Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Director LINDA BROVSKY and Lighting Designer THOMAS HASE Explain the Fascist Imagery in our “Rigoletto”

When the curtain went up on opening night of Rigoletto, the audience gasped at the lovely costumes and festive party atmosphere—such a contrast from the doom-laden music of the overture, with its premonition of Rigoletto’s curse. The production is set in Mantua, Italy, the location where Verdi (bullied around by Austrian censors at the Venice premiere in 1851) set it; but our team has updated the action to the 1930s. Last week I had a chance to ask the creative team a little about this period and the imagery they’ve used to locate it in time.

JD: Linda, what are the projections we see in this Rigoletto?

LB: Actual Italian fascist imagery from the 1930s. When we developed this production, Tom Hase and I scoured all sorts of sources, from the public library to ebay, looking for imagery on fascist publications, posters, magazines, even a theater playbill. We used imagery we found to create the projections you see throughout the show, to bring us into the world of fascist Italy.

JD: The first image we see, during the Prelude, looks like a bundle of sticks.

LB: Yes, that’s a fasces; that’s a Latin word for a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe blade emerging. That’s where the word “Fascist” comes from. The idea is, it’s easy to break one stick, but hard to split a fasces; so, individually we are powerless, but united and bound together, we are powerful. That image was worn in Fascist lapel pins, and seen in medals and coins in Italy in the 1930s.

Next, we see a head of Mussolini, who was the creator of Fascism and the figurehead of the Fascist regime. Mussolini, who was a megalomaniac, loved visual imagery and the artistry of image. Whereas Hitler had a uniform, Mussolini had about fifty. Even in Fascism, the Italians were the cutting edge in fashion! Mussolini also hired major artists and illustrators to create the symbols and images and literature that romanticized Fascism. For instance, the skull with the sword in its teeth was an image of OVRA, the secret police.

In our production you’ll see characters giving the Fascist salute, with its stench of antisemitism. That’s not just a German thing. Mussolini banned handshakes, believe it or not; everyone was supposed to give that Fascist salute upon greeting each other.

We’ve also drawn on the artists patronized by Mussolini. For example, you see the portrait of the Duke in the style of Tamara de Lempicka (the Marquis d’Afflito). Lempicka’s work was considered cutting-edge and a departure from the classic style of the previous regime. The Italians were highly into art deco and the cutting edge of European realism of the time period.

Nadine Sierra (Gilda) sees the painting her poor young "Gualtier Maldè" is having done of himself, based on Tamara de Lampicka's painting of the Marquis d'Afflito
Elise Bakketun, photo

JD: Like the Nazis and the Soviets, they weren’t so much into abstract art—they liked the clear messages you get with realistic images, or images based in realism.

TH: Yes, and don’t forget, Mussolini started out as a writer and owner of a newspaper and Hitler started life as a painter! These guys understood how powerfully you can influence people with a clear message, mass-produced. A spoonful of visual sugar makes the message go down; you combine a strong image with a few carefully chosen words. If you create an image with great artistry, it becomes palatable to the average citizen. Say your message loudly enough, and eventually it will become fact, whether it’s true or not.

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