How do you sell great art? How do you distill a work like Rigoletto into a few lines one might put on a poster?
Warwick Fyfe attacks the above questions with a healthy fear of the clichéd banality of tag-lines. “High art does not need a mere mortal like me to argue its merits,” he says. “The basic reason for experiencing a great work of art is that it’s a great work of art.”
Despite those reservations, Fyfe does try to define what makes Rigoletto one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian opera. “It is a work of high art which, when performed well, is universal so that experts and novices alike will be affected profoundly in a way which will tingle every nerve fibre and change their lives appreciably for the better.”
Verdi is a master of writing for the voice, Fyfe explains. “Verdi understands the human voice and how to use it to create thrilling beauty. The arching, achingly beautiful phrases are written for the human voice by someone who doesn’t think of it as just another acoustic instrument,” he says.
However, it doesn’t follow that it’s easy to sing. “It’s relentless! When I hear young singers talking airily about performing Rigoletto one day I have to smile to myself. Never was it more truly said of a role that the ability to sing the aria is not the same as the ability to sing the whole thing!”
The music of Rigoletto demands perfect technique and a huge range of colour. “The trick is to go to the edge but not tip over it. Never lose the cold core of technical calculation in the passion and excitement of the moment…”
Verdi’s hunchbacked court jester is a thrilling role: he arrives on the scene as a secretive, complex character and travels a huge spectrum of emotion within the opera.
For Fyfe, who is making something of a name for himself as a character performer, finding the nuances of Rigoletto’s character involves thinking about the experiences that may have shaped him.
“His physical malformation is sure to have had a hand in shaping his character. Children are cruel, and he would have been picked on mercilessly. This would have soured and embittered him,” Fyfe muses.
The popular baritone is drawing on his own experience – as an overweight child, he coped with verbal bullying by getting in first with the laughter. “If you’re the fat or hunchbacked child, it pays to be a wit and to play the buffoon!”
Rigoletto wears a comedian’s mask, Fyfe believes, that likely covers bitter feelings of resentment and pent-up hatred. “He is suspicious of friendly overtures; he waits for smiles to turn to derision.”
All this fails to breed empathy in the jester. “We end up with a narcissist who affects false humility and is given to self pity,” Fyfe explains. “This drives the tragedy in Rigoletto – he is incapable of listening to his daughter, of empathy, or putting himself in her shoes. Rigoletto in an inner sense goes nowhere, and this is his tragedy,” Fyfe says.
The baritone has sung this role three times in two different productions, but this will be his first Rigoletto for Opera Australia in a new period production created by Roger Hodgman. When it comes to finding this character, “I’m a tabula rasa (blank slate),” he quips.
He says it is difficult to conjure up a character outside of the production: “With any role, I find seeing myself in full regalia and make up in the dressing room mirror is a turning point. One sees not oneself but the character looking back. This is why things lift when we at last hit the stage!”
Fyfe’s Rigoletto in Melbourne follows his triumphant debut as Alberich in The Melbourne Ring Cycle last year.
While he would like to seek more Wagnerian roles, this year is a rich banquet of Verdi and Mozart: singing Leperello in New Zealand Opera’s Don Giovanni and reprising his acclaimed Falstaff in the Melbourne Spring season.
No amount of Wagner will dull his love for the Italian opera master Verdi.
“I love the burnished edge of the music,” Fyfe explains. “I love the intensity of its authentic emotions. I love its rhythmic strength and brilliant life force. I love Verdi for its Verdiness!”
Warwick Fyfe will perform the title role of Rigoletto in the Melbourne Autumn production, April 12 -May 10, 2014. For more information and tickets, click here.