We have just closed Rigoletto, and as I told our cast, this truly was the most pleasurable directing experience I have ever had. I have heard feedback from those of you who attended, both positive and negative, and as always, I have enjoyed the opportunity to discuss our production with many of you.
What has been astonishing and fascinating is the diametrically opposed views on how we decided to produce the piece. Depending on which public (or press) you talk to, we either stripped layers of barnacles off a masterpiece and got to the essence of the piece OR we have desecrated a masterpiece by taking away one of the key elements of any opera – the setting. One other element of the production caused controversy – the Duke and Maddelena’s interaction in the inn in the last act.
To address the latter – I am always amazed that people do not mind if murder or violence takes place on stage, but please – no sex! To be clear, while the Duke and Maddelena did get very physical, they were both fully clothed at all times (she even had a leotard on under her skirt). In my view, we were only doing what is very much implied in the libretto – Rigoletto asks his daughter to look into the inn to prove that the Duke is being unfaithful – to me that implies the Duke and Maddelena are beginning to be intimate.
As to the production, although we have heard from audience members who loved the look and feel of the set design, some people have been upset that the set is, in their view, too minimal. Our intent here was to tear away the glitter, and focus on the characters. But what is even more interesting, is that if you break down each scene, this is what you discover:
- Act I, sc i: in the Duke’s palace – this is generally set in a large open room with ornate trimming and chandeliers – the only thing we didn’t have were ornate wall coverings
- Act I, sc II – the first part generally is played in front of the curtain with no set at all – almost exactly the same as ours. The rest of the scene is played in front of Rigoletto’s house in the dark. We used a platform to represent the house – less than a full blown house, but nothing that makes one lose anything from the essential drama.
- Act II – a room in the Duke’s chamber – we created a dais, with a large throne chair – not far from standard, but obviously less ornate. The one significant departure was to not have the Duke’s portrait – I made the decision to have his throne chair replace that as his symbol, and had that be the last thing people saw at the end of the second act.
- Act III – is generally played as a rustic inn on one side, and some variation of a bare stage with perhaps a small bridge on the other. In this case, we decided to have the platform represent the inn, which allowed the characters freer movement in the inn.
I point this out to say that, while I understand that some people prefer a purely representational set, the choices we made were deliberate. Far from doing nothing, we purposely made sparse choices to move focus on what I believe is an intimate, human drama at its core.
As Anne Midgette, one of this country’s most respected arts writers, recently wrote in the Washington Post (and I paraphrase), some of the most riveting operatic performances happen in semi-staged or minimal productions, and sometimes the most arid dramatically happen on stages that are crammed with realistic scenery. I am in no way against representational scenery, but I do believe that opera audiences in Milwaukee deserve a variety of dramatic approaches to the production of opera. Ironically, our most “representational” set this year was for our newest opera, Elmer Gantry.
Finally, now with the perspective of two days after the curtain closed on Rigoletto, I am chuckling (somewhat) about the conundrum of what to do when people passionately share with you what they like or do not like. I love the fact that people feel passionately about opera (how can you not?), but to reconcile opposing views in the production of every opera you do is an impossible task.
I care very much what our audience thinks, and work very hard to make sure that there is never an impression that our artistic vision displays contempt for what they feel, but since it is impossible to please everyone every time, I have to make sure that I am making the best choices I know how to make with artistic integrity. My hope is that our audience will continue to take this journey with us, even if they don’t love every stop along the way.