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Anything Goes:  Linda Brovsky on Verdi's Rigoletto

interview by Ed Hawkins

Director Linda Brovsky made her Seattle Opera debut directing La fille du régiment during the 1989-1990 season and returned to the company to direct The Merry Widow, La cenerentola, L'elisir d'amore, Die Fledermaus, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and, in 2002, Madama Butterfly.

Ed Hawkins spoke with Linda Brovsky via telephone from her Manhattan home on July 22, 2004.

How many operas have you directed?

I would guess about 80 productions total.  I've had a career where I've directed a lot of obscure pieces. I've been the midwife to a lot of new pieces, and I've tackled much of the "standard rep" as well-it runs quite the gamut. 

Have you ever directed Rigoletto before?

I have not.  It was one of those that always eluded me-either I was not available for the production when it was offered, or it just didn't come my way.  When Speight offered it to me and I mentioned that I had never directed it before, he was aghast.  He said, "As long as you've been directin', you missed this piece?!"  Of course I'm quite familiar with the opera from seeing productions of it; it's been fun to come to something that I know well but to approach it like it's a brand new piece.  And I certainly have experience doing other warhorses like Madama Butterfly, La traviata, and Carmen

Rigoletto is one of the "Top 10," but I have to say that in some of the productions I've seen, details about the story and the characters often got lost in the trappings; it became so much about the grand spectacle that the very real story was lost.   It's a dynamite story-the power plays, the danger-a great opera with phenomenal music.

Let's go ahead and talk about your concept for this production.

Well the concept actually came out of discussions with Speight, both artistic and practical in nature.  What period?  Do we do a traditional production?  Originally it was going to be a completely new "from scratch" production but there were budgetary concerns, so I said, "You've already got a beautiful set; let's re-think it-we can still do a completely new production."

There was some talk about updating it to modern times.  Speight mentioned, "I'm not sure we need to be bound by period."  And while I'm not a usually a director who updates productions, I felt this one could maybe get a new life by updating it.  However, I had to find a time period when the topography of what Verdi wrote would work, and present day wasn't it because Gilda would be too liberated a woman in present day. 

I discussed this problem with Eugenio Zanetti, who is a film designer and colleague of mine. We talked about different production ideas and he mentioned fascist governments.  I didn't know much about them at the time and decided to do a little research.  The more research I did, the more I realized that Mussolini's Italy corresponded exactly to what was going on in the Duke's Mantua and also with the time period in which Verdi had originally set the piece. 

What sort of parallels did you find?

Well, Fascism created an atmosphere of fear where nobody was sure whether a "friend" was really trustworthy or an agent of the police.  That's the same atmosphere we have in Rigoletto.  We really don't know who can be trusted.  Rigoletto certainly doesn't know.  He thinks he can trust Giovanna and yet she's totally untrustworthy.  He's initially afraid of Sparafucile but it turns out he's the only one who has some degree of integrity.

It also mirrored what was going on in Verdi's own time period.  When he wrote the piece, the Italian states were recovering from European revolutions during 1848-49 and the governments were incredibly sensitive to anything that smacked of a liberal idea or immorality-even though it was one of the more corrupt periods in Italian history.   In fact, Verdi wanted to set Rigoletto in modern dress but they wouldn't let him.  So he made concessions, very begrudgingly.  The censorship was enormous.  It was a dangerous time for him-for all artists. 

That same dynamic existed in Fascist Italy right before World War II.  The wealthy and the politically well connected used their power and that sense of danger to allow horrendous abuses.  It was "anything goes" because of the money and power.  Yet no one could step outside the line.  If you weren't a Fascist Party member, you were in tremendous danger. 

Likewise, the women of the time period were very sheltered, which can explain Gilda's treatment.  There's a wonderful book called Christ Stopped At Eboli written by Carlo Levy, an anti-Fascist living under house arrest during the 1930s.  He talks about this village that he was sent to where, if the man of the household dies, the woman is kept locked in her room for three years.  This was just accepted! 

So the convention of innocent Gilda being locked away still works in this updated context.  

Absolutely.  Women were very closely guarded during Mussolini's reign.  But at the same time he was an incredible libertine who had numerous mistresses -Mussolini was the Duke in many ways.  Likewise, there were those marginal people who served the Fascist regime—or in the case of Rigoletto served the Duke—who thought that they were protected.  And the culture that spun around them:  the sexual promiscuity, the drinking, dancing, and whoring—"anything goes"—all of that was very much in the picture.  That's why we went with the Fascist period.

It must also be fun in terms of design, because the 1930s were such a stylish time.

Yes.  Very stylish.  Very elegant.  Conspicuous consumption.  When I proposed the idea to Speight, he expressed some concern about the existing period sets and I said, "You know, it doesn't matter.  Italian villas haven't changed since the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  They date back to the 1400s and are still being used.  The Italians just refurnish them, so we can too."

Just hang a different flag out front.

Exactly.  You update your props.  You update the furniture.  That's part of the Italian aristocracy:  you have the beautiful Bernini statue and next to it you have an exquisite Art Deco bar cart or a painting by Tamara de Lempicka.  It's very sophisticated in terms of look.  I'm hoping it will inspire the cast to be far more naturalistic and realistic in their approach to the piece.  Just to wear a Renaissance costume demands a certain amount of posing and artifice.  It's hard to feel very relaxed and sexy when you're a guy wearing tights and pumpkin pants; but if you're in a tuxedo smoking a cigarette, you suddenly have a whole different approach to seduction!

And I would hope that in turn the audience will start seeing these characters as real people who are corrupted.  The danger that's going on around them is bigger than any individual can fight.  They are caught in a web; in some cases they had a hand in its design, in some cases they are total victims. 

I have to ask you about Shakespeare's Richard III  because of the hunchback protagonist and because of the 1995 film adaptation starring Sir Ian McKellen which was also set in an early 20th Century Europe Fascist state.  Are you familiar with it?

Yes, somewhat.  The design team and I actually used Italian film to a very large extent because, unlike most of the operas that we deal with, which are set in the 18th Century or whatever, the Italians were making films as propaganda tools during the reign of Mussolini.  So we can rent the research at the video store.  The film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis became sort of the hallmark for the design team, because that was about a well-placed aristocratic family, living the life of luxury, caught up in the political web.  There are many films that became the source of small details:  Tea With Mussolini, Life Is Beautiful, Roma: Open City, and Love and Anarchy—a vast body of film literature that we used for research. 

In regard to the hunchback: That genre of character has existed since at least Shakespeare's time all the way through Italian cinema up until the present day.   In Russian literature, it's the village idiot; in Italian literature, it's the hunchback.  They're always the marginalized person, the outsider.  He is usually good-hearted, but because people only see the deformity of the body, they ignore the insights he provides.   Because he's on the outskirts, he is able to observe the scene with much more scrutiny, shoot off his mouth, toss out the barb, and make the joke.  He says what everyone's thinking and gets away with is because no one takes him seriously.

And in terms of social standing, he has nothing to lose. 

Exactly.  And Rigoletto pushes it even further because he sees himself as living securely underthe protection of the Duke.  The Duke warns him by saying, "You go too far, Rigoletto.  Be careful, you're crossing a line, here."  But Rigoletto thinks he's immune.  And when it turns back on him, he is caught totally by surprise.  We have to be careful to make sure he's not just a comic figure because it's more complex than that.

How do you expect to arrive at that more nuanced characterization of Rigoletto? 

Well, both of the singers playing Rigoletto are seasoned in the role; they've played it all overthe world, so I'm sure they'll bring much to the table. 

Will his look be entirely grotesque?

No.  Costume designer Marie Anne Chiment and I are not setting how far we go with the hump until after we've talked with the singers, although we have had some discussion already.  She asked me, "Who is Rigoletto in this updated context?  Is he one of the guests?"  I said, "No, he's more like the bartender or the Major Domo."  He's somebody who lives at the Duke's palace and who is useful, yet he's treated like he's not there.  His humor makes him a player.  But when the humor goes away in Act II, you realize this is just one of the working poor.  Yes he is deformed, but would he be treated too much differently if he weren't deformed?  I'm not so sure. 

One reason why Rigoletto is cited as a groundbreaking opera is how its characters unfold and evolve gradually over the entire piece.  How does that sort of structure appeal to you as a director?

Well it's a much more theatrical approach, because you can develop a character like you would do in legitimate theater.  They're complicated people.  The Duke, for example: this powerful, dangerous man is like a teenager in love when he thinks he's enamored with Gilda; but when you see him again, he's very jaded.  You're never sure where this guy really is.  Rigoletto—he starts out as being rather obnoxious.  He's not a kind man.  However, by the end of the opera you see this destroyed father whose world has totally caved in.  With Gilda you first see this naïve protected little girl, who by the end is making some very hard choices as a woman.  Even Sparafucile has depth.  At first you think he's a stock character-just your basic assassin.  But by the end you realize not only is he a businessman, but he's an extremely honest businessman.  The characters are engaging on so many levels.  They all develop; they each have a certain multi-faceted personality that should surprise us.  And we hope to give the audience some surprises in the way that we delineate all of the characters-both visually and dramatically, because it shouldn't be predictable. 

The plot is also quite theatrical.  It unravels steadily—with suspense and intrigue building throughout.  Do you think that's another reason why this remains such a popular work?

Yes.  It's a very tight dramatic plot with a very good libretto.  It's an incredible study of human nature and how people get sucked into the abuse of power.  That web is very far-reaching.  You cross the line of morality at one point and it just keeps going.  It's not like: "Well, I crossed the line with Monterone today, but tomorrow everything will be fine."  It doesn't work that way. 

Of course a big reason for Rigoletto's popularity is the extraordinary music.  There's no down time in the score at all.  It's one lush gorgeous melody after another. 

Can I hear a little bit more about the design team and how you're working together?

They're quite marvelous.  We're having great fun with all of this.  All of us were fascinated with the period.  It's been a very lively collaboration. 

Robert A. Dahlstrom, who is the set designer and who has designed many shows for Seattle Opera, was extremely willing to revisit this set because there were many things that he wasn't satisfied with when it was originally designed.  So we took bits and pieces of existing scenery-we called it our erector set!—and created a whole new look.  Yes, it's a 14th century palazzo, but what would be there in 1936?  There would be telephone wire.  There would be electric lighting.  Elements were re-arranged.  Elements were used in a totally different fashion from a different scene.  I think the Seattle audience, when they see it, will be impressed by how different and how contemporary it looks. 

Marie Anne Chiment is a costume designer with whom I've collaborated on many shows.  She has a marvelous way of taking a period of history and finding the essence of characters through fabric and through line.   We worked hard over many months coming up with the look of the production and determining exactly who were these people were.  I knew I wanted the party at the Duke's to be heavily infiltrated with the Fascist Party, but there are many elements of the Fascist Party.  You have the Black Shirts, you have OVRA, which was the secret police.  We'll have a smattering—celebrities, artists, and politicians.  It's the type of "power broker" party that might happen in any capital of the world.

The third element of our design team is Thomas C. Hase who lit The Barber of Seville for me a few years ago in Seattle.  He is a wonderful conceptual artist in his own right and has a way of creating a very modern look to traditional opera.  So he seemed to be the perfect person to bring on board because of the way he uses light and color—it gives the production a much more cutting edge look.  Plus he did his dissertation on Fascist Italy, so he became a source of endless information. 

It must be wonderful when you have a concept where it all begins to solve itself so you don't end up having to force or fudge aspects of the piece to fit the concept.

It is.  And I think that it's key.  If you want to update the period, you've got to be careful.  If it doesn't illuminate the score, don't update it.  Hopefully, this one will illuminate it because there are so many parallels.

I'm surprised it hasn't been done this way more often, frankly.

Well I know that Jonathan Miller in the 1980's did a Rigoletto set in New York's Little Italy in the 50's.  It was a very interesting concept and, at that point it was extremely controversial because nobody updated things.  Now I'm not sure we would be so aghast at what he did.  I find opera a continually fascinating playground for a director because you're constantly challenged to somehow keep the art form current.  It is an art form that dates back hundreds of years and has certain traditions and expectations, but you also have to take into consideration the sensibilities of your audience; and those sensibilities change constantly. The sensibilities that audiences of the early '80s had, when I was starting out as a director, have greatly changed with the expansion of email and the Internet.  We've become far more of a television audience and a film audience. I think the main challenge as a director is to speak to a modern audience while still respecting the composer's intentions and the sensibilities of the piece as it was written. 

I think that's a director's job: helping the audience understand the piece in a way they've never understood it.  A lot of that has to do with how we treat the characters psychologically and how we bring out the interpersonal relationships.  That has nothing to do with the trappings of sets and costumes.  If we can peel away the ornamentation, the fussiness, in a way so that those characters are more clearly defined or that we see them in a way that we've never seen them before—I think we can only breathe fresh air into a piece. 

Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle's fringe theater community as a director, actor, and sound designer.