Michael Mayer Puts the Wriggle Into Rigoletto at The Met
January 24, 2013
Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer, making his Metropolitan Opera debut this month, talks about his innovative idea of setting Verdi's Rigoletto in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Rigoletto begins Jan. 28 in Manhattan, with Piotr Beczala as The Duke, Željko Lučić as his tragic sidekick Rigoletto and Diana Damrau as Rigoletto's daughter Gilda. Michele Mariotti conducts.
Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) partners with some of his favorite Broadway designers — including scenic designer Christine Jones, costume designer Susan Hilferty, lighting designer Kevin Adams (all of them Tony winners) — for the bold and splashy experience, which places the action of Mantua in 1960 Las Vegas. Steven Hoggett (Broadway's American Idiot, Peter and the Starcatcher and a Tony nominee for Once) choreographs.
The current run of Rigoletto continues through Feb. 23, including a Live in HD transmission on Feb. 16. The production returns in April with a different cast.
This chat with Mayer, edited by edited by Philipp Brieler, appears in the February 2013 Playbill of The Metropolitan Opera.
How did the idea for this production come about?
Michael Mayer: Rigoletto has long been one of my favorite operas, and it was on my short list way back when I first talked to Peter Gelb. I started thinking about what I could bring to this masterpiece, which has been seen all over the world for so many years. One of the things I discussed with Peter was to try and make the audience feel closer to the story — without setting the opera today, which dates something automatically. It's about finding the right setting in a context that's in the past but not so far in the past that it feels like a museum piece. That way it can have real, immediate resonance but also a kind of purity and universality. So I tried to imagine what a contemporary version of the decadent world of the Duke's palace would be — where people are partying and fascinated with power and money and beauty — and I thought of Las Vegas as the epitome of an American destiny for the events that happen in Rigoletto.
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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