Preparation for my first Rigoletto

Joseph Shore


In Victor Hugo’s play, LE ROI S’AMUSE, which is the play on which Rigoletto is based, Francois I is the virtual double of the historical king. He surrounded himself in elegance, yet was fond of dressing up in beggars clothes in order to journey into the slums of Paris to obtain a poor girl for the night. Evidently, he was considered extremely attractive and had no difficulty in finding willing partners.

Francis was crowned king at twenty-one. He was-about five feet eleven inches tall and was reputed to have had the longest nose in all of France! Titian has left us a portrait of Francis which hangs in the Louvre. Hedisplays a mocking air which may have been attractive. Supposedly, when he was accused of licentiousness, he took off his diamond ring and scratched on a palace window, “Each woman is different.” If true, it is the historical correlate of questa o quella” in the opera. He was evidently a fairly good soldier for he was knighted on the field of Marignano in the first year of his reign. He was definitely a libertine. Five years after his knighting he was taken prisoner at the battle of Pavia by the emperor, Charles V. He escaped by offering his two small sons as hostages in exchange for his own liberty! He was not too strong or integrity but he had the wisdom to employ around him famous men. He debated, consorted, and argued with such famous figures as Savanarola, Cesare Borgia, Macchiavelli, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Many famous poets were to befound in his court or capital, including Rabelais, Ronsard, Villon, and Clement Marot. Marot was evidently in his court frequently for he is Italianized in Piave’s libretto as “Marullo.” Thus there is good reason for Marullo to stand out among all the other courtiers. He alone is a man of some decency, perhaps corrupted by the company he keeps, but, nevertheless, a good man. He alone saves the jester from being killed. To him alone Rigoletto pleads for mercy in finding his daughter. In Piave’s libretto he says, “tu ch’hai 1’alma gentil come il core.” There is a lot of character in Marullo, a man of great learning and talent, corrupted and ashamed, yet feeling unable to change his life. I was fortunate to get to play Marullo as a beginning singer with the Tulsa Opera, with Louis Quilico as Rigoletto, Ezio Flagello as Sparafucile, Kenneth Regal as the Duke, and Pat Wise as Gilda. After that performance I moved up to the title role and never sang Marullo again, but playing him gave me insight I used later while playing Rigoletto.

Francis discovered Triboulet on one of his excursions into the Parisian slums. He was a street clown and so intrigued Francis that he took him back to the court. He was a little deformed but most of his deformation came from the pen of Hugo. Wit and loquaciousness were, however, true. “Io la lingua” is historical. He was said to have had the second largest nose in all of Paris. A portrait of him shows him to have been slightly obese with large head and shoulders. Besides these modest characteristics there was little to suggest the Triboulet of Hugo. In LE ROIHugo took historical people and adapted them for the theatre of the grotesque. Triboulet becomes tremendously ugly and deformed. Being a hunchback, he was considered under the control of evil forces. Thus in the court affairs of LE ROI he is evil. He is extremely powerful because he is always right in the King’s ear, and not only hears great secrets, but can exert tremendous influence with the right word at the right time. The position of court jester was very much like being the chief of staff to the King. Parents who had the misfortune to have a deformed child would intentionally attempt to groom the child into further deformities, hoping to increase the chances of that child being chosen court jester. It was a prize of a position!

Triboulet is a misanthrope, full of twisted hatred for existence itself. But he has a good side. He is also secretly a loving father. His daughter, Blanche (Gilda in the opera), is the creation of Hugo for purposes of the theatre of the grotesque. Blanche was sent to the country to live her first fifteen years. Able to bear the separation no longer, Triboulet calls her home to live with him in Paris. Triboulet’s fatherly love is the irony that accentuates his grotesquerie. The other main character based on a historical figure is Monsieur Saint-Vallier (Monterone in the Piave libretto). Saint-Vallier was part of a famous conspiracy against the throne and was executed for his part in it. But Hugo was more creative in LE ROI. Saint-Vailier was under the knife when a pardon arrived from the king, purchased by his daughter, Diane, with her own body. His daughter, Diane de Poitiers, was a very interesting figure in French history. Historically she did not have an affair with Francis, though she did later with Francis’ son, Henri.

When this whole story was Italianized by Piave, Triboulet became Triboletto and the opera became LA MALEDIZIONE. According to Hugo, the subject of LE ROI was the curse of Saint-Vallier. Fittingly, Piave retained that emphasis in the first title. The rest is well known history. Because of political objections to the play Triboletto became Rigoletto. Francois I became the Duke of Mantua in the state of Lombardy. This was a good substitution. Ruled from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries by the Gonzagas, the historical correlate to the Duke may well have been Francesco Gonzaga, whose libertine excesses were close enough to Francis’ to make the switch minimally important.

Verdi’s interest in Hugo’s play came from a healthy respect for the playwright—he had already written ERNANI from Hugo’s play—and from his life-long interest in Shakespeare. Verdi was trying to write KINGLEAR. It was to be an incomplete life- long desire. He was at least ready to attempt it when he read Hugo’s play, LE ROI S’AMUSE. His letters indicate that he saw in Triboulet a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare. He dropped his work on LEAR and began on LA MALEDIZIONE. The dark, somber, tragic “tinta” of RIGOLETTO is due in part to the fact that Verdi had been thinking about LEAR, and, I think more importantly, to the probability that he was using Hugo’s play as a testing ground foLEAR. His letters indicate that he felt so awed by LEAR that he wondered if he could ever compose the opera. Though it is partly conjecture, I believe that Verdi poured into LA MALEDIZIONE everything he had been thinking of for LEAR. Triboletto became a combination of Lear and Lear’s fool.

The unique “tinta” of RIGOLETTO also comes from Verdi’s desire to collaborate with Hugo in the theatre of the grotesque. By that I do not mean that there was any formal planning. Verdi was his own man. However, his letters show that what he wished for his opera was what Hugo wanted for his theatre. In this sense their minds were collaborating. Verdi wrote;


“I believe that it would be very beautiful to depict this character, externally deformed and ridiculous, as inwardly full of passion and love. I chose this subject precisely for these qualities, and if they are removed I cannot write the music.”


This is, of course, a statement of the essence of the theatre of the grotesque, the irony of opposites existing together.

Hugo was trying to set a world before his audience. He was intrigued with the late middle ages and renaissance periods and desired to lift his audience into another era, spiced with his own theatrical devices. That other world is found in LE ROI and Verdi’s RIGOLETTO. It is a mysterious place and not at all friendly. It devours its inhabitants. All of the characters in this world are acted upon by forces outside of themselves, the forces of this cruel universe.

The curse that has been working in Rigoletto is seen as also the curse which exists throughout this world of destruction. This is, as I see it, the climactic nature of the final “la maledizione.” Only the Duke gets along in this world as he goes humming through the dark, untouched by the events of iniquity unfolding in this mysterious night. This last “la maledizione” is not just the curse of Saint-Vallier brought to mind. It is a cry of the recognition of the nature of things, and this “nature of things” is the world that Hugo and Verdi wish to set before us. It will take its own effect, give its own message. Their intent is but to set us in it. The audience drawn into this world may feel a sickening deep down, mixed with the excitement of exotic mystery. But the elements of the story, being truly Shakespearean, bring alive characters and teach universal lessons. My experience has been that the audience is uncommonly moved by the experience of being set into this world.

We are very fortunate that sufficient information can be found in Hugo’s works and in Verdi’s score to give us a fairly complete understanding of the hunchback, Rigoletto. Shortly after Hugo wrote the play, “Hernani.” he wrote the novel, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Herein is a wealth of information of Hugo’s intentions for a hunchback character. While there are, of course, differences in Quasimodo and Triboulet, much of the information is very helpful.

The first attribute that both Quasimodo and Triboulet shared would, of course, have been physical deformity. Quasimodo had a crooked spine with one leg much shorter than the other, a large head depressed between the shoulders, and a large hump on the back over one shoulder. Deformity was considered the work of the Devil and a hunchback his property, as this excerpt from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAMEshows:


“It is Quasimodo the hunchback of Notre Dame! Quasimodo the one-eyed! Quasimodo the bandi-legged!...Let pregnant women beware, cried the scholars. The women actually hid their faces. Oh, the ugly ape, cried one...Tis the Devil himself!...I am sure he attends the witches sabbaths.”


One attribute of Quasimodo seems to be a fascination of Hugo for the grotesque. For Quasimodo possessed tremendous strength. Usually Rigoletto is played as a weak old man. He may have been old for the sixteenth century but there is nothing to say that he was weak. I find it interesting to play him similar to Quasimodo, a man of inexplicable strength. After all, it takes all the courtiers to fight him off during “Cortigiani.” It adds an extra dimension to play him this way.

In Verdi’s score, Rigoletto faints at the abduction of Gilda and at her death.

Both times are connected with the curse and both times have musical notations for the fainting spells. I find that interesting because later, in OTELLO, Verdi would make it plain that when Otello faints, “il fazzoletto, il fazzoletto, ah, ah, ah...” convulsions are intended. Indeed almost everyone has interpreted Otello as being an epileptic, seizures being brought on by extreme stress.

I prefer to consider these spells of Rigoletto as epileptic seizures. The relationship between physical deformity and supposed evil was so strong in sixteenth century minds that an epileptic Rigoletto cannot help but make the character stronger and more exotic. It also underlines the link between Rigoletto’s physical afflictions and the evil world of which he is a symbolic effect.

Many people see Act 1 as an orgy, but I think this is a bad reading. Orgies were not Francis’ style. Whatever the occasion, it must retain elegance. It is possible to introduce the Duchess in this scene to show how she is neglected in the court. However, the emphasis must be on the Duke and Rigoletto. Only in this act do we get a glimpse of the kind of powerful monster Rigoletto really is in court. He is not just the jovial, fun-loving clown that we frequently see. For this reason, I like the idea of his being in the scene long before his musical entrance, “in testa che avete signor di Ceprano.”

The character must be deformed in his misanthropy as well as his body, the very antithesis of his surroundings. The Duke likes Rigoletto like a pet bulldog. Whatever he does is “cute.” Into this scene bursts Saint-Vallier (Monterone). It is possible to have his daughter, Diane, in the scene all along as court mistress. It is possible to bring her into focus when Saint-Vallier arrives and begins his sermon. Having just been pardoned from the knife, he has found out that his salvation came at the price of little Diane’s purity. I doubt very much that he burst into the court (as he frequently is staged) with a sword at his side. No one came into Francis’ court armed to the teeth. The Duke allows the old man to speak because Rigoletto wants to play with him.

How do we make the curse work in modern times? The idea that Rigoletto doesn’t take the curse seriously at first is one method, since then the audience doesn’t have to take it seriously either! But with all due respect to Frank Corsaro, I think this is tampering. A curse was very understandable in the sixteenth century, and a “father’s curse” was even more understandable by an Italian audience. The difficulty of making the curse understood by today’s audience has led some directors to gimmickry. Let’s face it. The first scene is a problem in showing us what the “curse” meant to Rigoletto. Corsaro’s idea is that Rigoletto does not take the curse seriously at first, but as he begins to drink and let his mind imagine, the curse gradually begins to become an obsession. The idea has certain merits but Rigoletto does exclaim in scene one when cursed by Monterone, “Che sento? Orrore!” Corsaro’s idea means that Rigoletto is pretending when he says that line. That is certainly against an honest reading of the play and libretto.

The second scene of Act 1 —incorrectly called Act 2 by the “four Act people”—is the grotesque irony in the life of Rigoletto. The monster becomes a loving father, though a paranoid one because of the curse which is following him, and an incredibly overprotective one because she is all that he has in the world. It may be true that the Duke (or the King) had a “right” to ask for the daughter of anyone in the court. Partly for this reason, Rigoletto keeps her secret. To Gilda (Blanche), the whole affair is nuts! She was raised in the country by a nun without knowing she even had a father, and then, out of the blue, she is sent to Mantua (or Paris) at her father’s request. When she gets there, she finds that he is an ugly hunchback whose profession is a secret. She is not allowed to go out-side except to go to church! She is a prisoner who escapes in her fantasies.

Let’s say a little about the nature of Sparafucile and Maddalena. I think we find their nature in the mysterious essence of the last act. Sparafucile comes to Rigoletto out of nowhere and returns to the same place. He knows things he has no way of knowing, and Rigoletto’s word for him is “demonio.” Even though in Hugo’s play they are real people, I think there is indication that Verdi wished to make them bigger than life characters. If you will, they are supernatural agents of this strange, mysterious world which is set before us. Their work is the work of this world, destruction.

What we must see in Rigoletto when he is with Sparafucile in Act 1, scene 2, is his complete naiveté at their similarity. We must see that even Rigoletto has set limits in his mind. He does not easily contemplate murder. “Pari siamo” comes as a revelation to him, an element of self-discovery. As soon, however, as he realizes his nature he refuses to take responsibility for it, blaming it on the fates, mankind, creation, the courtiers, anything will do, as long as it keeps him from examining the cruelty he has inflicted upon himself through years of bitterness.  In his house he escapes into a world of fantasized normalcy. Who was Gilda’s mother who bore her then died? Was Rigoletto really married to her? Or was she a fantasy of normalcy? Did Rigoletto really adopt Gilda from the orphanage? These are ideas that the actor gets to choose from in making up his own biography. One thing is for sure, Gilda has become for him the central part of a fantasy in which he is as normal as everyone else. Probably the reason that he sent for her is that he simply could not stand the pain of his life of internal and external deformity any longer. He needed a release. Thus, his little house with his captive daughter is his escape valve for the pain of existence. Thus, he protects Gilda with the desperation of protecting his own life. This, of course, is the flaw in his love. It is not free, and it is through this flaw that the curse will make entrance. When Gilda is abducted, he really believes his life is over right then and there. He is determined, however, to go out with a fight. So he dawns the jester’s suit for the last time (he thinks), after recovering from the seizure which left him helpless at the discovery of Gilda’s abduction, and goes to the court to search for his daughter’s body. In his paranoid desperation he thinks they must have raped her, killed her, and hidden her body somewhere in the court. His macabre imagination, driven by his paranoid desperation, flashes images in his mind of the horrible way he may come upon her body. He knows the courtiers will be stonewalling it when he arrives so he decides to play along to observe their reactions in case they give something away. However, a man in such tentative mental “health” is not a very good actor. The pathos of this scene is driven to the highest degree by the sight of this heart-sick man making his last stand, attempting to act as though nothing were unusual. His jester’s “la ra’s” are full of hate and incredible rage, constrained as best he can (which is not much). To have Rigoletto come into court with jovial “la ras” is ridiculous for a man making his last stand. To have him virtually weeping is also out-of character for a man making his last-stand, a man who, through years of bitterness has learned to compress tears into internal anger. Yet how often does one see the old fellow begin Act 2 with tearful “la ra’s?” All during the intermission the baritone has been sniffing onions!

Rigoletto is now more an animal than a man. His movements are tense, quick for a man his age, like a cornered cat. He is no longer in charge of the court the way he was in Act 1, scene 1. (In her Master’s classes at Julliard, Callas also indicated that Rigoletto must be like a trapped animal, fierce and wild.) “Cortigiani” erupts like a volcano from restrained rage. What about that Quasimodo characteristic of great strength? It can make a great addition to this scene as it takes all the courtiers to fight off an enraged Rigoletto.

What has Gilda been doing these past ten minutes with the Duke? (The time is continuous and realistic in this scene.) Everyone seems to agree that she is being raped, but I am not so sure. Rape was not the style of Francis, and after all, he really does care about Gilda in his own way. However, if love-making rather than rape, ten minutes is an awfully rude bedroom manner!

Two years later, Boris Goldovsky pointed out to me that in the Hugo play there is a whole bedroom scene in which the King declares his love, Blanche hers, and everything happens in proper time. Piave cut out that scene and left us with a big problem. Just what did they do in there? Its true that Gilda says later, “Ah 1’onta padre mio,” but it really is just as much the shame of seeing Rigoletto groveling around on the ground in a jester’s suit, plus the shame that she has been the cause of his humiliation, as much as anything she might have done behind closed door with a ten minute Duke! Goldovsky is probably right. It may be best not to speculatetoo much over what took place behind those closed doors, thanks to Piave’s sin of omission. One thing is for sure, when Gilda came out of that door she had decided to stay with the Duke as court mistress (Diane’s old position). Gilda became Diane’s successor. The “piangi fanciulla” duet is not really so much Papa Rigoletto comforting his violated little girl as it is an expression of Rigoletto’s need to see that Gilda is sorry! A destroyed man is crying, “Why have you done this to me?”

Rigoletto now knows that there is nothing he can do to stop the Duke taking his Gilda, and he vows to end his life right, with revenge! Gilda stays in the court as the Duke’s mistress as the curtain closes on Act 2. She has been there a month in the interval between acts. It has taken Rigoletto that long to set up the details of the murder and his and Gilda’s escape.

The last act is really quite surreal. It is a mysterious night in which all the forces of this destructive world are going to be unleashed and Sparafucile and Maddalena are its ministers. By this time Rigoletto has become like an animal patiently awaiting its prey. His pathological mind wants only one thing, the body of the Duke limp in his hands.

I think it is frequently overlooked how much Rigoletto is really rubbing Gilda’s nose in her sin as he makes her watch the Duke and Maddalena (during the famous quartet). There is a great deal of cruelty in it. But for a whole month Rigoletto has had to carry out his duties as court jester while his own Gilda paraded through the court as the Duke’s mistress. His feelings are understandable. The curse has taken quite a toll already. Soon it would win all.

Some older scores indicate at the end of the opera that Rigoletto dies. This may well have been the intention of Hugo who simply preferred to leave death an inevitability rather than a stated event. Quasimodo lost the woman he loved, and died holding the body of his beloved in the crypt. Rigoletto has been dead inside since the abduction of Gilda. Final death is inevitable without Gilda. The scream, “Ah, la maledizione»” marks the victory of this malevolent world, and it also discloses its nature. It is a world cursed. In a final epileptic seizure, Rigoletto is no more. Like Quasimodo, his corpse clings to the one he loved.

The music of RIGOLETTO is some of the most beautiful that Verdi ever wrote. He is reputed to have said, “I could write another OTELLO. I could never write another RIGOLETTO.” There is great genius in the combination of melody and true human emotions. For the baritone it is also extremely difficult music. No wonder then that so many singers are so occupied with the vocal demands that they never get around to anything more than the basics of the drama. It is more than a melodrama. I am convinced that Verdi was writing on a higher plane than simple story-telling. The surreal nature of Act 3, the complexity of the characters, the link with Hugo’s theatre of the grotesque, the relationship to KING LEAR, all point to it.

I do not know how to explain the dramatic process in terms of external actions. There are actors who work from “the outside, in” by deciding each gesture and. position in advance. But this approach has always seemed shallow to me. It ends in cardboard characters or caricatures and it seems a stranger to sincerity and openness. Stanislavski gave me the best tools to use as an actor. Some people do not know that “the method” was born out of opera. Stanislavski went all throughout Russia observing the finest actors of his day, writing down what they all had in common. His favorite actor was the great operatic bass, Feodor Chaliapin. In fact, Stanislavski said, “My method is Chaliapin.” Later Stanislavski was given control over the young artist training program at the Bolshoi Opera where he used his “method” to train the young opera singers. Yet many people today in opera are totally unaware that method acting can be used in opera.

I am concerned to bring the character to life and I find that I can best do that if I work from “inside, out.” For Rigoletto, I felt I needed to know as much as possible what a man would really feel like to have been a hunchback jester in the sixteenth century. It seemed to me that I could get a handle on this character if I could understand the feelings of a battered child. In the sixteenth century, parents would groom their children into further deformities, if they happened to be born already deformed to some degree in order to increase their chances of being chosen court jester. The psychological development of such a child would be fairly analogous today to a very badly battered child. I consulted physicians and psychologists on treatment of battered children and visited rehabilitation centers that treated severely battered children of various ages. The most severely battered were extremely paranoid, hostile, some even predatory, and possessed of a sense of not belonging. I felt like I was seeing the insides of “Pari siamo.” If one is around battered children long enough to feel their pain and fear, that experience itself can open the door to the dark world in which Rigoletto lives. In the method we use substitutions from our own experiences to bring to life the experiences of the character.  I used a particular event in my life to serve as a substitution for Rigoletto’s loss of Gilda at the end of the opera when she dies. A substitution only has to give us the essence of the experience. We may never have experienced the exact same event. For years I have loved pure bred Persian and Himalayan cats. When I was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera I lived in an adobe cabin in the Pecos Wilderness area about thirty miles from the theatre. It was worth the drive everyday to live there. I had a blue-point Himalayan kitten living with me named Ali Baba. He was alone a lot and I was concerned about him. I thought of getting him a playmate. One of the other apprentices said that he had a chocolate point Himalayan in New York that he was going to have to give away because his lover was allergic to cats. He said he would be glad to give her to me. I was ecstatic. I had always wanted a chocolate point. So Mocha was brought to Santa Fe on the plane and I met her at the airport. She was an exquisitely beautiful cat and I was absolutely in love with her. Ali Baba liked her too and so all seemed to have worked out well. Unfortunately, I was not told that Mocha had not been spayed yet and she was coming into heat. One night while I was away at the theatre she managed to squeeze out of a tiny opening in the window in search of a Tom. When I came home I started calling for her and came to the conclusion that she must have squeezed through that tiny crack in the window. I got my flashlight and began roaming through the Pecos Wilderness area calling for Mocha. I was out there all night! Finally, close to dawn, I returned to my cabin. When I awoke in a few hours, I went outside to see the mangled body of my beautiful Himalayan in the front yard. Wild dogs had killed her and the neighbor’s dog had dragged her body back to the yard. I went absolutely hysterical. After that experience was “processed” I was able to use that to bring to life Rigoletto’s experience of opening the bag and finding his dead daughter inside.

Opera singers of a previous generation seldom went to such trouble in their acting. A famous Canadian baritone, who sang Rigoletto hundreds of times, bragged to me that “once” he even really cried! “ONCE?” In hundreds of performances? They viewed their job as mainly singers and only secondarily as actors. Their acting was most often limited to external actions, posing and strutting about.

Regardless of one’s school of acting. I personally feel that I have to find one attitude mandatory. That is a commitment to sincerity, and truth, being unashamed of human emotions. If this is present there is a foundation on which a true character can be built. It seems almost silly to have to say such a thing except as one remembers that there are opera singers who do hundreds of performances and yet only use real tears once!

I find it helpful to develop and utilize a specialized vocabulary for dealing with the internal method. I have used Uta Hagen’s vocabulary, as explained in her book, RESPECT FOR ACTING, since I first came in contact with it. It is essentially a detailed anatomy of the actor’s consciousness. Using the actor’s life and experiences as the means for building the character, it is a technique for “finding oneself” in the character rather than “loosing” oneself. Thus, I become the character as the character becomes me.

Those who see acting as essentially “representational” will not understand this. To them, acting has nothing to do with the actor’s own life. It is a craft accomplished by skillful body movements with tried and true gestures. Such a technique can never do more than “represent” a character; for the audience is always aware that there is an “actor” on stage rather than a person living in his own world.

In addition to historical and psychological work on the character I knew I needed some physical work. It just happened that I was going to be at the Chautauqua Festival in New York all that summer of 1976 so it gave me a chance to ride a bicycle all summer. I also coached Rigoletto with James Benner, the resident coach at the summer School of Music. He and his wife, Frances Yeend, the Met star soprano, were teaching then at the summer school. They were wonderful people and they quickly became supporters of mine. They recognized my talent and immediately came along side as friends who wished to help. They have remained my dearest friends to this day.

I sang with the Symphony while I was there that summer, Boris’ Godounov’s monologue, “Dostig yah vyshei vlasti.” I coached the Russian with the resident Russian teacher at Chautauqua and found that I really enjoyed singing in the language. The Russian must have been pretty good because Russian diplomats asked my teacher if I were Russian. When I got back to New York in September I talked to Jerry Hines about a baritone doing the role of Boris. He said, “Sure you could do it. Somewhere I have a tape of Lawrence Tibbett singing the monologue.” Hines was singing Boris that year at the Met and blowing everybody away. I now had his permission to dream of performing that role one day. Great! Chester Ludgin was a Verdi baritone with vocal weight similar to mine and he had performed the role at New York City Opera and elsewhere in regional operas. That gave me a precedent to use if I wanted to sing Boris.