In this activity, you will have the class recite the text of the ensemble together before watching the ensemble in operatic performance. The class will then discuss the various ways that the composer delineates characters in the operatic version, allowing the listener to hear the different parts with clarity.
For this activity, you will need the text of the excerpt in both the original Italian and in English translation, as provided in the reproducible handouts.
STEP 1: Begin by distributing text and translation of the Act 3 quartet from Rigoletto, available on the reproducible handout. Explain that this is a famous example of an operatic ensemble, a section of an opera in which several soloists sing at the same time. In this excerpt, four characters present contrasting attitudes. The Duke is trying to seduce Maddalena, who taunts him flirtatiously, while Gilda laments her sad lot—having previously been seduced by the Duke but then abandoned—and Rigoletto himself ruminates over the revenge he will take on the duke.
STEP 2: After introducing the four characters, divide the class in four parts and assign each part one of the characters. Have them recite the text aloud, and where there are bracketed passages (indicating that the lines occur simultaneously), the class should say their lines at the same time. If performed correctly, chaos should ensue. To begin your discussion, ask the class what went wrong with the performance. You should help students to come to the conclusion that the spoken word simply isn’t understandable when people speak over one another.
STEP 3: By way of contrast, play the scene in the Met Opera on Demand production of Rigoletto, corresponding to the tracks below:
- Track 32, from 0:00 – 1:35 (Act 3, “Un di, se ben rammentomi”)
- Track 33, from 00:00 – 4:40 (Act 3, “Bella figlia dell’amore”)
After watching the scene, open up the class to a discussion of the music with the following questions:
- How many different characters did you hear singing?
- How often did characters repeat the same text? Was it necessary to know exactly what each character was saying in order to understand their meaning?
- How does the music help you separate the different voices even when everyone is singing at the same time?
- How would you characterize this scene? Does the text advance the plot or is it more reflective?
STEP 4: Conclude the activity by having students summarize the various ways that composers can delineate character, even when everyone is singing at the same time, calling their attention to vocal range, style of text setting, orchestration, or any other element of music.