Duke of the Desert: A Close Look at the 20th-centuryLas Vegas Setting of the Met’s New Rigoletto

Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Rigoletto experts.

Students may also enjoy reviewing their notes on the Performance Activity Las Vegas Treasure Hunt. What specific features of this production’s sets, costumes, and/or staging conveyed the action’s time and place? It will be important to probe students’ awareness of the style, symbols, and social meanings of Las Vegas in mid-20th-century America—in particular the city’s association with both Hollywood celebrities and organized crime. Some students may be unfamiliar with the cultural references. (See the sidebar Sin City. The PBS documentary Las Vegas: An Unconventional History is another useful resource here: tinyurl.com/pbsvegas).

With a sense of 1960 Las Vegas in mind, students will be prepared todiscuss the decision to relocate the story of Rigoletto from 16th-centuryMantua, Italy.

  • Do they approve?
  • Why or why not?
  • Is the opera enhanced by the change? Might something have been lost in the translation? Or added? Why or why not?
  • Would Giuseppe Verdi, if he were alive today, have supported Michael Mayer’s creative decision? At this point, it will be worth pointing out that Verdi himself was forced to transplant Rigoletto’s story from France (as in Victor Hugo’s play Le Rois’amuse—see sidebar Hugo’s King, Verdi’s Duke) to Italy.
  • As artists of the mid-19th century, why might Verdi and Hugo have set their works three centuries in the past?
  • Is Rigoletto a story with a universal, timeless message?
  • Are any aspects of it dated?
  • Where might your students set a production of this opera—and why?

For follow-up, students may enjoy turning that last question into a creative project: a PowerPoint-style pitch for a new TV show. Imagine that a contemporary TV network has commissioned them to produce Rigoletto for teenage viewers.

  • Where would it be set?
  • Would Rigoletto still be a court jester?
  • What might be the Duke’s profession?
  • What could explain Gilda’s recent arrival in her father’s home? 

Point out that the TV network would require the proposal to bolster its production concept with real-world information, just as Michael Mayer’s stage production requires a basic understanding of the world of 1960 LasVegas. What information would students use to support their choices? For instance, if the story were set in a contemporary metropolis, what might audiences need to know about urban culture such as hip-hop music and graffiti art in order to “get it”? If it were set in the Wild West, what might an audience need to know about dress conventions?