What Happens in Mantua Stays in Mantua

What do Vegas and Verdi have in common? More than you might think. Michael Mayer, director of the Met's new Rigoletto, sees the seductive charm and corrupt core of America's gambling paradise as a modern-day counterpart to the chiaroscuro dazzle and decadence of sixteenth-century Mantua. ROB WEINERT-KENDT reports.

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A photo from early technical rehearsals for Michael Mayer's staging of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera
© Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera 2013
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Michael Mayer
© Larry Busacca/Getty Images 2013
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Accepting his 2007 Tony Award for directing Spring Awakening
© Bryan Bedder/Getty Images 2013

We can thank New York City outdoor advertising, at least in part, for the showgirls and other Las Vegas trappings of Michael Mayer's new Rigoletto. In the early spring of 2011, the Tony-winning director of Spring Awakening and American Idiot had just a few days to come up with a concept for what would be his Metropolitan Opera debut in early 2013, and he was looking for inspiration wherever it might be found.

"I started to think to myself, What is the world of Rigoletto, of Mantua in the sixteenth century?" Mayer recalls from the office of his not-quite-Chelsea apartment just days after Hurricane Sandy. "It's this licentious, decadent world of a court where the Duke is in charge of everything, and he's got this retinue of men around him, a male chorus. Women almost don't exist — there's the whore and the virgin, a countess and a governess. Rigoletto is there as the jester, and it's like, who is the jester anymore? What does that mean in today's society?"

That's where the billboards for a pair of upcoming Hollywood films came in.

"I'm walking along the street, and I see signs for The Hangover 2 and Bridesmaids," Mayer says. Though in fact neither film is set in Las Vegas (for the record, only the first Hangover film is), the braced-for-debauchery look of the ads reminded Mayer of the infamous motto "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." He had found the frame for his Rigoletto, which is being broadcast as part of the Met's Live in HD series on February 16.

This particular jackpot had to come quick, but the notion of Mayer's directing for the Met was not new. In fact, Met general manager Peter Gelb and Mayer had been batting around titles and dates since nearly the beginning of Gelb's tenure, to no avail. Then a slot in the 2012–13 season suddenly opened up when Gelb scrapped plans to bring Luc Bondy's Wiener Festwochen production of Rigoletto to the Met. Gelb still wanted a new take on Verdi's opera, which had already been cast and scheduled, and he remembered that Mayer had listed Rigoletto at or near the top of works he'd be happy to tackle if the Met ever wanted to restock the repertoire.

"Peter called and said, 'Am I remembering correctly that Rigoletto is an opera that interested you?'" Mayer recalls of the conversation. Mayer assented and then got his deadline. "Peter said, 'Something's come up. I'm flying back in two days, and it would be really great if you had a concept.'"

An early 2013 opening represented a compressed schedule, indeed, as the show would go into technical rehearsals the following May. "That's really fast in opera terms. Most of the time, it happens years and years in advance," says Mayer.

Before he sprung the full concept on Gelb, he tested the waters by saying he was thinking of a contemporary take on the opera. Gelb offered a cautionary note. "I didn't tell Peter about the Vegas thing. I just said my idea was something completely up to the minute. And he said, 'Just think about that. In my experience, sometimes if something is right up to the minute, it can become dated very quickly.' I thought, that is so smart. Rigoletto is a very popular opera, something one would hope would be revived a lot. I guess that's every director's dream, that their production becomes a beloved staple — for a little while, anyway."

With Gelb's period warning in mind, Mayer began to dig deeper into the material, focusing in on the Duke and his "retinue of men, who have a kind of potentially malevolent prankster sensibility." The Vegas backdrop for these frat-boy shenanigans, rolled back a few decades, almost inevitably led Mayer to the Rat Pack, that midcentury male celebrity clique of loosened-tie testosterone, whose members included Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. Leading that Pack, much as the Duke dominates his courtiers, was a storied New Jersey crooner with a certain key resemblance to tenor Piotr Beczala, who'll play the Duke in Mayer's Rigoletto.

"Piotr's got these blue eyes, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, Ol' Blue Eyes,'" Mayer says. The iconic specter of Frank Sinatra snapped other analogues into focus — that Sinatra had been part owner of the Sands Hotel and Casino and hence was a kind of landed Vegas royalty; that in his time he may have been second only to President Kennedy in "famously having people procuring women for him"; and that the Vegas of yore had a criminal element in which a mercenary assassin like Sparafucile would be a natural fixture. In this world, the hunchbacked clown Rigoletto could easily be a composite of the town's many comic foils — the acid-tongued gargoyle Don Rickles or the lumbering slow-burner Jackie Gleason.

Mayer came up with one final twist to give the wronged Monterone's curse a fresh sting. "One of the things I realized in looking into the year 1960 is that is precisely when an enormous amount of Saudi oil money was coming into the casinos," Mayer said. "That's part of the idea behind the names — the Sands, the Sahara, the Luxor, the whole harem idea. A lot of these Arabian fantasies were fueled in part, I think, by the presence of these sheiks, and by Arab businessmen." If the Duke, then, had seduced the daughter of a sheik, Mayer reasoned, the spectacle of the enraged father thundering into the casino in his keffiyeh to lay a curse on Rigoletto might be especially haunting.

To realize his vision for Rigoletto, Mayer enlisted some frequent collaborators from his plays and, in particular, his musicals — set designer Christine Jones, lighting designer Kevin Adams, costumer Susan Hilferty, choreographer Stephen Hoggett. All but Hoggett worked with Mayer on the Tony-sweeping rock musical Spring Awakening (2006), and all except for Hilferty worked on the closest thing to an opera Mayer has previously done, American Idiot, which opened on Broadway in 2010. Indeed, he found the latter production, a through-sung extrapolation of the band Green Day's 2004 punk-pop concept album of the same name, to be salient preparation for directing at the Met — to a point.

"The songs needed to be at a particular tempo, so I was bound to those decisions, and while I could argue for different tempos at different times, a song wouldn't change tempo in the middle," Mayer says of Idiot. "That's definitely going to be the relationship that I have with Rigoletto. The plot is going to be ticking, and at a certain point, something will happen musically, and I'm going to have to fulfill that with the staging."

In both cases, he sees one advantage through-sung material has over traditional book musicals. "One liberating thing about doing American Idiot is that the characters weren't bursting into song — that artifice didn't exist," says Mayer. "It was a wall of sound. The scenes were all the songs. So there isn't that moment of artifice. It's the one 'buy' you have at the beginning — these people communicate with singing. As artificial as it might be to our ear initially, it's consistent throughout the evening."

Though Mayer has most recently made his name with original musicals, his two-decade stage-directing career has been almost jarringly diverse. On Broadway within the span of a few years, for instance, he directed revivals of A View From the Bridge, Uncle Vanya, The Lion in Winter and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He's also had a career-defining relationship with playwright Tony Kushner, having directed the national tour of Angels in America and the 2011 revival of The Illusion, Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's seventeenth-century fantasia, at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre.

But even before he began directing Broadway musicals with any regularity, he told The New York Times that he sees "a dramatic text as a score of music…. And if I have any sensibility at all, it is a musical one."

That will stand him in good stead in the bewilderingly different working conditions of opera, says his colleague Bartlett Sher, a seasoned Broadway director who helmed L'Elisir d'Amore at the Met this season, and who has been on hand to advise Mayer as needed. "The traditions of opera are based in music, and I think that gives Michael an edge," says Sher, on break from rehearsals of Clifford Odets's Golden Boy for Lincoln Center Theater. It's an edge he'll need. As Sher points out, in a theatrical production a director typically gets four weeks of rehearsal, ten days of technical rehearsal and four weeks of previews "where I'm honing and shaping the piece."

By contrast, in opera, Sher says, "You have to completely shift your way of operating. You'll have about half the rehearsal time, and you may not have all the singers at the beginning. You have to stage with enormous speed, and you're working solely with music as your guide. You have to be prepared for not getting into the frustration you expect to work through because you're used to so much more time."

Whatever the response to his Rigoletto may be, Mayer has caught the opera bug and hopes one day to get a shot at some of the more contemporary titles on the wish list he gave to Gelb — Berg's Lulu, Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Street Scene, Janáček's Excursions of Mr. Brouček. His own opera conversion came with Houston Grand Opera's 1976 production of Porgy and Bess, which he saw as a teenager in Washington, D.C. Years later, in an early height of his stage career, he took advantage of a fellowship to tour Europe and watch opera performances and rehearsals across England and the continent. The trip was eye-opening, not least because he learned the secret that there is no secret.

"Everyone works differently. I don't think there's any one way of doing it," he recalls of his travels. With that thought, he's girding himself for rehearsals, which begin in earnest in January. "I don't have blinders or rose-colored glasses on. I know it's going to be extremely difficult, and there are going to be times when I'm not going to know what to do. But I feel like the bones of the piece are so good — I trust the opera so much — that at the end of the day, they could just fucking stand there and sing it and it works. You know what I mean?" spacer

ROB WEINERT-KENDT is associate editor at American Theatre and writes frequently about the arts for The New York Times and Time Out New York.


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