Lindy Hume creates a contemporary production of Verdi’s tragedy which explores, rather than overlooks the sexual assault and misogyny that is rampant within the opera. Bringing a relevant Rigoletto to audiences in a post-#MeToo era takes a feminist perspective and some inspiration from modern-day political figures.
Why did you update Rigoletto?
Lindy Hume: The problem with not updating Rigoletto is that a Renaissance-era codpiece-cloak-and-hose setting in a fictional court of Mantua lets the licentious Duke off the hook for his appalling treatment of women. Verdi turned a famous philanderer into a rock star by giving him some of the best music to the most misogynistic lines ever written (Act 1 “it’s this girl or that girl, they’re all the same to me …” and in Act 3 “women are unreliable …”). These are two of the most jaunty, charming, popular tunes in the entire operatic repertoire, with a bravado that’s guaranteed to win the audience over. Even contemporary audiences in a post-#MeToo world, who can’t help but gasp at his shameless audacity and brazenness, adore those arias—which is what makes them so brilliant! I created this production for New Zealand Opera in 2012. I found inspiration for the spirit of this bad boy Duke of Mantua in Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, who at that time was breezing through his “bunga bunga” sex trial with his signature blend of political incorrectness, immaculate tailoring, and dazzling—if cosmetically enhanced—smile. Where better to set the debauched action of Rigoletto than the colorful, charismatic, spectacularly excessive “Berlusconi Court”? Even now that Silvio has retreated from public life his reputation is the stuff of legend.
So, this interpretation isn’t about Donald Trump?
It’s not explicitly Trump’s America, or Berlusconi’s Italy, but a modern, highly recognizable version of the dystopian, brutal, corrupt society Victor Hugo and Verdi imagined as the background for the tragedy of Gilda and her father. The court’s treatment of Monterone, the heartbroken father of a girl whose reputation the Duke has publicly ruined, quickly descends from boredom to murder. Tired of the old man ranting, the Duke sentences him to death in a state-sanctioned execution. As a feminist and a fan of Verdi’s wonderful observation of human behavior, how could I resist bringing these worlds together in an imagined scenario where the excesses of obscene wealth, the corruption of high political power, and the moral void of the court all vibrate with an undercurrent of fear, violence, misogyny, and criminality? This is the world of Verdi’s Rigoletto, and our own.
Why do you choose to explore sexual assault in the theatre?
As we have seen in recent years, particularly through the #MeToo movement, sexual assault is an issue across society that women have been living with for centuries, and increasingly have decided to confront wholesale. My response is not only from the perspective of a feminist woman director, but from that of an average audience member (opera audiences are mostly women, as you know). For years, I’ve been frustrated that this art form has not called out sexual assault and violence, but often celebrated it. For example, Wikipedia says: “the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible,” and mentions that “he particularly enjoys cuckolding his courtiers.” In the most famous and beloved operas—Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly—the tragic heroine is part of the vernacular. Sopranos must rehearse how to fall, be stabbed, brutalized, and thrown across the room, behaviors they would never accept in real life. In 2019, if opera aspires to be a progressive, future-focused art form with relevance in contemporary society, then it must evolve and be responsive to a changing society. The topic of sexual assault and violence against women in opera is right there in front of us, either to explore, or to ignore.
Originally published in Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto program. Used with permission of Seattle Opera.