Rigoletto Rocks

In his opening remarks under an elegant white tent and in front of a black-tie crowd for the opening night gala before the premiere performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Opera Santa Barbara President Peter Bertling thanked the “committee that put this together” that included Carolina Montgomery, Louise Gaylord, Judy Smith, Sandra Urquhart, and Hilary Sepp.

Bertling offered too “a special thank you to a man that has really been moving this company forward; a man who puts in a lot of time to make things happen; a man that I’m glad to call my friend: Steven Sharpe,” to loud cheers and applause. Peter then offered a hearty “Viva Verdi!” before relinquishing the mic and commencing the Four Seasons Biltmore catered dinner complemented with Palmina wines under the tent in back of the Lobero to a sold-out crowd.

During the repast, conversation among arts supporters veered from the love of opera and all things operatic to the less-than-enthusiastic support the arts receive from Montecito’s large Hollywood exile community. One opera enthusiast made an excellent point: that those who’ve benefited most from the arts – actors, writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, etc., – are, with a few exceptions, almost entirely absent from fundraising efforts aimed at keeping the arts alive in Santa Barbara. Why opera, ballet, live theater, and other performing arts aren’t championed more by those who’ve prospered by their existence is indeed a mystery, but, as Groucho Marx might have said, let’s get back to the night at the opera, where women arriving for the gala dinner were presented with large ornate “forty-carat diamond” rings (Rigoletto rocks?) by faux “Duke” Michael Aberle. For those who later wondered where the oversized plastic bling came from, event committee co-chair Judy Smith revealed their origin: Judy’s daughter, Amy Maloney, bought them for parents attending her twin daughters’ (McKenna and Morgan) recent birthday party. Judy thought it would be great fun to have the Duke offer one to every beautiful woman, and indeed it was as various attendees, many draped in other somewhat pricier jewels, bandied their baubles about. The rings were bought at a discount store near Scolari’s on Milpas Street.

In addition to purchasing tokens of affection or paying $500 per person for galas, patrons, board members, and supporters help out in other ways. Sue and Ed Birch, for example, sponsored “Rigoletto” through the Mosher Foundation. Board members often appear on stage in the chorus or as a “Flirtatious Couple” like Carolina and Parker Montgomery; others house visiting artists. Tenor Harold Grey Meers, who performed the role of The Duke of Mantova, stayed with Pat and Dick Johnson at their home in Hope Ranch, both during rehearsal and for the run of “Rigoletto”: a total of five weeks. The Johnsons not only volunteered to put Mr. Meers up, but also picked the singer up at Santa Barbara Airport. They greeted his arrival as he deplaned from Springfield, Illinois holding a sign that read “Rigoletto Rocks!” so that Meers would recognize his sponsors.

Crying at the Opera

During the final act, when Rigoletto (Michael Corvino) sings to his dying daughter (Hanan Alattar), his emotions seemed at the breaking point; his body visibly heaved in torment, yet he never completely broke down. After the show, when asked about this apparent ability to withhold tears on stage, Director Stephanie Sundine explained that “Rigoletto is a very emotional role and it’s important for Rigoletto to convey that emotion in his voice and in his body language but not actually cry. It would be very possible for him to cry in the second act,” she continues, “when he’s begging the courtiers to get his daughter back, and certainly in the last act when his daughter is dying in his arms, but he can’t go there, because if he cries and he tries to sing, it doesn’t work.”

Stephanie says the performer needs to convey the feeling that he could cry, but must put that into the vocal sound, as opposed to getting so choked up he wouldn’t be able to produce a sound. “When you cry, you get a lump in your throat and then you try to produce a vocal sound expressing a high note; you can’t do it,” she says, adding that, “Michael is very good at this. He’s done Rigoletto several times and he says he still has to work it very carefully so he doesn’t go too far emotionally. It’s an interesting challenge.”

Mr. Corvino, during a short conversation backstage at the Lobero, concurs: “I think what you do,” he says, “is use your heart and soul and your voice to do the acting. The actual acting and singing are never separate; you sing the feeling; you sing the intention. So, if you’re singing tears, you can actually sing them without coming to tears. But the emotions are real; we need to make the audience cry rather than cry ourselves.”

Had he ever ‘crossed the line’ during a performance?

“There have been a few times, and it’s very difficult to get back on track once you’ve gone there,” he says. As for tonight’s performance: “I felt that I gave my heart and soul; hopefully, the audience received what I was trying to give them.” Michael concludes our conversation with the observation that “once on stage, the techniques and whether all the notes are all there never really matters; what matters is that the performance is good and that you really moved the audience.”

Opera Santa Barbara’s production of “Rigoletto” continues with performances on March 2, 4, & 10; Verdi’s A Masked Ball is performed March 3, 9, & 11. Tickets are priced from $35 to $130 – and there are no bad seats at the Lobero! For more info, call the Lobero Box Office at 805-963-0761, or Opera Santa Barbara at 805-898-3890 or operasb.com.