In Our Rigoletto, the Past Is Very Much the Present

By Jessica Jahn, Rigoletto Costume Designer


Rigoletto is an inherently difficult piece. Twisted within the story are ideas and images of brutality, misogyny, and rage. From the very first raise of the curtain, people are treated as social and emotional fodder—lives are upended for the sake of entertainment, and cruelty is presented as the norm. The social structure in the piece, one of the elites holding power over the underprivileged without consequence, is an uncomfortable one to look at head on. The treatment of women and the callous use of their bodies as tools for male pleasure is unnerving and infuriating, and the exasperated fury presented as revenge is frightening—and in the end ultimately destructive in the extreme. There is not even a righteous moral at its conclusion. As the final tragedy unfolds, the persecutors are left to continue on unaffected. 

How does one begin creating such a distasteful world in which to tell such a horrible tragedy? In a world that has made so much social progress, this would seem a daunting task. However, we as a production team recognized that, in actuality, this is the perfect time and place in our history to tell such a story.  When we look at our nation’s current stories of extreme excess, callousness in the face of human need, and overt misogyny in our leadership, it seems that the issues presented to us by Verdi haven’t changed. Time and time again, we are shown examples of the privileged class—mostly men—taking advantage of those around them with little consequence. We continually are fed stories of selfishness and greed triumphing over charity, and we see all around us that empathy seems to be losing the battle over purposeful cruelty as people are turning their backs on the most basic of human needs for understanding and care. As such, it appears that we don’t have to stretch far to be able to touch the themes created in this opera. 

What then does that mean for us, both as creatives and as audience members? How can we make sure we stay actively engaged by putting a mirror up to ourselves in recognition of these similarities? While we as a team knew we were not interested in setting our story in the present, we also knew how important it was to provide a platform that would reflect both the world of Verdi and the world of today. It didn’t take long for us to recognize that the cultural upheaval and zealous nationalism during the beginning of Mussolini’s control of Italy in the 1920s and ‘30s would be the ideal setting for this opera. We felt that setting the opera during this time period would provide historical context while also allowing us a look at our own future. 

After conceiving of the idea of placing our Rigoletto after the First World War, and after having seen the initial images of Erhard Rom’s set, I was struck by the visual and social connections to the art movements of that time, many of which grew out of a direct reaction to the war. Erhard’s beautifully stark and minimalist aesthetic evoked the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, and iconic images by artists like Henri Magritte, Max Ernst, and Otto Dix seemed uncannily accurate to the complexity of the story. Even though they are not Italian artists, they provided insight to the social structure of Europe at a time when it was dealing with the aftermath of the first “modern” war and all its resulting horrors. Many of the surrealist artists from this period seemed to have an uncanny visual relationship to our story, and we quickly recognized we could draw from them an iconographic archetype that represented the underlying dramaturgy of Rigoletto.

These surrealists, through images wrought with contrast and dichotomy, provided us with a perspective on the period that is both beautiful and grotesque. The breadth of their work presents us with the abstraction, vulgarity, and dystopian identity that we feel is essential to the story: opulence against extreme loss, the wholesome against the vulgar. By using the paintings as guides for tone, clothing shape, and color, we can give a sense of heightened realism to match the music and libretto. This concept can also provide the platform needed to create a sense of timelessness and help make the story more relevant to a modern audience without the need to put everyone in contemporary dress. 

Once we had landed on our aesthetic universe, I went about shaping our characters, twisting time period and pushing visual boundaries. By giving respectful nods to the genius of fashion designers such as John Galliano, Jean Paul Gautier, and Alexander McQueen—other artists skilled in the contrast of beauty and the grotesque—I was able to additionally incorporate visual cues for a modern audience. This is something that, while not always necessary in a design, sometimes helps to convince the viewer that what one is seeing is real. We are immersed and fully involved in the universe created and can be drawn into the emotional arc of the story presented. This style of pushing the surrealist Dix aesthetic—creating tension, color, abstraction, and a sense of heightened realism—helps to make the storytelling more dynamic. Using this framework, we continued to add and use inspiration from these designers and from others like them who are also so good at extrapolating the feeling of the extravagance of this period. The world we created should feel both sumptuous and grotesque all at once so that we leave the audience visually and emotionally satiated. 

This aesthetic and creative direction also helped us shape two of the harder-to-represent characters in this story: Sparafucile and Maddalena. At times, their characters seem almost superfluous, like unwelcome visitors from another libretto. However, once immersed in the world of marrying “beauty” and “beast,” the early 20th century world of vaudeville, sideshow, and circus seemed additionally relevant. Where else, aside from the surrealist art movement we already explored, could you find such an overt acknowledgement of the objectification of the human form and the exploitation of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised? Now presented as carnies, a subsection of outliers and outsiders, the two characters can more distinctly be the dichotomy to the Duke and his court. It rounds out the world of Rigoletto as well; though they do not know each other directly, the three characters are part of the same community of underdogs. 

This coarse, garish theatricality and crass showmanship is present in other ways as well. In this story, no one is as they seem at first glance, or even to each other. Even our title character is cloaked in an irrational disguise, hiding who he is from those closest to him. The continuing display of dishonesty and masquerade for entertainment’s sake, or worse, to take advantage of another, makes it difficult to interpret the rationale of any of the characters. The idea of masks, then, both literally and figuratively, are present throughout the work and through our visual aesthetic. From the masks presented to the courtiers at the party that are then used for the kidnapping of Gilda to the grotesque makeup of Rigoletto, the horrifying environment onstage starts to be revealed as the layers of disguises come off. Some of these changes are made in front of the audience a vista, and some are inferred as we realize that money and excess can have the power to hide our inconvenient true selves. We can physically follow Rigoletto and Gilda’s journey as their illusions of the world fall one by one. 

By not shying away from the vulgar and cruel nature of the piece, and by exposing it for the difficult piece that it is, both because of purposeful storytelling on Verdi’s part and because of inherent biases of the period in which it was written, we can help the audience reassess the work’s relevance to ourselves today. By not allowing the harder parts of the opera to be covered in the cloak of humor or in visual beauty only for beauty’s sake, we can hold a mirror to ourselves and take stock of where we are today as a nation and as a people.