Baritone Gordon Hawkins reaches into Rigoletto’s bitter heart

Gordon Hawkins has sung the rich operatic role more than 150 times, but he still finds new aspects to the doomed court jester

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      The hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto is one of opera’s richest characters—a man misshapen on the outside and inside, a clown whose tongue cuts like a knife, who hates the upper classes he mocks, and who has a place in his heart for only one person, his daughter Gilda.

      Gordon Hawkins, the American baritone who has sung the role more than 150 times, refuses to judge the tormented title character.

      “I have to make sure that I don’t make a commentary about Rigoletto,” the critically acclaimed singer says, sitting in a Coal Harbour café on a rainy day off from Vancouver Opera rehearsals, a scarf swung around to warm his neck. “You guys, the audience, has to do it. I’m not supposed to even like Rigoletto. I’m not presenting an editorial or opinion. It’s not my place to make a commentary about him, not on-stage. I’m not supposed to get you to understand the right and wrong. I’m not judging him, just as I’m not judging Alberich,” he adds, referring to the wretched Ring Cycle character he’s also known for playing. “I just try to put myself in their shoes and walk with them when they’re walking, and make the choices real.”

      The genial, soft-spoken performer has played a wide range of characters over his career—Macbeth, Porgy, Nabucco. But it’s intriguing that he’s so well-known for two of opera’s more miserable misfits: the hate-filled villain-dwarf Alberich and the lurching, spiteful Rigoletto of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece.

      “The artist in me can feel a resonance with these types of characters, and appreciate the sense of irony from their vantage points—of those who are often on the fringes,” Hawkins says after a long pause to think about why he’s drawn to them. “People on the fringe see the irony and humour in things. At the same time, it is an artist’s duty to maintain a balance and not to become jaded.”

      In Rigoletto, based on a play about the jester Triboulet by Victor Hugo, the sharp-tongued title character mocks the courtiers who have been cuckolded by the lecherous Duke, earning himself a curse from one nobleman. The beloved daughter Rigoletto hides soon attracts the Duke’s attention, and so begins a downward cycle into ruin of Shakespearean proportions.

      “One of the things that attracted Verdi to Victor Hugo’s play was the dichotomy of conflict. How could someone who looks so grotesque be full of so much emotion and beauty?” Hawkins says. “Victor Hugo was writing about a person who is deformed and weighted down from the burdens of a modern society. Rigoletto’s deformity is the physical embodiment of the malady in that era, and unlike the Duke and the noblemen, he is unable to escape its entrapment.”

      Hawkins points out that Rigoletto, as a clown whose job it is to make people laugh, is never even allowed to cry.

      It’s a physically and emotionally punishing part. “I can live it [the role]; sometimes I live it too much. I don’t think I’d want to do it any other way. I wouldn’t want to try to detach and just perform it. There are occasions when I remind myself it is a singing part and I have to be in a physical position to make my vocal apparatus work well. I am always mindful of achieving this task without compromising the dramatic flow of the piece. This is no small feat. I have seen many singers just stand up and sing. I share their concerns and am always keenly aware of the vocal demands of this monumental work. Over the years, I have developed a better understanding of mastering my vocal technique to the organic flow and structure of this work.”

      Verdi has marked the demanding score with all kinds of dynamics and other notations, but interpreting the character goes far beyond the technical, he stresses. “My artistic goal is to come up with an emotional validation for singing text piano, forte, and all the various dynamics in between,” Hawkins explains. “In that way, I can project emotion. I think I’ve arrived at a point in my career where I truly love and appreciate the emotional justification of music-making. It frees me up. I think of ‘breathing in’ an idea.”

      Even after so many times singing the role, Hawkins still finds nuance in the character. In the Vancouver Opera production, under director Nancy Hermiston and conductor Jonathan Darlington, he plays opposite celebrated young Vancouver soprano Simone Osborne as his daughter Gilda, and there’s great chemistry, he reports. “It’s a treat to work with someone like that; you can’t fake it. The connection is real. I know I’m playing Rigoletto and Simone is playing Gilda, but it’s very much Gordon and Simone playing off each other—we are obligated to each other in a very honest and respectful real.”

      It promises to be a moving night at the opera, and for all the ugliness that happens on-stage, there is always that irresistible music.

      “There are many ways for an individual to digest the influences of society, and those influences affect all of us. Verdi gives Rigoletto a beautiful human voice—that is uniquely poetic,” Hawkins says.

      “While performing this role, I hope each audience member will be able to recognize their own unique poetic voice.”

      Vancouver Opera presents Rigoletto on Saturday (September 26) and October 1, 3, and 4 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter @janetsmitharts.