Rigoletto: Photo GalleryQ&A with Director Michael Mayer
 Rigoletto: Feature Article

Both Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse—the work on which it’s based—have a rich history with the morality police. Hugo’s 1832 play, which portrays King Francis I of France as a randy seducer, was banned after a single performance for its depiction of a licentious monarch. Verdi encountered similar resistance from the Austrian censors, who wielded enormous power in northern Italy, and it was only after the composer moved the action of his opera to 16th-century Mantua, whose ruling family had long since disappeared, that Rigoletto was finally able 
to have its triumphant premiere at La Fenice in 1851. Regardless of its setting or version, though, the opera takes place in a world where powerful men use women as playthings, where proximity to wealth and power is all-important, and where putting out a hit on an enemy is par for the course. In other words, director Michael Mayer’s decision to set his new Met production of Rigoletto in Las Vegas in 1960 is right on the money.

Rigoletto has long been one of my favorite operas,” says Mayer, whose production premiered in January with Željko Lučić in the title role, Diana Damrau as his beloved daughter, Gilda, and Piotr Beczala as the womanizing Duke. (For the April run, George Gagnidze, Lisette Oropesa, and Vittorio Grigolo take over the leading roles.) As soon as Mayer was engaged 
for the project, “I started thinking about what I could bring to this masterpiece, which has been seen all over the world for so many decades and in different incarnations. One of the things I discussed with Peter Gelb was to try and make the audience feel closer to the story—without setting the opera today, which dates something automatically. You try to find 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.”

It didn’t take long for Mayer to
land on sixties Las Vegas as just the
sort of semi-recent historical moment that could lend potency to the story. 
“I started to think about the world of the Duke’s palace, and who Rigoletto
is, and how that could feel fresh,” he says. “I tried to imagine what a contemporary version of the decadent world
of the Duke’s palace would be—where people are partying and full of a kind of fascination 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.”

Mayer, who has had notable success on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for his staging of Spring Awakening, is hardly the first director to take an unconventional approach to Verdi’s tale of the hunchbacked court jester. Jonathan Miller famously scored a major success with his Mafia version, set in Little Italy in the 1950s, which premiered at English National Opera in 1982 and has been seen in many houses since then. Mayer’s placement of Rigoletto in Las Vegas clearly is a theatrically intriguing idea as well.

Needless to say, the setting also
 offers great opportunities for devising striking visuals that will bring the neon-drenched atmosphere of Vegas to vivid life on the Met’s grand stage. Mayer turned to set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams 
to devise a glittering wonderland. The team has created a series of beautiful light sculptures that bathe the stage
in all shades of red, green, yellow, and blue. The effect is dazzlingly electric—with Susan Hilferty’s stunning period costumes providing a perfect complement. It’s a truly arresting approach.

Verdi’s characters fit this time and landscape surprisingly well. “In 1960, Las Vegas sort of shifted,” Mayer explains. “The Mob started to become more clearly affiliated with the town, and there was also a real shift in the relationship to women. It was that 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.”

In Mayer’s vision, the Duke becomes a Las Vegas celebrity with his own casino; Rigoletto is a kind of hanger-on, living with Gilda out in the desert; Sparafucile is a trenchcoat-wearing thug; and Monterone is one of the Arab sheiks who started coming to Las Vegas at this time.

There were some challenges in carrying through the approach. “As
well as it lined up for Vegas to equal
the Duke’s world, and as beautifully as the big story points seemed to fall into place,” Mayer says, “there were moments where we struggled to come up with concepts that would work out line by line and action by action. In the abduction scene, one of my favorite solutions is to 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.”

But Mayer is quick to point out that the Vegas setting is not a stunt. Instead, the director understands it as an incisive way to bring Verdi’s indictment of moral decay to the fore. Rigoletto, of course, was originally titled La Maledizione, or “The Curse,” but it’s a bit of a stretch for modern audiences to feel the urgency of such an archaic plot-driver. In a sense, Mayer’s updating restores the immediacy of Verdi’s key concerns. “I really believe that the intent behind each action in
the opera translates beautifully to the world that we’re creating,” he says. “This fascination we have with Vegas
 as this place to escape the rigor and responsibilities of our daily lives—what plays in Vegas stays in Vegas—is all well and good. But there are consequences to actions that get out of hand. And I think that this opera really speaks to the danger and the potential tragedy inside that kind of irresponsibility.”

For audiences jumping aboard this joyride of a production, there’s also Verdi’s unstoppable score, as fresh, hummable, and psychologically revealing as it was in 1851. Mayer is not unaware of the risks involved in upending a classic in his Met debut. But he’s clearheaded, even energized about the prospect. “It’s daunting to take on a beloved classic
like this and approach it in such a bold way, but it’s also really liberating,” he says. “I know that the opera is a great classic because of its ability to sustain itself in the face of hundreds and hundreds of different interpretations
over the years. It’s like a Shakespeare play. If something is a great work of
art, it can sustain itself and reveal new elements every single time you see it.” —Matt Dobkin

This article was first published in the Met’s Playbill and online in January 2013.