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PREVIEW: Rigoletto at the Capri Theater

Rigoletto (Jeehoon Kim), Gilda (Jennifer Zabelsky), Maddalena (Megan O’Leary), and the Duke (Joshua Diaz) in Really Spicy Opera’s production of Rigoletto.

Tonight, Really Spicy Opera opens Rigoletto at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis. It’s been twelve years since Minnesota Opera staged this tale of love, lust, and revenge gone awry; before that, the last performance was somewhere in the mists of the Metropolitan Opera’s touring days – which are now more than thirty years in the past.

This lack of performances is somewhat surprising, given how well-known the opera is. Rigoletto’s Act IV quartet is featured in numerous movies and “La donna è mobile” is culturally ubiquitous, both as a concert piece and an advertising jingle for just about any Italianish food imaginable. Why, then, has it taken so long to be remounted?

Monterone (Rodolfo Nieto) speaks out against the Duke's in-office philandering.
Monterone (Rodolfo Nieto) speaks out against the Duke’s in-office philandering.

For starters, Rigoletto is fiendishly difficult to cast. The principals don’t at all match what’s coming out of conservatories: There’s the lead soprano (Gilda), of course, but the other two principal women are both low mezzo-sopranos. The vast majority of the roles are for men, including two very low basses (Monterone, Sparafucile) and the titular baritone Rigoletto. Unlike most operas, which give significant breaks for the singers to rest, Rigoletto is an endurance feat, with numerous duets, trios, and the famous quartet amidst the most famous arias…which can’t at all disappoint, since opera lovers know it so well. Casting this si not something that’s easy to cast without going outside the region – and in Really Spicy Opera’s production, it seems like they turned over every corner to put together a powerful and locally sourced cast.

This production, as envisioned by director Amanda Weis McGivern, is set in the 20th century. No, this isn’t the infamous Vegas staging – this is 1962’s New York City, à la Mad Men. Hello, office drinking and workplace sexual harassment! The Act IV hotel becomes a seedy New Jersey motel (is there any other kind?), which feels quite appropo.

Rigoletto (Jeehoon Kim) ponders events at the office.
Rigoletto (Jeehoon Kim) ponders events at the office.

This brings us to one of the more surprising aspects of this production. Jeehoon Kim, who plays the titular Rigoletto, is a doctoral student studying voice at the University of Minnesota – and, if you can’t tell from the name, South Korean. His heritage and the opera setting re-encapsulate Rigoletto’s hunchback as a Korean immigrant janitor, forced into menial service and mocked by his racist coworkers. When his relationship with his one friend – his boss, the Duke (Joshua Diaz – also a doctoral student in voice at the U) – breaks down, the results are tragic.

Last year’s La Rondine by Skylark brought a welcome burst of color into its principal casting. This year’s Rigoletto by Really Spicy Opera shows us how an unspoken subtext from casting can create a latchpoint for the drama, highlighting the problems of a bygone age – and the many problems with racism still facing American society, both overall and here in Minnesota. With the Jamar Clark shooting hearings still fresh on the mind, that’s something to consider: How does race and background influence how we perceive someone else?

The male staff of Mantua & Son prepare to abduct Gilda.
The male staff of Mantua & Son prepare to abduct Gilda.

It’s fanciful to map a little history onto the production and see what comes up. By the date, Rigoletto would most likely be a refugee of the Korean War, settled in New York City. His daughter, to not be recognized, is most likely mixed race – something that many Americans continue to stigmatize and fetishize, as do Rigoletto’s coworkers when they conclude that she must, naturally, be the janitor’s mistress. Naturally, the Duke can’t resist the Asian fever.

You might want to wander down to the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis this weekend. Rigoletto is incredibly powerful to see live, but don’t expect another staging in town for at least a decade.

Really Spicy Opera’s Rigoletto plays at the Capri Theater on Friday, June 3 @ 7:30 PM and on Sunday, June 5 @ 2 PM. 

Hanne Appelbaum