Rigoletto's Chagrin


Research can be tedious. I’ll own up to that fact. Even when it comes to subjects that are of the utmost interest, research can become work at times. 

However, in the course of searching out the tidbits and nuances one wants for her novel (even if hours of research are required to get that ONE line absolutely perfect), an author can encounter delightful little things that may never make it into her novel, but still bring a smile to her lips. 

I’m on an opera jag right now. Opera will feature rather heavily in the background of my current novel, so I’ve been immersing myself in it. Reading about opera. Watching opera. Listening to opera. (And, on one rather hilarious occasion, singing opera- every woman can be a mezzo-soprano with the right shower stall.)

The inimitable Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti sing Bella Figlia Dell' Amore.

Though Verdi’s Rigoletto will not feature in my novel- at least, at this point, I have no plan for it to- I do love the quartet Bella figlia dell’amore. It is magnificent, particularly the performance featuring the inimitable Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. As happens too often, I wanted to know what was actually being said. So, I found a transcript of the entire opera in Italian, and then, much to my delight, happened upon a translation into English. (While I am proficient in Latin, and Italian is remarkably close to that dead language, I do not possess the time nor the energy to try and translate an entire opera. I’m just not that committed.)

The play is terrible. It is a very rare occurrence where one leaves an opera and waxes on and on about the plot. Opera is music; music that evokes emotions, but music nonetheless. Strip that away… and, well, I’d pack up my opera glasses and high tail it out of the theater. Can you imagine sitting through three acts of progressively degenerating plot where the main character - Rigoletto, a hunchbacked court jester for the Duke of Mantua- a reprobate and grand seducer- is cursed by the father of one of the Duke’s conquests, continues on loyally to his master until he is tricked by the Duke’s enemies into giving his daughter, Gilda, over to be seduced by his master, then plots with an assassin to kill the Duke, but the assassin gets this wrong and accidentally kills Rigoletto’s daughter and stuffs her in a sack, so that at the end of the play, the stinker of a Duke lives with no compunction to give up his Lothario ways and Rigoletto is left, collapsed over the corpse of his beloved daughter?  Yeah. Take away La donna è mobile and Bella figlia dell’ amore and the play is just too absurdly tragic to sanction sitting through. (Not to mention that, since it is an opera, the entire thing is sung, so if you really did take away the music, you’d be left with actors pantomiming that plot line. Talk about farcical.)

Regardless of the plot, Rigoletto has had some humorous mishaps during its innumerable performances. During one performance, the prosthetic hump on Rigoletto’s back slipped ever downward until the hunchback became a hunched-butt (terrible, I know, but I simply could not resist). 

Then there was another time when the tenor singing the Duke, started singing and a feather fell into his throat and, without uttering a single note, he promptly fainted. (And they call the female a prima donna!) 

Here's Franco Corelli singing Questo o Quella. Now imagine that last note snuffed out by those crafty mustachios (or even more egregious, a feather). 

Perhaps it’s the part, or maybe it’s just the song, but another Duke, when singing his opening number of Questa o quella, somehow dislodged his fake mustaches, which proceeded to loosen throughout his performance until, at the finale of the song, they found their way into his mouth, muffling his final notes. As if that wasn’t mortifying enough, when the song had fully concluded, the tenor spat the mustaches out of his mouth. No doubt he possessed tremendous breath control, because he achieved magnificent trajectory, and his spittle covered mustaches flew across the orchestra pit to hit the conductor in the face. 

One of the most hilarious, and simultaneously mortifying, mishap during Rigoletto occurred when the baritone playing the title role tried to heft the sack containing his beloved Gilda onto his shoulder.  (I  don’t know what the director was thinking. Rigoletto is a hunchback. Hefting a sack containing the body of another adult seems cruel to me considering his evident physical limitations, prosthetic or not.) Apparently, the soprano was not a small woman, and Rigoletto had such difficulty that the audience noticed his struggle. One enterprising, and rather ingenious individual, thought to lend a hand and shouted “T-A-X-I,” no doubt to the amusement of the audience and embarrassment of Rigoletto. 

Mishaps such as these are not exclusive to opera. Certainly the theater has suffered innumerable calamities of hilarious import. (I’ve heard that Macbeth just can’t catch a break.) 

Do you know of any plays, musicals, or opera mishaps that make you laugh whenever you think of them?