“Maestro to the pit, please. Maestro to the pit.”
The house lights go down. The audience quiets and then applauds as conductor Michele Mariotti moves through the orchestra and bows. A brief word and handshake with the head violinist and the orchestra bursts into the opening of Rigoletto.
It’s Saturday afternoon at the Met in New York. The original production was broadcast via satellite to movie theatres in sixty-four countries in six continents around the world. This is a repeat. In Vancouver, it’s 9 a.m. and I’m clutching a coffee and hoping I can stay awake for the first act. I have yet to remain 100% alert early Saturday mornings in the darkness of the theatre, where people sing passionately in a foreign tongue about absurd and improbable events that overtake them.
I’m not the most obvious person to show up at the opera. My experience is extremely limited; my aunt dragged me to my first one in 2008, after learning to her horror that I’d never attended one. “I’ll pay,” she said firmly.
“But the expense!” I said. Operas are for the ridiculously wealthy, the snobs, the privileged elite; everyone knows that. Never mind that my aunt is none of those. You should love the music before you pay those prices and I don’t listen to opera music. But it turned out she was offering a ticket to The Met: Live in HD in Canada. Only $22.00. So I submitted and accompanied Aunt Jane, her daughter and granddaughter to Madama Butterfly by Puccini. Twelve-year-old Emma is a senior in terms of opera knowledge. Apparently she had an opera-mad teacher in Grade 4. She’d seen almost as many operas as she had years. I felt like a Cretin.
Before it all began, I scanned the plot summary in the dimly lit theatre and scoffed.
“You can’t be serious! This is ridiculous.”
But then the music started. By the midway point in Act 2 I was convulsed with grief. Butterfly had fallen in love with an American, Pinkerton, who had gone through a form of marriage and left. She had given birth to a son, (a wooden puppet that turned out to be incredibly moving. Why? I had no idea). She was sure Pinkerton would come back, her singing filled with yearning and hope as she defied her ancestors and the people who tried to suggest she might be disappointed. Faith and trust were clearly going to be destroyed. All through the theatre the audience wept. Then Butterfly had to give her son up to the American father who had deserted them both and married another woman, one from his own country. She killed herself. I cried so much it took me three days to recover.
For my aunt it’s the music that’s important. She rarely bothers much about the plot. Even the subtitles aren’t important to her. She listened to opera endlessly in her childhood and the voices take her back in time and speak to her soul. Traditional opera buffs claim the subtitles detract from the music and shouldn’t be necessary but that’s not my experience. I need the story line, the acting and the costumes to engage me. But the music does draw me into the most unlikely plot lines. When I find myself in floods of tears on a Saturday morning at the opera, it’s the music that’s done it.
What is it about the music? Somehow it seduces us; we suspend our disbelief and enter into a world of huge passion, violent action and archetypal characters. Situations that we would normally dismiss with a contemptuous sniff leave us charged and vibrating with feeling by the mid-way point. If daily life leaves us numb and barricaded against the constant flood of information, opera breaks down the dikes and submerges us in sound, passion and colour. When the nuances of a voice convey so much emotion that the listeners feel that same emotion surging in their own cells, something extraordinary is happening.
Madama Butterfly was my first opera. Since then I’ve seen Carmen, Aida, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, Turandot and Tosca. Sometimes I hear a tune I recognize, like Nessun Dorma in Turandot or the Overture to Carmen and then the hairs on my neck rise and I disappear in the music. Otherwise it may take until the second or third act before I’m overwhelmed.
Today Verdi’s Rigoletto is set in 1960 in Las Vegas. The producer, Michael Mayer is a young, Broadway musical producer but this is his first run at the Met. It was his brainwave to update this production to 60s Las Vegas. It’s been nicknamed “The Ratpack Rigoletto” because it brings to mind Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. complete with mob connections, showgirls and glitzy casinos. Some opera fans are going to be dubious about the modernization, but this is my first Rigoletto so I’m captured. Bright lights, cards, dice, a blackjack table, slot machines, an erotic looking neon wine bottle pumping froth into a champagne glass, chorus girls preening and prancing in exotic bird costumes, slick men in tight pants, the Duke, gorgeous in a white dinner jacket singing alongside nearly naked dancers with ostrich fans and the translations in 60’s slang: “My sights are set on a swinging girl/So hop on baby, let’s take that whirl.” The married Duke makes a pass at a Marilyn Monroe look-alike in front of her husband, who is mocked by Rigoletto, the Duke’s cynical funnyman. Piotr Beczola sings the part of the womanizing Duke with enough sexual energy to wake up and heat up a 9 a.m. crowd in a dark theatre. I don’t fall asleep. I’m riveted.
Zeliko Lucic plays Rigoletto, traditionally a hunch-backed court jester, now the Duke’s comic sidekick. His heavy shoulders are more rigid than hunched. He’s the one man not wearing a glitzy dinner jacket; he’s lumbered with an argyle cardigan to suggest that he’s an outsider, separate from the rest of the Duke’s entourage, and we learn that the others don’t like him because of his waspish tongue. Lucic’s voice is incredible, as he makes cruel fun of the husbands whose wives and daughters the Duke has seduced. It’s only later when you see Rigoletto with his own daughter Gilda, sung by Diana Damrau, that a more sympathetic side of him emerges. She’s his treasure, the only family he has, and he’s determined to protect her from the evils of Las Vegas. She is in fact the only innocent in the whole opera. She loves her father, even though she feels smothered by his protectiveness. Their father-daughter duet is tender and loving and believable. Damrau may not look as young as Gilda should be but her acting is terrific. When she’s singing of the man she saw in church, the only place she’s allowed to go, she flutters like the eighteen year old she is supposed to be. She giggles through the high notes (how is that even possible?), unlocks her diary to write the name of the “poor student” who has caught her heart. In fact, it’s the Duke who is her church-going seducer.
The governess, who fails to protect Gilda when the Duke drops cold hard cash into her outstretched hand, is a hoot; big hair, gum, a cigarette and a bored expression as Rigoletto sings to Gilda about the mother she can’t remember.
The plot may be as improbable as most operas seem to be, but it moves inevitably toward tragedy. Innocence is going to be corrupted and love destroyed. Rigoletto jeers at other men whose daughters have been dishonoured, until his daughter is first abducted by the Duke’s entourage who think she’s Rigoletto’s mistress, and then seduced and shamed by the Duke. Rigoletto swears vengeance, despite Gilda’s pleas for forgiveness for the Duke, regardless of his perfidy. It’s clear even to the uninitiated (me) that this isn’t going to end well.
Rigoletto buys the services of the utterly convincing hit man, Sparafucile, played by Stefan Kocan, who is dark, menacing and as thin and dangerous as his switchblade. Sparafucile cracks his knuckles louder than the orchestra plays and when he sings his voice plummets to cavernous depths. Whether lounging on a bar stool or stabbing his victim in the back, he very nearly steals the show. Sparafucile owns a seedy club and pimps out his pole-dancing sister Maddelena to lure the Duke into his lair. However Maddelena, like other women, takes a fancy to the over-sexed duke. She wants Sparafucile to spare him. After a brief argument, Sparafucile agrees to knife an alternate if one shows up on this stormy night. Cue blue and white neon lights, thunder and a loud knock at the door. It’s Gilda, disguised in a raincoat and fedora to leave the city but determined to save the life of the man she loves, even at the cost of her own. Sparafucile stabs her and bundles her body into the trunk of a vintage Cadillac. When Rigoletto returns with the last payment, he hears the Duke singing after bedding Maddelena, and discovers his daughter has been knifed instead. Gilda isn’t quite dead and the final father daughter duet is heartbreaking.
The capacity crowd at the Met goes wild and all the principals get the standing ovation they deserve. Rigoletto is a triumph.
The professional reviews are mixed; most agree the singing is spectacular but a few dislike the young orchestra conductor, Michele Mariotti, who is making his debut with Rigoletto; they claim he gives the singers too much leeway. Some of the sour critics are clearly traditionalists, who question the modern setting and mutter about the 60s slang. However the audiences have been hugely enthusiastic.
The Met: Live in HD doesn’t have the cachet of live opera. But for a cash-strapped person, or one new to opera, it does provide a wonderful opportunity to learn about the art at a low cost. The acting is sometimes as good as the singing, and the singing is incredible. The Met attracts the best in the world. The audience has the opportunity to see the singers in close up; they’re not the tiny singing puppets they would be in the unlikely event I ever got to the opera house in person. As a bonus, you see backstage at the Met with the astonishing set changes in between the acts and mezzo soprano Renee Fleming interviews the director and the principal singers. The cost of the tickets can run as high as $350, but that no longer seems outrageous to me. The work, the musicians, both singers and orchestra, the amazing costumes and sets, the huge number of men and women who work behind the scenes, must put opera costs into the stratosphere. Ticket prices pay less than half those costs.
How does opera justify itself in this day and age? Extraordinary voices, phenomenal cost, an old art form, usually in Italian, German or French, not terribly accessible for most people, although The Met: Live in HD breaks down that barrier to some extent. My experience from seeing a scant handful of productions via film is that the sweep of orchestra, voice, acting and spectacle evokes a depth of emotion that nothing else does. There’s a wild gorgeousness to opera that takes the breath away and becomes its own justification.
Compared to hockey or movies, opera is elitist in that it attracts a much smaller audience, depends on people who have wealth, prestige and power to support it, as well as government subsidies. But cities that have sports, libraries, independent book stores, a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, theatres and an opera company are cities that lift us up above our ordinary lives. They are cities rich in culture and opportunity for youngsters growing up. Cities to live in, or to be applauded and visited if you live elsewhere. If they can send some of their culture out, as the New York Met does via satellite, it’s terrific.