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Have you ever been to the opera? I hadn’t, until a couple of weeks ago. Before that, opera was this weird cultural object I had no reference for. It was was abstract, theoretical, I had no idea what it actually meant or felt like from the inside. But if I have a curiosity, it is my professional purpose to go out and satisfy it. This is my favourite bit about being a critic. I emailed the good people at the Royal Opera House, and to my genuine surprise, their press team answered! They were happy to arrange very nice tickets for me to go and see Rigoletto. So, thank you to them for that really generous favour because, this felt like a once in a lifetime experience. And in satisfying my curiosity, I have been rewarded by a gratifying answer. The opera is dramatic, raw and energetic and unstable. It is the kind of tightly packed fever dream I am constantly searching for out in the world of culture.

Thursday night, it is dark and it is cold and it is raining. I am wearing a fake fur coat I bought from a kilo sale when I was 16. My boyfriend is wearing freshly polished boots. We have just been to McDonalds (lmao) and we are now hurrying over cobblestones towards the warm lighting of the Royal Opera House. The carpets are red and the chandeliers are enormous. Everything looks like it’s part of a period drama backdrop. We take our seats and look up at the enormous gold ceiling. I cannot believe there is this much empty space between our heads and that ceiling, I can’t believe that a room this big and sumptuous actually exists in London. I feel like a Medieval peasant. I swear to god, I actually do.

The curtain comes up and the performers are frozen in a still life tableau. The orchestra holds the tension. For a while. No one moves. I sit in my seat thinking about how it is insane that there’s a whole orchestra tucked neatly out of sight under that stage. From my seat in the stalls I can just about see the back of the conductor’s head. His hands waving, keeping time. There are real instruments, real people with years, decades of expertise. All of that tucked under the stage out of sight! And the instruments are filling the space in a way that feels genuinely hefty. Like, the sound has got body, or a kind of weight that spreads out into the cavernous theatre above and around me. It’s the difference between speaking to somone on the phone and speaking to them face to face. In real life with real instruments, everything feels larger, like it’s in bold. Then the tableau breaks and life bursts out! And everyone is animated and the tension is now actually energy and noise because people are bustling and finding their places on stage. The performers sing in Italian, and at the top of the stage there are English subtitles.

The Duke of Mantua is a handsome man in a cape and tight trousers. His court is host to a group of simpering and morally bereft courtiers. The courtiers love a fucking raucous party and the Duke of Mantua is also a massive fuckboy. He loves seducing beautiful women, especially the wives of his courtiers. One night, the party gets away from them and they’re responsible for the ruin of an innocent girl. Her father bursts in to the court, ready to hold them all to account with his fists, and the courtiers tie him to a chair, and then they KILL him. They plunge in the knife, he is covered in blood. Rigoletto is the Duke’s court jester. At the party, he’s a kind of witness rather than a participant. He watches on, mocking the father and his inability to defend his daughter’s honour. Before he dies, the father CURSES Rigoletto. After the heat of the murder, the courtiers snicker at Rigoletto. He has a lover, isn’t that funny? Rigoletto, the court jester, a lover!?!? They follow him out of the castle, in the dead of night. They think he is going to visit his lover. They see him meeting a beautiful woman, they see him embrace her. But this beautiful woman, Gilda, is not Rigoletto’s lover. She’s his daughter!!! Gilda returns to her room and reveals that she has fallen in love with a mysterious man that follows her home from church every Sunday. Turns out, small world, it’s the Duke of Mantua. The courtiers KIDNAP Gilda! They blindfold Rigoletto and they make him hold a ladder, he unwittingly helps them kidnap his own daughter. They take Gilda to the Duke and Rigoletto is left to curse the crowd of disgusting courtiers. He tries to reason with them, bargain, plead, anything to get his daughter back. But he is the jester, they cannot help but snicker at his distress. So he curses them. These evil courtiers, accursed courtiers. He is only the court jester, they haven’t ever seen him cry. Rigoletto’s tears are alien to them, such a novelty. This is now officially a tragedy. The Duke has his wicked way with Gilda, and then returns her to Rigoletto who swears his vengence. To cut a long story short, Rigoletto hires an ASSASIN! Gilda dresses up as a man and is meant to flee to Verona, instead she goes to the brothel where the Duke is flirting with the assasin’s sister. Gilda offers herself as a sacrifice and dies for the Duke, even though he’s now actually seducing other women right in front of her. Rigoletto comes to collect the Duke’s body and is handed a body in a sack. He takes the sack down to the river, before he throws it in he hears the Duke singing in the distance. He opens the sack to discover, THE DEAD BODY IS ACTUALLY HIS BELOVED DAUGHTER GILDA. Gilda momentarily resurrects to say that she’s absolutely ok with this act of martyrdom for her beloved. Then she actually properly dies and Rigoletto sings out in pain about the dead Father’s curse. THE END.

I think this was an interesting opera to see. I have been thinking about the figure of the court jester for a good year. Did you know, Shakespeare loved his fools. They were useful theatrical devices: to break the tension with slapstick sharpness, to drive the narrative forward with their pointed naivety, to stand outside the circle of the actual drama and see everything, speak truth to power, turn to the audience and break the fourth wall. They are like the trickster! The fool! Someone outside the boundaries of dignified society can then move through that society with a kind of ease and speed. They can cross over the liminal threshold, bring knowledge, speak truth without punishment, hold otherworldly power. I am very interested in the figure of the jester. I was googling this on the way home: Rigoletto was composed by Giuseppi Verdi in 1850, but it was written by a Librettist called Francesco Maria Piave. Piave based the Libretto on a play by Victor Hugo, called Le Roi S’amuse / The King Amuses Himself. The plot is basically entirely the same. Rigoletto’s court jester is instead an actual historical court jester called Triboulet in the court of King Louis XII. Victor Hugo, the man who wrote Les Miserables, obviously uses Triboulet to voice critcisms of society. The jester, the trickster, the fool, the critic — I am interested in this ability to speak frankly without retribution, to move through and beyond boundaries of dignified society. I think Rigoletto is a tragic operatic figure — yes. I think he is also a metaphor for the oppressed and their relationship with power. The courtiers, the ruling class, the royal the noble, the European, the civilised, the cookie cutter default man. I am interested in Rigoletto in the same way I am interested in Caliban, the shadow, dark subaltern, rising tide.

But all of that only occurred to me after. As the singing took place, I wasn’t thinking much about anything at all. I think the whole deal with opera is: the plot is kinda not the point, really. Or not the entire point. The dialogue is a vehicle for sound. Each line is repeated over and over in different ways, until the meaning dissolves and the words aren’t important. The feeling that starts as word, is transmitted out in sound. The words are just ways to access an emotion, a meaning, a feeling. Their purest form is in the sound itself — the shape that sound makes in the space around us, or within as the space-weight closes in on us. It is sound! The people on stage are making crazy sounds with their faces and their throats and their chests. They are so sad, they lament and this sadness comes out of their stomachs. Nervousness comes from the nose, exits the body via the mouth. Happiness exists in the head, but if it’s powerful enough it transmits through a performers entire body. The assasin is sent out on a dark and rainy night, and it takes me a moment to notice but — I think? Is that? — the chorus are humming and buzzing like bees, they’re using the collective body of their voices to make the sound of thunder. Rigoletto and Gilda embrace in a quiet dark street, happy to be reunited and full of love for each other. They sing two completely different lines with two completely different rhythms and melodies — somehow this isn’t noise. It never descends into an incomprehensible abstract. It always fits. Two lines moving apart and together in perfect understanding. If they interrupt, it only becomes a kind of rhythm to punctuate the understanding. It leaves me dazzled, like when you look away from a bright light and you can see the imprint of it behind your eyelids, ringed in blue and green. It’s energetic, emotional. It’s so beautiful I could cry. Opera as an art form might be abstract or theoretical to me, but SOUND most definitely is NOT. It is real and in front of me, it has a meaty solid weight in the space and it is also leaking into my body.

We are swept out of the Opera House by the crowd. Covent Garden is noisy, the tube is noisier. But I can’t hear the people, I can’t hear the train screeching through the tunnel. I can still hear the voices and the singing, I can hear the thunder, the lament — a father and a daughter singing two different lines, different tunes and rhythms, like two little birds who understand each other.

Rigoletto was on at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Unfortunately it closed on 28th November, but there are other operas on if you also want to satisfy your curiosity. You can also apparently watch a 2021 production on the Royal Opera House’s website! Thank you again to the Royal Opera House’s Press team, this was honestly such a generous gesture and I’m so thankful! This is a kind of culture that is financially inaccessible for so many people, so I do want to acknowledge that I was insanely lucky and I’m really thankful for that luck! If I was prime minister (god forbid) we’d all get a ticket to the opera once in our lives, it’d be like jury duty but BETTER.