Monday, July 1, 2019

Seattle Opera's Rigoletto confronts misogyny

Rigoletto, Opera Queensland, 2014 © Stephanie Do Rozario

Feminist director Lindy Hume offers no mercy for powerful men who abuse women and confronts newsmakers of today with her interpretation of Verdi's classic.  

For years, Lindy Hume, stage director of Seattle Opera’s August production of Rigoletto, has been frustrated by the way opera celebrates misogyny through its “bad boy” characters. In beloved works such as Don Giovanni, Carmen, and Tosca, sopranos must rehearse how to fall, how to be stabbed, brutalized, and thrown across the room, behaviors they would never accept in real life.

“In 2019, if opera aspires to be a future-focused art form, then it must evolve and be responsive to a changing society,” Hume says. “This history of telling stories about women being raped, murdered, and abused in opera is right there in front of us, either to explore, or to ignore.”

Hume’s passion and hunger for more women’s perspectives in opera inspires her contemporary Rigoletto, which plays Aug. 10–28 at McCaw Hall. Under the baton of Maestro Carlo Montanaro, the company’s beloved Verdi conductor, the production will include the return of celebrated Seattle Opera artists including:

  • Lester Lynch (Di Luna, Il trovatore; Crown, Porgy and Bess) in the title role, 
  • Emily Fons (Laurene Powell Jobs, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs) as Maddalena, 
  • and Ante Jerkunica (Sarastro, The Magic Flute) as Sparafucile. 
  • Madison Leonard (Frasquita, Carmen and Chrisann Brennan, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs) and Soraya Mafi (Flora, The Turn of the Screw) alternate as Gilda. 
  • The performance also includes the debuts of Giuseppe Altomare (Rigoletto), and the two tenors who alternate as the Duke: Liparit Avetisyan and Yongzhao Yu.

Nerys Jones (Giovanna), Clayton Brainerd (Count Monterone), Jonathan Silvia (Count Ceprano), Bernard Holcomb (Borsa), and Barry Johnson (Marullo) will also perform.
Top row: Lester Lynch, left, and Giuseppe Altomare alternate as Rigoletto. Middle row: Madison Leonard, left, and Soraya Mafi alternate as Gilda. Bottom row: Liparit Avetisyan and Yongzhao Yu alternate   
In this story, Rigoletto is court jester to the Duke of Mantua, a notorious sexual abuser. After the Duke harms a young woman, Rigoletto mocks the victim’s father, Monterone, who then curses the jester for being so heartless. Later, the Duke rapes Rigoletto’s own daughter Gilda and the cruel joke falls on Rigoletto, whose story ends in tragedy. Basing his opera off Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s'amuse, Giuseppe Verdi composed Rigoletto as a confrontation to authority and as a means of illuminating abuse of power. Ironically, this dark tale includes one of the brightest, most beloved arias in the entire art form, “La donna รจ mobile,” which even non-opera fans will know from “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” Doritos Super Bowl commercials, or a variety of other uses in popular culture.

Rigoletto, Opera Queensland, 2014 © Stephanie Do Rozario

Unfortunately, Hume says, Rigoletto isn’t a story of long ago and faraway. It remains eerily relevant. When the stage director created this production for New Zealand Opera in 2012, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was breezing through a high-profile sex trial. Back then, Hume found inspiration in the controversial billionaire and politician for the Duke of Mantua; Hume’s production is in fact set at the “presidential palace” on election night. Now, presenting this piece for American audiences in Seattle, Hume acknowledges some may find a similarity between the Duke and President Donald Trump:

“[This production] is 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 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, 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.”

Rigoletto, Opera Queensland, 2014 © Stephanie Do Rozario

Seattle Opera will further explore the themes in Rigoletto and Hume’s production at two community events. On July 23, “A Feminist Director Takes on Rigoletto” will include Hume in conversation with Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean. And on August 23, the panel discussion “Feminist Storytelling in the #MeToo Age” will include two professional theater artists Kathy Hsieh, and Kelly Kitchens, as well as Judy Tsou—a musicologist who focuses on the role of gender and race in opera. For more information, go to

Seattle Opera's Rigoletto plays Aug. 10-28, 2019 at McCaw Hall.
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