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Ahead Of 'Rigoletto,' Lyric Opera Of Kansas City Calls Out The Canon's Treatment Of Women

Dan Rest
Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Nicole Piccolomini and Giuseppe Filianoti in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 'Rigoletto.'

Carmen, Mimi, Norma, Tosca, Violetta, Cio-Cio-San, Medea, Liù, Aida, Lulu: Being an opera heroine is harrowing work.

For hundreds of years, opera's women have suffered: on stage from dishonor, ruination, madness and death; off stage from harassment, abuse, degradation, threats, and coercion.

A season of rising allegations against high-profile abusers has not spared the world of opera. Former whisper campaigns acquired a bullhorn, knocking powerful men off their pedestals. And last year, when investigations revealed decades of sexual misconduct in classical music, the biggest failure was that institutions had not protected the victims.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City, which opens its production of Giuseppe Verdi's beloved "Rigoletto" on Saturday, is questioning the constraints of the industry and the sympathies of the operatic canon.

The opera's plot is a twisted psychological tragedy: The hunchbacked jester Rigoletto is accomplice to the philandering Duke of Mantua. But when the Duke seduces Rigoletto's daughter Gilda, Rigoletto plots to assassinate the Duke; after various complications, Gilda sacrifices herself.

Victor Hugo's original play, "Le roi s'amuse" (The King's Amusement), was written in 1832 and performed once before censors shut it down for adhering too closely to the King of France's foibles.

To circumvent the censors, Verdi's librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, translated it into Italian and they moved the plot to the Medieval era - and Verdi keenly crafted a masterpiece, setting the words to some of the genre's most tuneful and enduring melodies, such as the cheerfully hummable yet debauched, "La donna e mobile."

Mindful of the surge in social activism, the Lyric devoted one of the Opera Guild's recent At Ease with Opera sessions, which are usually conversations about the musical elements of a given show, to a panel discussion on "#MeToo and 'Rigoletto.'"

Linda Ade Brand, the Lyric's director of education and community engagement, was joined by Sybil Wyatt, a senior equal opportunity investigator at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Brenda Bethman, director of the UMKC Women's Center, and around 50 opera fans.

"If you've been doing this work, everybody knew it was going on," said Bethman. "I don't know a woman who doesn't have a story."

With Harvey Weinstein and various perpetrators unveiled last year, she said, "all those stories are out and they won't go away. The days of 'Everybody knows who is a harasser and we just avoid them' are over."

Between plot points and video clips, the three women unraveled the layers of social and psychological pressures and misogynistic mores that convolute not just "Rigoletto" but everyday life.

"There are so many tunes here that you love to hum along to," Brand said, "and then you hear the words."

They touched on the history of women's sexuality (good girls don't), the complicit courtiers, the Duke's stalking, lies, and coercion — "courtship practices" (i.e. the hunt) that media continues to perpetuate as acceptable — and an array of implications from the era that still resonate in art, workplaces, politics, and lives.

For instance, the Duke is all-powerful: He was not just above the law, he was the law.

"Power can change the way your brain operates. It changes perspective," Bethman said.

They also analyzed the more subtle details of the opera, such as why Gilda is so easily seduced and why Rigoletto abetted the Duke in his prior escapades, and what that looks like now.

"We've been in a patriarchal society for so long that it's the norm," said Wyatt. "There are structures that are holding women back (from speaking out). Pressures will come from mentors and friends: 'You don't want to ruin your future plans.'"

Opera's divas have hewed strength from their disadvantages, creating richly empathetic interpretations of the canon's characters. But what happens behind the curtain is as important as what audiences see on stage.

When Brand, who is in charge of the Lyric's educational programs, works with young singers, she talks to them about the social and emotional issues of the opera and asks questions about acceptable behaviors as they analyze the characters.

Singers master the text and music, she says, and develop their own staging for scenes.

"I think acting out a scenario like this in a safe space is an interesting way to think deeply about such situations," Brand told KCUR after the panel discussion.

And why not change the work itself? This season, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentine, in Florence, spurred international attention when it restaged the ending of Georges Bizet's "Carmen" in response to the prevalence of violence against women in Italy.

Credit Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

"Slowly, but steadily, and perhaps not quickly enough for many, women are more present in the process of opera creation and production," Deborah Sandler, the Lyric's general director and CEO, told KCUR.

"There are more female conductors on the podium, more female directors staging works, and a deep pool of powerful female composers who are setting the world on fire," she said.

"Our composers are story tellers with music," Sandler added. "We are getting operas and song cycles with stories that provide commentary on the human condition. They are political, spiritual, and the women are not sacrificed or rendered voiceless."

Organizations such as the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which funds grants for female composers through Opera America and the League of American Orchestras, the Hart Institute for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera, and the Women's Opera Network, Sandler said, "have altered the landscape."

As opera evolves, it raises diverse voices and expands opportunities for the underrepresented. To name a few, there's Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angel's Bone," which explores human trafficking; the highly acclaimed work of Missy Mazzoli, which challenges expectations of love, loss, lust, isolation, and the American Dream; and the Lyric's recent production of Laura Kaminsky's "As One," in which a character makes a gender transition. These works create fully complicated characters — not just muses, destroyed once damaged.

Still, the industry depends on recognizably famous works from the 18th and 19th centuries. "Rigoletto" is the world's 10th most popular opera; during the 2015/16 season, it was performed 2,285 times.

Should these stories still be told? Verdi’s melodies are tuneful and timeless and the conflict is, unfortunately, still relevant.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City's "Rigoletto," March 3-11 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; 816-471-7344.

Correction: Deborah Sandler's title was incorrect in the first version of this story. She is general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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