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Naomi Johns Takes on the Iconic Role of Desdemona in WAO’s Powerful Production of Otello

Naomi Johns remembers seeing Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello when rising through the ranks early in her opera career.  

“I loved watching it! I just thought, oh my god, how are they doing that? The production gives the singers such license to really sing the truth of their characters without detracting from the drama.”

“It really pays homage to the drama of the text and the libretto of the music. In my opinion that’s what a great production does.”

Now the homegrown soprano is preparing to take on the heart-breaking Opera, based on Shakespeare’s famous play, stepping into the role of Desdemona in the West Australian Opera’s upcoming production.

Naomi describes Desdemona, the wife of the play’s namesake Otello, as a character she admires. “She’s a very well-known Shakespearean character. She’s young and makes some very earnest, heartfelt decisions which I think are admirable.”

“I believe she’s a girl who is becoming a woman. She’s in that beautiful middle stage where she’s trying to navigate this political world she finds herself in and trying to do that with as much integrity and ability that she can manage.”

Otello, the general of the Venetian army, has a passionate love for Desdemona but he harbours a lot of jealousy too. Throughout the opera Otello falls for an evil plan devised by an officer in his army, Iago, thanks to which he begins to doubt Desdemona’s fidelity. In a fit of rage he ends Desdemona’s life.

Naomi says the violence Desdemona is subject to is still tragically relevant today. “It’s not a new story in 2023. It’s still a very current theme. A lot has changed in society, but it still speaks to a truth that is still within our society. The plays of Shakespeare and the music by Verdi have really stood the test of time.”

Naomi Johns plays Desdemona in WAO’s Otello this July.

Recently, on a trip to Sydney, Naomi met with fellow soprano Cheryl Barker who had played the role of Desdemona in the production Naomi saw while “coming up through the ranks.” 

Naomi describes their meeting as very special, with Cheryl imparting her knowledge of the iconic role. “We went through the entire score and spoke about the character. Then she told me, just watch out for the fluffy slippers on those stairs. Watch out for those!”

In further working on the role Naomi has come to enjoy the calm nature of Desdemona that is reflected within Verdi’s music. “I find a real joy in the stillness, the internal stillness, that it requires in order to be able to sing the line and the text with honesty. The balance is written in the music.”

She elaborates that the music allows the audience to gain a clear understanding of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship. “Her vocal line is quite lyric and measured, [while] Otello’s vocal line is very passionate and impetuous.”

“You know how they say opposites attract? You can almost hear that in the music as well. She is the steady, consistent joy and love that he obviously needs in his life, and she revels in that. That’s why they’re so beautifully suited to each other.”

Otello © Prudence Upton.

Just as Naomi was captivated seeing Otello for the first time, she believes new audiences to opera will be captivated too. “I think it’s a fantastic first opera to bring people to. Verdi was such a popular composer and still is to this day. He really writes a good tune and likes a bit of drama. There are no slow gaps within the music, he’s very direct and to the point.”

“I think it will be quite frankly enthralling. There’s going to be some fantastic singing. It’s a great first timers’ entry point because it will really have the impact opera is designed to have. Just listen to the Act 3 finale and tell me it’s not amazing!”

For Naomi, Otello also marks a first for her by performing a role of this scale in her hometown. “This is the first time I’ve had something so important happen in my own home. It will be the first time that I’ll be able to wake up and have a coffee and walk my dog, then get dressed and go to work instead of having to be in either Sydney or Melbourne.”

“It’s going to be such a joy for my mum to see and my dad to drive down from Geraldton and see it. I feel really grateful to be able to do this in my home space.”

The West Australian Opera’s production of Otello is presented by arrangement with Opera Australia and will play at His Majesty’s Theatre from July 20-29.