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Night and Day

March 01, 2007

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    March 01, 2007
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    Opera Carolina News

Night and Day

The final two productions of Opera Carolina's current highly successful season offer textbook examples of the two main types of Western opera.

Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto," which will be presented at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center March 1-4, is a stirring work in the Italian grand opera style, defined by some as "all music, all the time."

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," onstage at the Blumenthal April 12-15, exemplifies what's called "operetta," a lighter type of work in which dialogue is interspersed with the musical foundation.

The contrasts of the two operatic forms are pronounced, certainly, but as James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director and principal conductor, makes clear, "We try to treat every production, whether it's Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi or Wagner, with great respect. As long as we have that integrity, I think the audience will enjoy it, and I think they'll come away feeling like they've really had a great evening in the theater."

That's the goal of both upcoming presentations, of course, but the feelings a listener takes away from each will likely be very different.

A Father's Revenge
When Giuseppe Verdi wrote "Rigoletto" in 1851, he dealt with a very serious subject matter, a story based upon a play by Victor Hugo that took the monarchy to task and caused a social and political scandal. Verdi's take on the story has the weight of Greek tragedy: it deals with the character Rigoletto, a hunchback and the court jester to the duke of Mantua. He's working class, is made fun of and his job in turn is to make fun of other people.

He has a daughter whom he has kept fairly sheltered her whole life. She falls prey to the seductive advances of the duke, one of the more despicable characters in all of opera. Her fall crushes Rigoletto, who hires someone to kill the duke; the daughter takes his place at the killing, giving her life for the man who has seduced her.

As Meena says, "These are human stories that we understand — what parents go through, what young people who've been sheltered and experience the world for the first time go through — and we wrap it in these wonderful melodies. Just add water and you've got opera!"

Internationally known baritone Gordon Hawkins sings the role of the tragic title character, and says, "It's got to be my favorite. You won't find any better singing melodies, any better singing lines than you do in 'Rigoletto,' from the first to the last." He adds that legendary tenor Placido Domingo once told him that if there were any baritone role he could choose to sing, it would be Rigoletto.

Hawkins has performed with Opera Carolina before, in "Tosca" two season ago, and he has much earlier ties to the Carolinas. He attended the University of Maryland and pitched on the baseball team there. Each spring, his team would make an extended trip to play in this part of the country. "We'd come down to the Carolinas, and all of my memories were bad," Hawkins recalls. "We just got slaughtered. I remember some of the best food in the world, and some of the worst baseball beatings I ever, ever had."

Some of the best moments he's ever had on stage have come during "Rigoletto":

"It's perfect. Just for sheer melody, everyone knows you walk out of the theater humming everything. Then add the drama of it, the power of it, the Greek tragedy of Rigoletto's curse of taking the law into his own hands ... he tries to turn back fate, and in doing so creates his own doom."

On a Lighter Note
Considerably lighter, but in its own way as full of memorable melodies, is W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." One of a succession of musical triumphs that Gilbert and Sullivan produced, it's among their most popular creations today, in part because of a Broadway revival and subsequent movie. The stars of those productions were Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt, and they helped make Gilbert and Sullivan "hip" and relevant to a whole new audience.

The creators were quite serious about their work, Meena points out. "Both of them, Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert, approached their works as real pieces of traditional opera, in a sense. A lot of fun, a lot of cheeky comedy and that kind of thing, but with truly great music."

Opera Carolina intends to do well by them: "When we do a piece like 'Pirates,' we're going to treat it with the utmost respect and treat it like the work of art Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned. When you take the comedic setting and you wrap it with a great orchestra like we have, and wonderful singers, you have a terrific evening in the theater."

Grand opera or operetta — you can choose either or both, thanks to Opera Carolina.

by Mike McKay
SouthPark Magazine