As it turns out, Rigoletto has two terrible flaws. One is that the court jester, like some people all of us have met, doesn't know when to quit with the jokes and takes them too far. The other concerns his parenting skills and the over-protective wall he has built around his daughter, leaving her tragically ill-equipped to deal with the real world when it slips past his defenses.
Houston Grand Opera is mounting a new production of Verdi's Rigoletto, setting it in post World War 1, 1920s Fascist Italy, hence the flapper costumes as seen above. Armenian soprano Mané Galoyan takes on the role of Gilda, the daughter who bears the brunt of the curse invoked by the father of a young woman who the despicable Duke of Mantua has seduced, with the encouragement of Rigoletto.
Armenian soprano Galoyan, a former HGO studio artist, says that besides loving the music in the opera, she relished the chance to perform the role of Gilda. "Character wise it is very challenging. I love challenges. Her character evolves during the opera a lot. She starts as a very pure teenager then she goes through some tough life period and becomes a woman and in the second act she's a completely different person and in the third act she sacrifices herself for love."
"Nowadays for modern women it’s very hard to relate to a girl who's been locked up in the house, who can't leave the house and so protected," she adds. "And ultimately the protection kills her."
Along the way, the music Gilda sings evolves along with her. "It's for three different voice types," Galoyan says. " "The first act is very light and high register, very teenage pure sound. The second act she just became a woman and you can see in the music and in the register that he puts her in that things have changed. In the third act it's full on, full lyric voice, deciding that she’s going to die to save her dad and the man she loves."
Asked if she ever wishes the story had gone another way for Gilda, Galoyan laughs and says: "I can’t find a happy ending for this story honestly. My parents don’t really see me perform in the States, technical difficulties; the visa is hard. But I'm kind of happy they don’t see me die on stage all the time."
Originally Galoyan was going to be a solo pianist as well as a singer, but her relatives as well as a very tough school curriculum discouraged her from doing that saying she needed to concentrate on her singing career. While competing in a singing competition in Saint Petersburg in 2014 Galoyan caught the eye of Diane Zola, the former director of Artistic Administration for HGO, who encouraged her to come to Houston for a short summer course and then later to apply for the HGO Studio for young artists where she stayed from 2015-18. She was in two world premieres for HGO: Prince of Players and After the Storm.
Right now she sings a lot of Verdi and Puccini, she says, putting off for a while going to a heavier rep with the toll it can take on a voice. "I don’t like putting [singers] in boxes through," she says. "I think you should be singing whatever you feel comfortable singing."
The HGO Studio helped her a lot, she says. "Studio is very tough. You learn a lot of things. You learn to distribute your stamina. After that training nothing is hard anymore." At the same time, she says, in her travels elsewhere she's come to realize how exceptional HGO is in the way it treats its visiting artists and its attention to detail.
"It is very emotional to die on stage. If it is not emotional for you people will not care. You have to have the technique and skills to make it look believable. I’ve been through a very tough training in Houston Grand Opera in the three years I was here and I think everybody who comes out of that program is armed with a lot of skills," she says. "Also, right now . we have our fight director working with us and our choreographer working with us. It’s very safe to make it look real. Even people on stage next to us looking on the scene say 'Oh my God, did you die for real?'"l
In some ways, it's old home week for Galoyan rehearsing for Rigoletto. "I worked with the director before, Tomer Zvulun. Maddalena — Zoie Reams — is a very close friend of mine. We did the studio together. It's very nice to be on stage with your friends although she get me killed. David Shipley (Sparafucile) I met him in London last year after a show at a bar and we were talking like a couple of singers 'What are you doing next year?'" That's when they both discovered they were doing Rigoletto with Houston Grand Opera.
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Without disclosing a single one, Galoyan says there are going to be some surprises in this Rigoletto which lasts two hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions.
"It’s going to look beautiful and colorful and very impactful with the chorus. There are some non-traditional things done in the production. I hope people come and see it and I'm sure they will love it.
Asked why Rigoletto continues to draw audiences. Galoyan says: "The drama of it is so rich. It never gets old. Every time you see it it’s shocking, the dram, the theme of the curse is so actual. The way it’s so unfair to Gilda, it never gets old. It stays shocking and unfair and tragic."
Performances are scheduled for October 18 through November 1 at 7 p.m. Friday, October 18; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Tuesday and Friday, November 1 and 2 pm. Sunday, October 20 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Sung in Italian with projected English translations. For information, call 713- 228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25 -$270.