sun 29/05/2022

First Person: Femi Elufowoju Jr on directing Verdi's 'Rigoletto' | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Femi Elufowoju Jr. on directing Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

First Person: Femi Elufowoju Jr. on directing Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

A theatre director's take on his first opera as he rehearses in Leeds

Femi Elufowoju jr. rehearsing Opera North's new production of 'Rigoletto'All images by Tom Arber

I find that my experience of living as a Black man in the UK cannot help but inform the way I approach my work and never more so than with Verdi’s Rigoletto.

It was because Verdi’s and his librettist Piave’s exploration of the impact of difference resonated with me so strongly that I was encouraged to take on this directing role for Opera North. It also inspired me to make Rigoletto’s disability less about an anatomical anomaly and more about the paranoia engendered by a belief that you can never fully integrate with those around you. It is that paranoia which means Rigoletto’s brain is constantly overworking to his own detriment. We know it’s not going to end well!

This is the first opera I have directed and what a one to begin with. When I looked at the themes explored by Victor Hugo, on whose play Le roi s’amuse the opera is based, Verdi and Piave back in the 19th century, I was struck by their universality and their remarkable relevance today. Who has not been affected by at least one of the following: parental love, spirituality, toxic misogyny, the mindset of power and allegiance, respect, loyalty or – the big one in this opera - revenge? These are the themes we see played out time and again in soap operas on TV, so what I’m really hoping is that people will be encouraged to come and experience them as part of a live performance, in an auditorium, with Verdi’s scintillating music. I’m also keen to ensure that not only the themes but also everything else about this production resonates with a contemporary audience, particularly the visual cultural references – think Netflix and Uber Eats! Of course, the set is key as well. What we will be doing is moving between spaces which feel very familiar to people, such as a basement, a pop-up art gallery, a street alley, a safe house and a disused car park. [Pictured below: Eric Greene as Rigoletto]Eric Greene as Rigoletto in rehearsalAs I write, we’re taking a long hard look at Act One in the rehearsal room. This, for me, is a crucial act and the one where I’ve chosen to start introducing people’s back stories. The Duchess of Mantua, for example, will be there, in the flesh, so that you instantly understand the audacity, arrogance and impact of her husband’s behaviour, as he proceeds to seduce five women in 24 hours in broad daylight - and gets away with it. Another case in point is Sparafucile, the assassin, who traditionally walks on in Scene Two, knowing everything about Rigoletto - or indeed his sister, Maddalena, who suddenly appears in Act Three. My aim is to establish all the characters from the off so there is no confusion around why things are as they are or why people react as they do. This felt very important to me and will be, I believe, be one of the hallmarks of the production.

My own back story has also been integral to my approach. For example, something which really resonated with me was the curse. Sometimes it can feel when you’re watching this opera, that the curse only really affects Rigoletto. This did not ring true to me, as a person of Nigerian origina. Although I was born and bred in the UK, I lived in Nigeria from the age of 12 years old and so was able to experience the strength of people’s beliefs and superstitions there at first hand. In my cultural background, a curse, particularly when it’s delivered by an older, wiser person, is a huge thing. Everyone of colour in that room, whether on the stage or in the auditorium, will know the ramifications of the curse, and their reaction will, I think, make everyone else feel affected too. It will be a big moment and the room should definitely shudder. Rigoletto rehearrsal at Opera NorthMoving into the world of opera has been an interesting experience. I’ve worked in theatre for 34 years, but this is very different. I’ve had to listen and listen hard. I have been mentored, I’ve done masterclasses and I’ve been supported by people who have a wealth of experience in this art-form. I feel like I’ve gone back to school but then I’ve also been required to graduate very quickly! I think it’s that combination of my approach as a newcomer to the genre with the expertise of the principals and the Chorus of Opera North that will give this Rigoletto its unique flavour. I hope new people will decide to give opera a go as a result and will realise, like I did, just how relevant it remains to our lives today.

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