Michigan Opera Theatre

Some Like It Rethought: The Artistic Integrity of a Mob Rigoletto

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By Michael Yashinsky
Rigoletto is Michigan Opera Theatre's season opener.

In Michigan Opera Theatre’s Rigoletto, the company stays close to the truth of the story while diverging fascinatingly from the piece’s original place and period. So says Principal Conductor Stephen Lord of the Jonathan Miller production, which moves the action from the ducal court of 16th-century Mantua to the mob underground of 1950s New York City. Lord, with great excitement and conviction, chose to bring this production of the Giuseppe Verdi classic to open his first full season as MOT’s artistic leader. He will also conduct the opera as he has done once before with English National Opera in London.

Since the production’s premiere at the ENO in 1982, audiences have taken to the clever temporal shifts in the staging. In Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto, Rigoletto is a miserable jester in the employ of the Duke. Here, he is a bartender working for a mafia don. But the story is the same: the title character’s love for his daughter, his failure to protect her from a world of sinister men, her longing for freedom tragically twinned with her faithfulness.

All of those same values drive the action in this production, says Lord, though the singers may sport fedoras, not farthingales, and crew cuts, not codpieces. To demonstrate the production’s dramatic integrity, Lord borrows a metaphor from outside of opera. He tells the story of the Canadian musician Glenn Gould reviving interest in the music of Bach by playing it on the piano instead of the traditional harpsichord.  While in the middle of the last century, it was considered a bold choice, Lord maintains it was not overly bold:

“Glenn Gould was a brilliant musician,” Lord said. “He made this work in a way that was and continues to be a revelation.”

The key, Lord finds, is reinterpreting the opera in a way that is not distracting from its fundamental themes.

“If Glenn Gould came out and played Bach on the piano, wearing a clown costume, where the clown costume distracts from the music and from Bach and from what Mr. Gould is trying to do, then it’s junk!” he said. “We don’t want to wear clown costumes. But we do want to present great works in a way that maybe they’ve not been done before, but also, as Glenn Gould did with Bach, allowing the public to hear and see things in another way—while retaining the essence.”

It is apt that Lord alludes to a master of a different field to explain the company’s choice to present the opera this way. It was said that Verdi himself could hold forth in brilliantly erudite fashion on an altogether different artistic discipline: sculpture. He was deeply interested in the plastic arts and counted many sculptors among his friends. Some have even written that his operas betray a fascination with starkly molded and monumental personalities, grand and terrible, and that the excitement of his signature duets comes from seeing these contrasting types meet each other face-to-face, notes of music like shards of stone flying as the characters clash.

Opera is, after all, an all-encompassing art form, one in which a variety of disciplines— singing, acting, dancing, painting, carpentry, lighting, bowing the cello and banging the timpani—get to know each other, uniting to create a new whole out of the practiced parts. It is appropriate, then, that a composer for the operatic stage should have diverse interests, extending beyond the orchestra pit. And it is appropriate that a conductor should have them, too, and likewise, a stage director.

Miller’s inspiration for his staging of Rigoletto came from a Marilyn Monroe movie. A chance conversation with his wife had reminded him of a silly exchange in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. A mob boss, “Spats” Colombo, played by George Raft, is being questioned by one Detective Mulligan about a massacre that took place in Chicago:

MULLIGAN: Say, maestro, where were you at 3 o’clock on St. Valentine’s Day?

SPATS: Me? I was at Rigoletto.

MULLIGAN: What’s his first name? Where’s he live?

SPATS: That’s an opera, you ignoramus.

And so the seed was planted and was watered with a keen sense for the parallels that connect the opera’s plot to the mafia mise-en-scène. In the mad, melodramatic, mighty Rigoletto, we get powerful people considering doing away with rivals by having them imprisoned or bounced out of town. We hear about upholding family honor and insults that cannot be tolerated and a plan to dispose of a corpse in that most stereotypically mafia fashion: tossing it into the river so it can sleep with the fishes. And we are exposed to a horrible cycle of violence and vendettas, of acts of revenge that top the acts that prompted them in horror and severity but that ultimately bring greater ruin still on the avenger’s head.

Lord recognized the resounding power in these dramatic echoes.

“The story has relevance, and yet is slightly removed from everyday life in our time,” he said. “It is removed just enough so that the way in is fascinating.”

The “way in” to a great work is personal. For Lord, Gould channeling Bach on the piano is his way in to the idea of risk-taking, of pushing the envelope, while adhering to the truth of an original creation. Perhaps Verdi’s way in to writing opera was imagining his characters as sculpture. Miller’s way in for this production was Hollywood gangster movies.

Audiences are now invited to find their own “way in” to Rigoletto, a way in to a new emotional sensation or philosophical rumination as they sit in 2017 Detroit and watch a drama play out in the bars, hotels, and tenements of 1950s New York. Fedoras optional.

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