When Wichita Grand Opera last presented “Rigoletto” six years ago, it was a stop on the itinerary for a touring performing company.
This time around, the Giuseppe Verdi classic is a homegrown production, featuring behind-the-scenes artists with a longtime passion for the work, and a Wichita native savoring his first experience as the title character.
“I’ve sung several Verdi roles, but this is the first time singing ‘Rigoletto,’” said Michael Nansel, a six-year veteran of the company. “Most baritones consider it the Mount Everest of the baritone rep.
“I’m not fully convinced that’s true,” he added, “because ‘Falstaff’ is pretty huge. But it’s a long sing for an almost-two hour opera, and I’m on stage for about (80 minutes).”
“Rigoletto” will be performed Sept. 3 at Century II.
The character of Rigoletto is a court jester for the Duke of Mantua (played by Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo), but mocks those whose daughters have been ravaged by the Duke. But when Rigoletto’s own daughter (Yunnie Park, a Korean soprano who also played the role in New York) falls victim, he vows revenge.
“You have every emotion possible,” director Roberto Stivanello said. “You have the father, who’s a jester, the daughter doesn’t know what the father does. He hides it from her; he shelters her.”
“You have the duke, who’s a philanderer, who’s a lot of fun to watch. You have a guy who puts a curse on Rigoletto and the Duke, but the Duke’s happy-go-lucky and he doesn’t care. It turns his whole life around. And then you have the daughter, who’s been sheltered all her life, who falls in love with the Duke.”
New York-based Stivanello first directed “Rigoletto” in the late 1980s, and has been at the helm of seven or eight productions since. He is also the designer of the show and wrote the supertitles projected above the stage to interpret Verdi’s Italian lyrics.
“It’s one of the greatest operas that’s been written by perhaps the greatest composer,” he said. “People in Wichita are in for a treat.”
The cast includes another Kansan, Colby native and Metropolitan Opera star Samuel Ramey as Monterone, an elderly count whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke.
Stivanello was recruited by Wichita Grand Opera president/CEO Parvan Bakardiev to come to Kansas and stage “Rigoletto.”
“I didn’t know what to expect, but Parvan, to get me here, was trying to give me the big sell,” Stivanello said. “He said we have great singers, a great staff, a great conductor. If anything, he underestimated.”
Stivanello said he’s been extremely impressed with those involved in the Wichita company.
“I don’t know if the people in Wichita can understand and appreciate what they have here, the level of professionalism this company has,” he said. “The quality of the singers they get, and the musicians they get here are first class, top of the line. I don’t know how they do it.”
That, Stivanello said, includes Nansel in the title role.
“He’s first class,” Stivanello said. “You find people at the Metropolitan Opera or the biggest houses in Europe – he’s just as good if not better.”
The principal guest conductor, Martin Mázik, is also a veteran of “Rigoletto,” and has conducted performances around the world.
“It moves people in Japan, it moves people in China. Everywhere,” Mázik said.
No matter where in the world he is, Mázik added, he knows where the emotional peak of the opera arrives, when he begins to hear crying and sniffling behind him as he’s at the podium.
“Every time I say, ‘Oh, this is the point,’” he said.
Verdi’s score includes some familiar music including “La Donna e Mobile,” a song that’s familiar even to non-opera fans.
“Every time I do this opera, people come up to me and say, ‘I knew I heard that somewhere before,’” Stivanello said. “It might have been in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but this is where they heard it.”
The emotion of the score is what carries “Rigoletto,” Stivanello said.
“You can be moved by the sheer beauty of the music and the singing,” he said. “It’s something that will move everybody. You don’t need to follow what’s going on and you don’t need to see anything. You can close your eyes and you will go home happy. Everything else is a bonus.”
Nansel said he was afraid that tackling the character would be daunting, but instead has found the experience enriching.
“For some reason Verdi touches me in way that other composers don’t,” he said. “His music seems so real and so alive to me than other characters.”
As a character, Nansel compares Rigoletto to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sweeney Todd.
“Loss is a motivator and revenge is a result,” he said. “Delving into that character has been exciting, but the biggest thing for me has been delving into the music, and finding out how rich the textures are.
“You want seminal moments in a career, and I don’t think I’d be able to reprise the feeling I have now in my first ‘Rigoletto,’” Nansel added. “I’m very proud of where we’re at right now.”
What: Production of Verdi classic by Wichita Grand Opera
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3
Tickets: $85, $58 and $37, at SelectASeat.com or 316-262-8054