Rigoletto: Why it's still relevant today

 City Opera's poster of Rigoletto - painted by Rafal Olbinsk

City Opera's poster of Rigoletto - painted by Rafal Olbinsk

In my job as the Artistic Director of an opera company, I often act as a cheerleader for opera as an art form to people that I meet.  We all know all the old stereotypes about opera and one that comes up frequently is the ridiculousness of the plots. Certainly, the plots of some operas are silly.  But, then again, so are the plots of some movies – Weekend at Bernie’s anyone? – and yet we still have masterpieces of cinema awarded Oscars every year because of the excellence of their storytelling. Most people accept that great movies can make us examine our own existence and see the world in different ways.  Opera is certainly no different in this respect.  It’s one of my selling points for why people should give opera a chance.  The operatic repertoire is filled with masterworks which reference deeply rooted truths about humanity and touch on issues that are as relevant today as when the operas are written.

It is easy to see how Rigoletto falls into this category of operas that use universal humanistic truths as their underpinnings.  In the case of this specific opera, the “universal humanistic truth” expressed is that some people gain advantages over other people due to unearned qualities such as race and class.  Today, we call it “privilege”.  While Rigoletto is less nuanced in its depiction of privilege than many of the instances we debate today, this opera certainly drips with examples of privilege in action.

The source material for the opera was Victor Hugo’s 1832 play, Le Roi s’amuse (literally “The king has a good time”), which describes a king that takes whatever he wants (which usually includes his subjects’ wives and daughters).  This is not a new subject for theater – see The Marriage of Figaro or The Barber of Seville – but Le Roi s’amuse dealt with it in a direct way with dramatic (and some might say “operatic”) results.  Unsurprisingly, it was banned after one performance and not produced again for 50 years. Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave took this controversial play and kept almost all the plot points while changing the names and the setting.  They called the resulting opera “Rigoletto” after the jester character who loudly and publicly supports the Duke’s efforts to sleep with every courtier’s female family members, but later finds out that it isn’t as fun to be the victim of this tendency of his ruler.

I will admit that I didn’t originally select this opera to open Painted Sky Opera’s third season because of its relatability to the modern-day issue of privilege. I first discovered the greatness of this opera when I sang in the chorus for a concert version of Rigoletto in Stamford, Connecticut.  Since that point, I have always wanted to be a part of a staged version of this production.  I am drawn to the anti-heroic nature of its title role, the numerous great tunes that the opera holds, and the fast-moving and engaging plot that resembles a modern cinematic thriller more than it does a typical three-hour 19th century opera. Alas, my light lyric baritone voice will never be suitable to play Rigoletto, so I feel lucky that I have a chance to direct it for Painted Sky this year.

As I began a more in-depth analysis of the libretto, however, I was struck by the subject of privilege in this opera.  So, too, was Painted Sky Opera’s costume director, Becky McGuigan, who came to me with an idea she wanted to develop as a concept for our production.  Becky’s idea was to utilize two cinematic worlds as inspiration for our Rigoletto.  The first cinematic world was that of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis.  This visionary film imagines a dystopian future in which the rich upper classes rule from the tops of tall skyscrapers while the worker class toils underground to keep the city running. The stark depiction of industrialism combined with futuristic urban landscapes has influenced numerous other works, including Blade Runner, Batman, Star Wars – Episode I, and now our version of Rigoletto in which the city of Mantua becomes a highly stylized modern urban city with a deeply divided class structure.

The second cinematic world originated in a much more recent series of books that were then turned into movies: the high fashion and privilege-laden world of The Capitol in The Hunger Games trilogy. The inspiration informs our concept for the costumes and makeup that bring to life the citizenry of the city of Mantua in our Rigoletto.  The outlandish appearance of the courtiers suggests a privileged class that is completely out of touch with the needs and everyday life of the lower classes of their society.  Their stylized appearance also serves to highlight the actions of the Duke, who proves that those who are privileged can still have their lives shattered by the unthinking actions of one who is more privileged than them.

We’re looking forward to the opening of our third season of opera in OKC with this production of Rigoletto, complete with striking imagery, amazing sets and costumes, and engaging storytelling. Although I surprisingly haven’t mentioned it yet, let me also stress that the singing is going to be some of the best ever heard in the confines of the Freede Little Theatre.  If you haven’t gotten tickets yet (buy tickets here by clicking here!), I would suggest you do so.  I’m so excited to share this production with you.  Hope to see you at the opera in September!

 Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto, circa 1912.

Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto, circa 1912.