Opera
5:00 am
Thu January 9, 2014

Rigoletto: The ‘Gateway Drug’ Of Opera?

If your eyes roll back in your head when you hear the word "opera," maybe you should talk to Sue Elliott. She's the education director at Seattle Opera, and her passion for her subject is obvious. And contagious. Just get her talking about Giuseppe Verdi's classic opera "Rigoletto."

"It's about a court jester," she says. But not the kind of jester with little jingly bells on his hat. "Rigoletto's job is to find women for his master to woo and seduce.”

This master, a young Duke with a lot of swagger, beds his way through the city with Rigoletto's help. There's one woman, however, that Rigoletto has hidden from the Duke: Gilda, Rigoletto's lovely teenaged daughter. Everything is fine until the Duke and Gilda run into each other at church. Suffice it to say, things don't end well.

Verdi wrote "Rigoletto" at the height of grand opera's golden era in the 19th century. It's been popular ever since. In fact, Elliott says it's one of the world's most-performed operas. Part of that popularity is due to the story.

"Rigoletto" is a melodrama, with action and a tragic ending. But Elliott says the opera wouldn't have endured if it didn't have great music.

"Verdi took away some of the stop/start of earlier Italian operas," she says. In earlier Italian opera, the action was propelled through explanatory music, what is called recitative.

"Then all the action would stop for a nine-minute musical interlude about how you felt about what was going on," Elliott says. With "Rigoletto," Verdi merged the music and the action, so the story moves forward with the singing.

Ultimately, though, Elliott says "Rigoletto" is so beloved because Verdi's characters are universal: a father who worries about his daughter and tries to protect her innocence from his randy boss. She compares this opera to some of the others that have wide audience appeal: Bizet's "Carmen" and Mozart's "Figaro."

You've heard of "gateway drugs?" Well, think of "Rigoletto" as a gateway opera. Elliott thinks once you get a taste of this one, you make come back for more.

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