugural production in 1986. In the course of his career, Domingo estimates, he has sung the opera more than 120 times.

"It's a part that grows with you," the tenor, L.A. Opera's general director, said recently. "It gives you so many possibilities to sing and act. The character is so big that when he falls, he falls completely."

Based on Shakespeare's tragic drama, "Otello" tells the story of a popular Moorish general in Venice who loses his grip on sanity when his conniving advisor, Iago (baritone Mark Delavan), convinces him that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The general's all-consuming jealousy precipitates a series of bloody retributions. Verdi composed the opera in 1887, and it's widely regarded as one of his finest works.

Storey has performed "Otello" a number of times. "I'm coming back to it after two years, and my voice has changed in that time," he said. "Things that were difficult for me before, like the lower register, are no longer difficult. The voice can change radically -- it's like you have another animal inhabiting you."

During one break in rehearsals, he chatted about makeup with the director, John Cox. Light-skinned singers still customarily darken their skin when playing the Moor.

"It's a really sensitive subject," said Storey. "How dark should you go? There was a lot of debate in Shakespeare's time when someone in the play refers to Othello as 'black,' which was a derogatory term." The makeup design for this production won't be finalized until a few days before opening night, but Storey said it will probably be closer to "Mediterranean swarthy" than sub-Saharan African.

He has already experienced his share of bad Otello costumes. The first time he performed the opera, he wore a wig with dreadlocks down to his waist. "It made me look like an aging Bob Marley," he recalled. (The dreads were soon replaced with more manageable corn rows.)

In another production, Storey had to wear nothing but a thong in the climactic scene when he strangles his wife. That required him to endure daily applications of full-body makeup, plus a fixative spray so that the makeup wouldn't rub off.

"I've vowed never to do that again," he said.

Going on with the show

For the last few weeks, Storey's top concern has been nurturing his voice back to full power after a particularly brutal episode of the flu. The illness hit in December during the second performance of his run in La Scala's "Tristan."

"You're climbing Everest and your oxygen runs out. You have no food or water," he said, describing what it was like to perform in the throes of a fever. "And you still have to climb to the top."

He said audiences were able to tell he was having trouble only in the second act. "Thankfully, I was doing Act III next where my character is dying," he said with a laugh. "People told me afterward that it was particularly poignant."

Daniel Barenboim, who conducted the opera, said in a phone interview that Storey "never came out of character, even in the difficult passages. When he was sick, he still managed to portray Tristan the best he could."

Others weren't so charitable. The reviewer for London's Daily Telegraph wrote that Storey's illness "doesn't bode well for his longer-term future in this repertory. If you don't have a constitution coated in rhinoceros hide, forget it."

Storey did recover long enough to finish the run, but the flu returned in January. Since then, he's been recuperating at his house in rural Herefordshire, England, where he lives with his wife, who works as a personal trainer, and their son.

The tenor designed the house himself in 2002 and has overseen the construction over a five-year period. "Singing is how I make my living, but building is what I still enjoy doing," he said. "In the opera business, the actual performance that you created is gone once you're finished with the production. There's nothing very tangible at the end of the day. But if you create a piece of furniture, at the end of the day you can pick it up and move it around."

Thinking about his house is a source of relaxation for Storey, especially in hectic times. Immediately after "Otello," he'll perform the role of Erik in Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at Washington National Opera. After that, it's on to Valencia, Spain, where he'll play the title role in Wagner's "Siegfried."

"I always try to take three months off a year," he said. "Usually, it's two months in one lump because I can build a structure in that time."

Even during rehearsals, Storey can't seem to keep his inner blue-collar workman out of the opera house. Remember his big entrance in "Otello" atop the ship's mast?

"It wobbles when I stand on it," he said. "Whenever anyone walks underneath or the chorus walks past it, it starts shaking and moving, and that really disturbs my equilibrium. I'm thinking of ways I can fix it, but I'm sure the people here will figure it out.

"I don't like heights -- unless I'm the one who built the scaffolding."

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david.ng@latimes.com

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'Otello'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21 and Feb. 24; 1 p.m. Feb. 27; 2 p.m. March 2; 7:30 p.m. March 5; 2 p.m. March 9

Price: $20 to $238

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com

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