By William Urban

Does art reflect life, or is it the other way around? My visit to the Lyric Opera on a recent Sunday and the train ride back from Chicago gave me the opportunity to reflect on this. The performance was Rigoletto, a moving combination of human desires and frailties with cold-blooded insights into real life politics. Normally the audience of this opera is reduced to near tears by the tragedy of Gilda, who sacrifices her life to save her worthless lover, and by her father’s frantic but hopelessly doomed efforts to protect her. Rigoletto, who has made a career out of his crooked back and his even more misshapened sense of cruel humor, is surrounded by enemies who can add revenge to their customarily perverted sadism in torturing whatever victim is readily at hand.

In short, Verdi gave us a great plot. Unfortunately, the directors chose to see Rigoletto as “a paradigm of the patriarchical 19th-century male whose power is built on the subjugation of women” and, as for Gilda, “the opera shows her steps toward individuation, leading to her ultimate realization that the only escape from this male-dominated prison is through death.” Wow! Too bad that they forgot to tell the writers of the supertitles, who stubbornly projected Gilda’s actual words expressing her determination to die for love.

The directors magnified that error by giving us a totally confusing set design and irrelevant stage directions. I thought I had seen the low point last summer in Germany, in the Zaubertrank, when as each male character entered the courtyard, he had to pee in the flower pots before he could get on with the plot. That was at least supposed to be funny. The directors at the Lyric had a better insight in writing that Rigoletto “is a nightmare about an all-powerful and irresponsible ruler.” Accurate as long as you throw out the jester and his daughter. Otherwise, one-third true.

So, does art reflect life? Victor Hugo, who wrote the original story, certainly thought so. The duke, physically attractive and personable, found it easy to captivate everyone around him; mouthing beautifully phrased professions of enduring love, he seduces women easily and rapes those who resist. The courtiers dare not raise a voice in protest, at least not until they are faced by personal ruin, by which time they have nothing left but a curse. Assassination is the jester’s only chance at revenge.

Anyone observing the recent American political scene is likely to have seen in it some parallels: an incredibly talented but reckless president who put himself in danger chasing skirts, fawning and ambitious courtiers, and character assassination. But there is also the directors’ cynicism, especially their assumption that no woman would ever choose to die for love, something that generations of opera lovers, male and female, have chosen to believe. Does this intellectual elite really believe that there is no emotion, no ideal, higher than simply escaping a patriarchical prison?

Fortunately, in America as at the Lyric, the music and the singers are much better than the directors. I would love to hear the same artists again, but with staging that made sense and directors who are willing to follow the composer’s text and directions. Less soap opera and less soft-soap.

Monmouth College Courier, Nov. 17, 2000.