Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Telling Rigoletto's story

Lester Lynch (left) and Giuseppe Altomare (right) alternate as the title character in Rigoletto. Sunny Martini photo
Seattle Opera sat down with our two star baritones who alternate as the title character in Rigoletto. Lester Lynch, an American, has recently sung Crown in Porgy and Bess ('18), and Di Luna in Il trovatore ('19), and Giuseppe Altomare, an Italian, makes his company debut. The two artists shared why this character means so much to them, the differences in contemporary versus traditionally productions of Rigoletto, and the political implications of this masterpiece in 2019.  

Is Rigoletto the ultimate baritone role—why?
“He’s top five, for sure. I would also include Iago, Wotan and Dutchman in that list. And of course, we can’t forget our dear friend, Scarpia…”
—Lester Lynch 

Why do you love this character? 
“I love that this character is challenging. In order to perform well, I must fully inhabit Rigoletto’s psychology. Your voice has to serve the music while showing the character’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. To play Rigoletto, I must change the colors of my voice, depending on what’s happening in the story.

I think in the past, I would sometimes allow myself to feel a little too much. At one point, I took a break from singing Rigoletto for a while. Now when I perform this opera, I keep more of a distance from his pain. This distance allows me to take care of myself, and bring my best to the role.”
—Giuseppe Altomare 

Verdi described Rigoletto as a “hunchback.” For Seattle Opera’s production, how are you thinking about this character’s physicality?
"Personally, I would have put more emphasis on the 'hunchback' aspect of the character. When Verdi created the opera, people with disabilities and physical differences wouldn’t have been accepted in society. And this is precisely why Verdi wanted to tell a story about Rigoletto—because he is an outcast." 
—Giuseppe Altomare

Soraya Mafi (Gilda) and Giuseppe Altomare (Rigoletto). Sunny Martini photo

Director Lindy Hume has talked about how Rigoletto’s greatest deformity exists in his own mind, because of his self-loathing.
“Being an outcast like Rigoletto means sometimes you believe, ‘Well maybe I am what they say I am.’ Or, ‘Maybe I’m not deserving.’ I can relate to that experience as an African American man. There are always people who point the finger at you in some way, who say you don’t belong. As a child, I was told to ‘go back where I come from.’ I understand what it means to have people tell you that you're inherently flawed or unwelcome, and to internalize that feeling.”
—Lester Lynch

Talk to me about the different versions of this opera you’ve done in the past—have these been a mix of traditional and contemporary?

“In the last 10 years, I have done more traditional Rigolettos than contemporary. I think the public appreciates both types of productions for different reasons. A lot of people go to the theater, especially to opera so they can experience something else—a dream—removed from daily life. This production is different; it’s more a reminder of the real world. It will definitely make you think."
—Giuseppe Altomare 

What is this opera about?

"It’s about a couple big themes: how revenge can come back to bite you. The cost of young love. Abuse of power—and the danger of the mob mentality. There’s so much rich material in Verdi’s creation that echoes our lives in 2019. I love being a part of a production that helps us relate to where we are today and that makes us think as a society. Rigoletto reminds us that we need to care about who has power, and who doesn’t. It’s a call for us to take care of one another, and especially those most vulnerable."
—Lester Lynch

Lester Lynch (Rigoletto) and Liparit Avetisyan (the Duke of Mantua) with members of the Rigoletto cast. Philip Newton photo 

Is there a good side to Rigoletto? 
"While often described as flawed, Rigoletto has many good sides; he’s just a man, a father who loves his daughter—his only child—more than anything. His extreme love for her, however, is also what causes the major tragedy of the story." 
—Giuseppe Altomare 

Giuseppe, what’s something that only an Italian would understand about Rigoletto?
"Verdi’s music is an inherent part of my culture. As an Italian, I can understand, not only what’s on the surface of every word, but its inner meaning Because he was often composing at the mercy of censors, Verdi had to tell stories with nuance. Great singers from all over the world can perform this music beautifully, but it has special meaning for us Italians."
—Giuseppe Altomare 

Lindy Hume created this production in 2012, and was inspired by your former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Would this production be controversial in Italy?

"It wouldn’t be a problem. People like Berlusconi, Trump, Macron etc. are simply symbols for the power of the moment. This opera isn’t about one person, it’s about an idea."
—Giuseppe Altomare    

Liparit Avetisyan (Duke of Mantua), Madison Leonard (Gilda), and Lester Lynch (Rigoletto). Philip Newton photo

What do you think Lindy Hume is trying to do with her production?
"She is linking the Duke to the real men who abuse women, and abuse their power. I remember cringing recently while reading a text that simplified Gilda's part of the opera as essentially, a love story. Lindy makes it very clear that this is not love. This opera is about a grown, powerful man who assaults a teenage girl. I think these are good conversations to be having today. The rest of the world is responding to the #MeToo movement. Why wouldn’t we have that conversation in the arts? I don’t doubt that this production will probably make some people mad. That’s natural when the status quo is challenged (something Verdi did constantly, by the way). I think others might walk out of the opera thinking about how we treat people with disabilities, how we treat people we consider ‘different.’

Is Lindy straying from operatic tradition, and from what Verdi originally created? Yes! And I think that’s OK to do sometimes. Opera can be both traditional, and cutting edge. In Verdi’s time, opera was highly political, and always confronting hypocrisy and oppressive societal systems. I think opera should still be a place where we can go to be shocked, to boo, clap, and cry."
—Lester Lynch  

Giuseppe Altomare (Rigoletto). Sunny Martini photo

Giuseppe, how does it feel to be making your Seattle Opera debut as Rigoletto? 
“When I received this offer, I was in disbelief. It has been many years since I’ve sung in the United States, and when I received this offer—not only for the part of Rigoletto—but in one of America’s top opera houses, I thought, ‘Oh mama mia!’ It’s a miracle to be starting again this way, getting back into singing in the U.S. I really couldn’t believe it. I am enjoying this experience. I’ve only been here for a short time, but the cast already feels like a family. Many of my colleagues have said to me, ‘Oh Giuseppe, you will fall in love with Seattle Opera.’ And I have.” 
—Giuseppe Altomare 

What have you most looked forward to about this performance?
"During rehearsals, I just couldn’t wait to get into the theater and onto that stage. It’s actually been eight years since I performed Rigoletto last. And after all these big roles I’ve been doing—Dr. Faust, Dutchman, Andrea Chénier—these monstrous roles that take so much energy, it’s so great to take all I’ve learned and return to a part that I truly love, now as a grown man and more experienced opera singer. I am able to do Verdi’s character in a way that I couldn’t have before."
—Lester Lynch