Rigoletto is considered one of Verdi’s mid-career masterpieces. Based on Victor Hugo’s controversial play Le roi s’amuse, the story featured a womanizing French king and his jester, through whose voice Hugo offered his own political commentary of the time. The opera went through multiple changes before its premiere in 1851, mostly due to the political censors. The team finally agreed to change the names of the characters and the setting of the opera, while still keeping the same plot and themes of the original story.

The opera was a huge hit. Verdi knew as much, putting an embargo on the famous tune “La Donna è mobile,” forbidding the singers to sing, whistle, or even think about it outside of the theater during the rehearsal period. By the next morning, the aria was being sung around the city, by the following year the opera had premiered across Europe.

IVY LA Members will be treated to an upcoming performance on May 19 with the LA Opera. IVY sat down with conductor Matthew Aucoin, who shares his insight into LA Opera’s approach to this great operatic work.

Matthew Aucoin (@aucoincomposer)

When and how did you first fall in love with opera?

I caught the opera bug when I was eight or nine years old. At that point I was already playing the piano, but when I first heard opera, it struck me – as it strikes a lot of people – as this unpleasant, shriek-filled nonsense. The piece that changed things for me was Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which I still think is the top of the operatic heap. It’s a deeply warm, moving, hilarious, poignant opera; the humanity and truth of it had a huge impact on me, even as an eight-year-old with practically no life experience.

Beyond the story, what is Rigoletto about to you?

This is a piece about a twisted, tortured guy who is trying desperately to hold on to one pure, loving relationship in his life – that is, his relationship with his daughter, Gilda. But the other, darker sides of his life infiltrate and overwhelm that relationship, and those forces ultimately destroy Gilda. So the piece is really about the destructive power of excessive or misdirected love. Rigoletto loves his daughter so much – and needs her so desperately – that he smothers her, he can’t let her live her own life; this ends up being a fatal mistake.

What do you think is so special about Rigoletto that we still perform it over 150 years later?

I mean, this is just an un-killable piece. We’ll need it for as long as we’re human. Rigoletto himself is a deep, deep archetype; he’s the manifestation of something in our species that both moves and terrifies us. He has suffered, he’s physically deformed, he’s lost his wife, and he’s even become in many ways a terrible human being: his job, as court jester, is to pitilessly mock the people around him.

Verdi’s Rigoletto. Photo (c) Opera San Jose

All this suffering produces in him a fierce, needy love for his daughter, which of course is completely unhealthy. I think we’ve all seen a parent behave that way to some degree. Any love that’s founded on neediness, guilt, and insecurity is bound to be destructive.

Verdi gives life to this psychological complex with music that is explosively expressive. He lost his two children to disease when they were quite young, so this was personal for him. What’s special about Rigoletto is the marriage of two seemingly contradictory elements: the gorgeous expansiveness of bel canto singing, and a taut, intense dramatic structure.

What is the difference between conducting Verdi, as opposed to other composers’ works (like Puccini, Mozart, or even John Adams or Philip Glass)?

Verdi – at least, the mature Verdi – never makes a false gesture, in dramatic terms. Rigoletto is extraordinarily tight and compact; there’s hardly a wasted note.

The difference between the Verdian idiom and that of certain more recent composers – you mentioned Glass and Adams – lies especially in the nature of the rhythm. In Verdi, the tempo is usually quite flexible, full of tempo rubato (“stolen time,” or expressive expansions and contractions in the rhythm). This has to do with the flavor of the Italian language, its richness and flexibility. In Glass or Adams, the basic rhythmic motion should be more strict; both of those composers were born (as all of us were!) into a post-industrial world, a world of rock drummers and digitally-produced beats and all that.

In Verdi, there’s a different concept of time, and in fact it relates to the way we perceive time in our daily lives. In 1851, no one had digital watches that told you the exact time, down to the millisecond. You figured out what time it was based on occasional church bells, or the position of the sun. That’s how time moves in Verdi’s music, too.

How does a conductor approach an opera score and turn it into a live performance? What was your process when approaching Rigoletto?

I’m also a composer, so the question I always ask myself is, “Why did the composer make this decision?” Every note that you see in a score is the result of a decision. So my job, in performing the piece, is to look behind every note and try to reimagine what inspired that note to come into being.

How are ways you think the opera world needs to change in order to bring in a younger audience?

Well, let’s face it, opera companies are not always masters of self-presentation. Personally, I think it helps to hear opera in an unusual environment, ideally in a setting that’s up-close and personal — at a party, for example. If you experience operatic singing at close range, you realize what an astonishing, Olympian feat it is. That can be hard to perceive if you’re sitting in a cheap seat at a big opera house.

But I really don’t think we’re on the verge of disaster or anything. There are more opera companies in America now than ever. If you look back at the period that people now consider the Golden Age of opera in this country, what you’ll notice is that most of today’s leading companies didn’t even exist. Los Angeles didn’t even have an opera company until the ’80’s, and now there’s a world-class company here that reaches tens of thousands of people every year.

What advice would you have for someone coming to the opera for the first time?

Leave your expectations at the door! Opera is a world of its own, and it can feel alien and surprising at first. But if you give it time, you’ll find that the best operas give voice to something deep in human nature – something that’s very hard to express in any medium other than song.