Friday, August 2, 2019

Telling Gilda's story

Soraya Mafi (left) and Madison Leonard (right) alternate as Gilda in Seattle Opera's Rigoletto.

Seattle Opera sat down with sopranos Madison Leonard and Soraya Mafi, who alternate as Rigoletto's teen daughter Gilda. The two singers talk about what this character means to them beyond her "pure, virginal, and selfless," reputation in the opera world. In an era that's given us the #MeToo movement, what does it mean to tell the story of Gilda, a teenager who thinks she's in love with a powerful man? (This is a man, the Duke of Mantua, who condones her kidnapping, lies to her about his identity, and ultimately takes advantage of her). What hot-button issues was Verdi poking at when he composed Rigoletto, and what can we still learn from this opera and its sublime music today? Read on to learn more.  

What’s the most challenging aspect of playing Gilda?
“The character feels similar to other roles that I’ve sung in the past. These soprano roles can seem naïve, innocent, and simplistic—very heart-on-your-sleeve. But there is also more to these women. The challenge is building complexity into your performance.”
Madison Leonard

“Gilda is a teenager—there has to be a fresh quality to the singing, especially in the first act — however, there are parts of the opera where the scoring is heavier and the singing is more demanding. Honoring both the music, while embodying Gilda’s purity of character is a challenge.”
Soraya Mafi

Madison Leonard as Juliet with Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo courtesy of Wolftrap Opera.

Both of you are making your role debuts as Gilda at Seattle Opera. How does it feel?
“It’s exciting, albeit, a bit heart-racing! Of course, Lester Lynch, one of our Rigolettos, has been singing the role for 24 years, and he says his heart still pounds every time before a big role! There’s pressure with this music, because Gilda has been sung by the most famous sopranos on the planet. I listen to those recordings and I think, ‘How am I going to compete with that?’ But I don’t need to try to replicate those singers. While bringing great respect to the style and history, it’s up to me to make this role my own.”
Madison Leonard

“Gilda is one of opera’s most beloved characters, and I certainly feel a great responsibility to honor this part; I’ve put a lot of preparation into it. I feel supported at Seattle Opera, particularly as I deal with the nerves and anxiety of a debut. To be exploring a full, lyric Verdi role at this company is so exciting. My mom and dad will be coming to the U.S. for the first time to see me, and members of my Iranian family who live in America will also be in the audience. Getting to sing in an opera with music that my family will recognize is also exciting!"
Soraya Mafi

Soraya Mafi in rehearsal for The Turn of the Screw, September 2018. Philip Newton photo
Soraya, we last saw you as Flora in The Turn of the Screw last fall. In that show, you were a little girl. Now, you've grown up a little as a teenager in Rigoletto.  

“Yesas a young singer with a brighter quality to their sound, plus a young look onstage (I’m pretty short!), it’s not surprising that I sometimes play children or teenagers. For example, I recently performed as Gretel, another character that requires a fresh quality to the singing whilst also possessing the vocal heft to soar over a large, Wagnerian-sized orchestra. Gretel experiences both joy and fearfulness with her brother: I had to discover how to physically portray this whilst also delivering beautiful lyrical singing. Flora required energetic physicality. She had this playful relationship with her brother which developed into something more complicated as Miles and her were gripped by the psychological aspects of living in their "haunted house" with The Governess. She had a full-blown fit on stage! For Flora, the challenge was to approach the music as you would any healthy lyric singing, yet also bring the physicality of a child. Of course, composers are supremely smart storytellers and the music they create evokes character all on its own, before we as performers step in to embody their musical drama.”
Soraya Mafi

Madison, you once purchased Student Rush tickets to see Seattle Opera. Now you’re singing on the McCaw Hall stage. How does it feel?
“It’s a bit of a pinch-me moment. Growing up, I used to come to McCaw Hall to see my cousins, students at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, dance. My uncle was a regular supernumerary with PNB, as well. And then, several years back, I came to see The Tales of Hoffmann at Seattle Opera. It’s bizarre going from being the one in the audience to the one onstage. I didn’t actually figure out that I wanted to pursue opera until the end of undergrad. I grew up singing and taking piano lessons, but thought that when I went to college, music would be something I’d pursue on the side while getting a degree in journalism or political science. But in college, I ended up working with an amazing voice teacher who introduced me to opera, and encouraged me to go for it. Ever since my student rush days, I’ve still been getting emails from Seattle Opera, but now I’m in the emails!”
—Madison Leonard

Madison Leonard is a 2018 winner of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions, at which she sang arias from Rigoletto and Hänsel und Gretel with Bertrand de Billy conducting.
As a woman in 2019, what is it like to portray Gilda, a reflection of 19th-century European ideas?

“In a way, I can relate to Gilda’s sense of being sheltered and longing to break free. Growing up, dancing and music lessons consumed my weeknights and weekends, with little time for a social life. I also went to an all-girls high school, so naturally that made me think about boys ALL THE TIME! Where I differ from Gilda, and what I find most difficult to empathize with, is how she is so willing to sacrifice herself, despite how the Duke treats her. Unfortunately, in this way, Gilda's story represents reality: the abuse and mistreatment of women is normalized all over the world, and when you are stuck in a toxic situation, it’s difficult to find a way out.”
Soraya Mafi

“I perceive opera as a living art form, and I think that’s how (Stage Director) Lindy Hume views it as well. Lindy is approaching this work through a modern lens. I think if people could sit in on rehearsals with her, they’d be amazed. When it comes to the treatment of women, this libretto may seem archaic. But many of the underlying themes are issues we’re still dealing with today. Of course, there is so much victimhood and tragedy in Gilda’s story. However, portraying Gilda in a more complex way, beyond the single-faceted maiden status, makes it more palatable in 2019.”
Madison Leonard

Do you think audiences get the same basic message from classical versus contemporary opera productions?
It depends. As a Young Artist with Washington National Opera, which is similar to Seattle Opera in its mix of classical and contemporary productions, I saw how some people hated contemporary productions, some people love them. If people come in ready to feel something, or to absorb an idea, the time period often doesn't matter. If people want to witness something classically operatic, of course, they are also entitled to that. These are all fine ways to consume opera. I love the diversity of offerings in this art form. If I was forced to do the same type of thing all the time as a singer, I’d get bored.”
Madison Leonard

Soraya Mafi singing Mozart Mass in C Minor at Westminster Hall in November 2018.

What happens between Gilda and the Duke. Do you see this as a love story?

“I hesitate to call it love, because I see love as a union of two individuals. She’s certainly enraptured by him. When the Duke’s charm and Gilda’s eagerness to escape her sheltered life collide, it’s the perfect storm. It’s totally overwhelming for her. And, as someone who’s immature, her heart feels like it’s exploded in a million pieces when the Duke betrays her. Gilda makes rash and split-second decisions without all the information. I can relate. I remember being 15 and feeling so in love—telling my mom ‘This is it!’”
Madison Leonard

“When Verdi adapted Rigoletto from Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself), the Gilda character, Blanche, was raped. Of course, the censors would never let Verdi tell that overt of a story—they were concerned about the dignity of the women, without much concern about portraying men with dignity. But, I still see this story as it was originally intended. (Hume) is making it very clear that the Duke doesn’t really care about Gilda, she is a little puppet in the same way her father is. And on top of that, she’s cloistered in a toxic, unnatural situation at home."
Soraya Mafi

Is it OK for opera to be political by today’s standards?
“Opera can be extremely entertaining, and also a way of escape, but it’s not always just about beautiful singing. Art is nothing if it does not hold a mirror up to society. Coming to the theater can be an invitation to think deeply and to connect with the true nature of our world.”
Soraya Mafi

“Since the very beginning, opera has been political. It was created to mirror the current state of society, and many operas were extremely scandalous when they premiered. I think maintaining that heat today is important. There are many commonalities between a centuries-old opera plot, and what you see playing on the news today. Of course, audiences don’t want to feel like they’re being lectured to. But I think it’s important to understand that seeing an opera isn’t always going to be two hours of happy tunes—nor should it be. Opera wears many hats. Sometimes this art form is serious, sometimes it’s lighthearted.”
Madison Leonard

Madison Leonard made her Seattle Opera debut as Chrisann Brennan in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs in February 2019. Philip Newton photo
What are you most looking forward to about Rigoletto?
“I don’t think I’ve ever died onstage, so that will be a new challenge! I do get quite emotionally involved in my singing, and I hope I am able to move people. Verdi is in fact, my favorite composer, and his beautiful music is overwhelming to sing.”
Soraya Mafi

“I have incredible colleagues in this production, and I’m so fortunate to be working with them. This is a dynamite creative team. I’m so fortunate to be debuting this role with these people, and with Seattle Opera!”
Madison Leonard

Rigoletto runs Aug. 10-28.
Madison Leonard performs Aug. 10, 17, 23, 25, & 28 

Soraya Mafi performs Aug. 11, 14, 18, & 24

Tickets & info: