Learning to Love Opera: 'Rigoletto'

>As someone who has taught thousands of people to love opera, whether one-to-one, in a class, through broadcasting, or in my writing, I am always surprised when I am asked questions such as "Who is the best singer?" or "What is the best opera?" There is no answer to such a question, but at least an interest is being expressed.

But I am never as surprised as when someone tells me, "I hate opera!" When I enquire how many operas that person has seen, the answer is often something like, "one, when I was 15 years old." Such a statement is akin to claiming not to like literature because you once read a book you did not like.

We millions of people who love opera are not trying to keep it to ourselves. It is a large, extravagant, embracing art form. It is also relatively young, having been founded in Florence in 1597 as an attempt by a group of scholars to create a new art form, an opera lirica (lyric work) that incorporated all the ancient arts: singing, instrumental music, poetry, theater, dance and visual arts. It has evolved through the centuries, and is created in many languages and styles.

But all great operas have some things in common:

  • music that reaches right into your heart and soul;
  • a story with emotional truth that we connect to, even if the plot seems to be what some people consider "irrelevant";
  • the phenomenon of human beings producing glorious sound with no assistance from microphones or other technology;
  • a powerful sense of theater, whether that is communicated through acting, stage direction, costumes, scenery, lighting or sometimes on just a bare stage in which a singer in street clothes can create theater through exquisite singing of music of heart-stopping beauty;
  • the ability to transport you from our mind-numbing, multitasking world to a place where you can engage your emotions deeply and freely in ways that don't happen elsewhere. Opera lovers are more in touch with the vicissitudes and pleasures of life because opera is like one of those fun-house mirrors that enlarges and changes familiar images and allows us to see them in new ways.

While I could never say what the best opera is, and seldom reveal what my favorite one is, I have no doubt the Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto is the perfect work for someone sticking a toe in operatic waters. And yet it also never fails to move even the most experienced operagoer with the freshness of its music and a story that is both accessible and psychologically complex. There are three great roles: Rigoletto (a baritone) is a jester at the Renaissance court of the Duke of Mantua. He is quick-witted and sharp-tongued, able to ingratiate himself to his boss but also off-putting to the courtiers who will have impact on his fate. Rigoletto, a widower, keeps his virginal daughter Gilda (a soprano) locked up at home because he fears that she will be led astray by someone at court. And the Duke (a tenor) is a self-serving libertine who is often sympathetic to audiences because he sings some of the most beautiful music ever written. The genius of Verdi is to use that music to show how someone so awful can seem attractive through a seductive presence (here created by the music).

When we meet the Duke, he sings "Questa o Quella," ("this one or that one") indicating his indifference as to which woman he will bed that evening. The explicitness of this must have startled audiences in Venice, where the opera premiered in 1851. It is not that they did not understand such behavior, but they had seldom seen it expressed so bluntly on a stage (Mozart's Don Giovanni, similarly licentious, has more comic elements, while Verdi's Duke is a horny man on a mission who almost always gets his way).

Listen to Luciano Pavarotti caress the sound of the music and the words of this aria (song). You do not need translations to know exactly what is happening.

While translations sometimes help you understand some of the words, in opera the primary emotional and dramatic message is always in the music first and the words second. So the key to connecting opera is to listen.

In the next scene, we are in Rigoletto's house, where Gilda dreamily recounts having met a handsome young man (the Duke) who says he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldé. For Gilda it is love at first sight and she repeats his "Caro Nome" ("dear name"). Again, the music says it all, along with the acting of Ileana Cotrubas:

I am showing you excerpts from different productions, most of which do not have subtitles. My choice here is to introduce you to great singers who also can express with words and gestures as great actors do. Probably the greatest Rigoletto was Tito Gobbi, whose acting was so good that he appeared in many Italian movies in addition to singing in opera. When the courtiers kidnap Gilda (thinking she is Rigoletto's mistress), he confronts them, calling them a vile race. Gobbi, back in 1945, makes you feel every aspect of his anguish. He is a jester, but also a father for whom Gilda is his entire family:

In fact, Gilda has probably been deflowered (or raped, depending on whether you think she was willing or not) by the Duke. Having made his conquest, he already is looking for another woman. He goes to a broken-down house at the edge of town where he sings "La Donna è Mobile" ("Woman is fickle") before seeking the services of Maddalena, a prostitute whose brother Sparafucile has been hired by Rigoletto to assassinate the Duke. Such a concept was an affront to censors in Venice, so the story is made slightly more oblique. Though the video is poor, listen to the great Alfredo Kraus sing an aria you already know:

Verdi then created the famous Act Three Quartet ("Bella Figlia dell'Amore"):

Here Luciano Pavarotti (the Duke) seduces Isola Jones (Maddalena), while Rigoletto (Leo Nucci) tries to convince Gilda (Joan Sutherland) that the man she claims to love is no good. He has decided to have the Duke killed, although Maddalena convinces her brother (the assassin) to deliver a sack to Rigoletto containing the body of someone else.

Rigoletto sends Gilda away, but the lovestruck girl returns clandestinely to vainly warn the Duke he is in danger. When Sparafucile hands Rigoletto the sack, the jester exults at having had revenge against the man who seduced his daughter. He opens the sack and finds, instead, the dying Gilda. You do not need to see a video of this. Rather, use your imagination to picture the scene. With the voices (and vocal acting) of Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas, it will be abundantly clear:

This is perhaps your first contact with this masterpiece, or with opera. But it is only a beginning. Each singer in the roles of Rigoletto, Gilda and the Duke brings different interpretations to these iconic characters. You can see the opera again and again, with different singers in different stagings, and with each hearing you will not merely hear music you know, but experience it anew, and in deeper ways. Once you give yourself to this approach to opera, you will form a lifelong relationship with a ever-expanding group of masterpieces that will give more meaning to your life. Trust me, I know.

No matter where you live or travel, you will find it easy to see a performance of Rigoletto. This opera will be performed this season at the Metropolitan Opera (New York; September 29; October 2, 5, 8, 14; January 11, 15, 18, 22, 27; April 26, 30; May 3, 2011 ); Opera Australia (Sydney; September 18, 23, 28; October 2, 6, 9, 12, 16, 18, 21, 23, 27, 29; November 1, 4, 2010); Teatro Municipal (Santiago, Chile; September 20, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 30; October 1, 3, 2010); The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London; October 11, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 27, 30 mat; November 2, 4, 6, 2010); The Opera de Montréal (September 25, 29; October 2, 4, 7, 9, 2010); Virginia Opera (Norfolk Oct 2, 6, 8, 10 mat; Fairfax Oct 15, 17 mat; Richmond Oct 22, 24 mat 2010); Los Angeles Opera (November 27; December 2, 5 mat, 8, 11, 15, 18, 2010); Opéra de Monte Carlo (March 25, 27 mat, 30, 31; April 1, 2, 3 mat 2011); Dallas Opera (March 25, 27m, 30; April 2, 7, 10m, 2011); Scottish Opera (Glasgow May 11, 15, 18, 21; Edinburgh May 24, 26, 28; Aberdeen June 2, 4; Inverness June 9, 11, 2010); Cincinnati Opera (June 16, 18, 2011).