Michael Mayer Puts the Wriggle Into Rigoletto at The Met

By Philipp Brieler
24 Jan 2013

Željko Lučić stars in the title role.
Photo by Nick Heavican/Metropolitan Opera

How do Verdi's characters fit into that world?
MM: I thought the Duke could be a Las Vegas star who has his own fabulous casino and puts on shows, who entertains the masses, makes a lot of money, and provides entertainment for his gigantic entourage, of which Rigoletto is a part — an important part, because he keeps everyone happy and is constantly throwing barbs around. In 1960, when our production is set, Las Vegas sort of shifted. The Mob started to become more clearly affiliated with the town, there was a major influx of Arab money, and there was also a real shift in the relationship to women. It was a sensibility that women were there as sexual objects. Rigoletto has this beautiful daughter whom he loves, and he's trying to keep her protected from all of the temptation and the sex and the drugs and the booze and the money and the organized crime and all the cultural decadence of the day — it just seemed that the story really lined up when I looked at it that way.

Describe some of the visual elements you and your design team came up with to tell that story.
MM: The opera opens at the casino, with a typically over-the-top, extravagant night of pleasure. There are roulette and blackjack tables, one-armed bandits, cigarette girls and dancers, and lots of men with a lot of money, and lots of women who are arm candy. There's a free-flowing exuberance of liquor and power and drugs and sex everywhere. Later, when Rigoletto goes to find his daughter, we transition to what I think of as a smaller hotel out in the desert, far away from the Duke's casino and from The Strip. One of my favorite solutions is in the abduction scene, where we use elevators instead of the ladder that usually leads over the wall into Rigoletto's home. Also, we have a car to take Gilda's body away at the end, instead of lugging her to the river in a sack. The idea that you'd dump the body in the trunk of a car and drive it to some little gulch somewhere way out in the desert seemed really probable to me.

How does it feel to take on such a familiar opera and do something so different with it?
MM: It is daunting to approach a beloved classic in such a bold way, but it's also really liberating, because Rigoletto has proven its ability to sustain itself in the face of hundreds of different interpretations over the years. It's like a Shakespeare play, or any great work of art — it can reveal new elements every single time you see it. And it's up to us, as interpretive artists, to help illuminate the story in new ways for new audiences. It's something I've been really conscious of in my theatre work, and I'm very excited to bring that approach to the Met. I really believe that the intent behind each action in Rigoletto translates very beautifully to the world that we're creating. It will take a little bit of a leap for some people to go with us, but I think if they do, it will be a very satisfying evening.

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Watch the Met's visit to Rigoletto in rehearsal.