Sketch of a jester figure, kneeling and looking glumly at a mask on a stick
Illustration of Triboulet in Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s-amuse by Laurens featured in the programme for Rigoletto (Opera North, 1981). The sketch depicts a typical jester figure, kneeling and looking glumly at a mask on a stick.

Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851) is based on the 1832 play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo. It tells the story of the eponymous ‘hunchback’, Rigoletto, an embittered jester who persistently mocks the Mantuan court. When a count appears at the court and begs the licentious Duke for the return of his kidnapped daughter, he is ridiculed by Rigoletto and in turn, places a curse on him. Seeking revenge, the courtiers kidnap Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, and bring her to the Duke, who seduces her. Rigoletto hires the assassin Sparafucile to murder the Duke, but Gilda has fallen for him, sacrifices herself in his place and dies in Rigoletto’s arms.

Opera North has mounted several productions of Rigoletto over the years, with the opera first appearing at the Leeds Grand Theater for the company’s inaugural 1979-80 season. New productions were also staged in the 1991-92 and 2006-07 seasons. Drawing primarily on material from the Opera North archive, this post explores where these productions sit in Opera North’s company history and unpacks the various approaches to Verdi’s opera and its depiction of disability.

1979, 1981-82

A collage of vintage black and white images show a performer onstage as Rigoletto - on the left, in closeup in historical costume, and on the right, seated atop a ladder wearing a curly wig.
A collage featuring three photographs from Rigoletto (Opera North, 1979) held at the company’s archive. Left: Rigoletto (Rawnsley) stares over his left shoulder at the camera (Opera North, 1979). Photo: Terry Cryer. Right: Rigoletto (Rawnsley) stands on a ladder wearing a curly wig. Photo: Simon Warner.

The 1979 production, directed by Patrick Libby, was revived for Opera North’s 1981-82 season. The English Baritone John Rawnsley was cast as Rigoletto, with Helen Field singing the role of Gilda. Production photos held at the company’s archive suggest that Maria Björnson’s production design was traditional, with Rigoletto depicted in typical Renaissance jester costume and occasionally wearing a curly wig. Verdi’s protagonist does share characteristics with the archetypal court jester or ‘fool’. Typically, however, the ‘fool’ has been a figure associated with intellectual disability, an idea explored by Irina Metzler in Fools and Idiots?: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages. In Blake Howe’s database of musical representations of disability, two-thirds of the listed representations of ‘cognitive impairment’ can be found in operas featuring ‘loyal Fool’ or ‘holy Fool’ characters. As I will explore in more detail in relation to Opera North’s 1990s take on Rigoletto, Verdi’s protagonist is more closely aligned with another prominent stock disabled character, the disabled villain.

The Opera North archive contains the original production programme from this time. Academic essays, dramaturgical notes, and other materials intended to provide a context for the dramaturgical and aesthetic choices of the director had begun to appear in programme booklets in the 1970s and 80s. However, this early programme from Opera North reveals relatively little about the production, containing basic information about the plot, cast and creative team. The archive also contains a set of black and white production photographs.

Opera North was originally founded as the northern base for the English National Opera (ENO). In her illustrated monograph on Opera North, Kara McKechnie explains that, after a successful first season, the company began to forge its independence from ENO: ‘from the early 1980s, the words “English National” appear in smaller print, with “Opera North” becoming larger and bolder’ (39). The company would officially change its name at the end of the 1981-82 season, and McKechnie identifies the decade that followed as the company’s ‘period of assertion’ (41).


Cover of the square programme booklet from Opera North’s 1992 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. A red and black illustration for Rabbelais’ Les Contes Drolatiques by Gustave Doré (1855) sits to the right of a black stripe and ‘rigoletto’ in lowercase yellow letters.
Cover of the square programme booklet from Opera North’s 1992 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. A red and black illustration for Rabbelais’ Les Contes Drolatiques by Gustave Doré (1855) sits to the right of a black stripe and ‘rigoletto’ in lowercase yellow letters.

It was towards the end of this era in Opera North’s history that the company would stage a new production of Rigoletto directed by Patrick Mason with design by Joe Vaněk. Press cuttings from this time reveal that the production was somewhat marred by illness, with Keith Latham, who was originally cast as Rigoletto, being replaced by Michael Lewis. In his attempt to embody Rigoletto’s disability, Latham has carried ‘the token hump, which approximates to a sack slung over his left shoulder’ (Life & Times, 12 May 1992), while Lewis portrayed the character with ‘grim hunchback and lurching gait’ (Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 12 June 1992).

The production’s programme booklet, which is also held in the opera North archive, reveals that the production sought to interpret the opera an example of the quintessential Renaissance revenge tragedy. The theme of vengeance certainly looms large over the opera’s plot, with three revenge plots taking place over the course of the narrative. In his essay for the production’s programme, Alfred Hickling writes: ‘as common a figure in revenge tragedies as the corrupted Duke, is the misfit or malcontent – an embittered railer against the society which excludes him’. In fact, the archetypal ‘vengeful villain’ described by Hickling has also been recognised by some scholars as a stock character in narratives about disability: from Captain Ahab to Darth Vader, the malcontent, embittered and excluded misfit is often written as disabled.

These kinds of villains are often described in terms of their explicitly physical (and by association, visible) disabilities, such as facial disfigurements and spinal deformities, with the ‘monstrous’ disabled body serving as an immediately recognisable token for inner malevolence. Frankenstein’s monster, the Phantom of the Opera and Mr Hyde are notable examples of this trend. In Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto’s misshapen body stereotypically framed as a reflection of his twisted mind. Moreover, in juxtaposing of Rigoletto’s body and mind with the beauty and wholesomeness of Gilda, the opera places its disabled villain in close proximity to idealised, non-disabled counterpart (a phenomenon that I have previously explored in relation to Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg).

Another scholar to have explored the stereotypes surrounding disabled characaters is Paul Longmore, who identifies a phenomenon known as the ‘spread effect’ in narratives featuring disabled villains (Why I Burned My Book, 135). In instances of the ‘spread effect’, the disabled villain is presented as lacking in humanity and self-control and therefore represents a danger to society. Rigoletto certainly appears to function within the parameters of this representational trend, not least because he acts as the catalyst for the opera’s threefold revenge narratives. This kind of disability representation runs the risk of perpetuating harmful misconceptions about disabled people, both historically and into the present day. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson suggests, the convergence of disabled bodies and damaged, dangerous personalities in narratives about disability ‘exemplifies culture’s preoccupation with the threat of the different body’ (Extraordinary Bodies, 36).

Disability scholar and film theorist Martin F. Norden explores on-screen depictions of the stereotypical disabled villain in his book The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television. Seeking to unpack the relationship between disability and revenge narratives, he coins the term ‘Obsessive Avenger’ to describe ‘a character (almost always an adult male) who in the name of revenge relentlessly pursues those he holds responsible for his disablement, some other moral-code violation, or both’ (125).

Collage of Scar from The Lion King, Darth Vader from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Captain Hook from Disney’s Peter Pan.
Examples of well-known ‘obsessive avengers’, left to right: Scar (The Lion King, 1994), Darth Vader (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980), Captain Hook (Disney’s Peter Pan, 1953).

On the one hand, Rigoletto is a prime example of the obsessive avenger. However, despite his adherence to many of the characteristic traits of the stereotypical disabled villain, there are ambiguities to his character: Verdi described the protagonist as an ‘extremely deformed and ridiculous character who is inwardly passionate and full of love’ (Osbourne, 75). Rigoletto’s fate is undoubtedly tragic, his representation therefore calling to mind the words of disability theorist Leonard Kriegel: ‘the cripple is threat and recipient of compassion, both to be damned and to be pitied – and frequently to be damned as he is pitied’ (32).

By all accounts, both Michael Lewis and Keith Latham balanced the villainous aspects of Rigoletto’s character with the tragic in the 1992 Opera North production. In press reviews held at the Opera North archive, Martin Dreyer praised Lewis’s ‘appealing and sympathetic account’ (Opera, December 1992, 1472) of the character and ‘shared the pain of laughter at his disability’ (Opera, August 1992, 980). A reviewer for the York Press described Latham’s performance as the ‘lumbering Rigoletto’ as ‘lurching dangerously from frightening intensity to haunting introspection’ (York Press, 9 May 1992).


Two images of a distraught Rigoletto sat beside the dying Gilda, who is covered in blood. Both singers wear monochrome business attire, against an industrial backdrop featuring a concrete wall and a yellow and black striped ladder.
Rigoletto, Opera North, 2007. Two images of a distraught Rigoletto (Jonathan Summers) sat beside the dying Gilda (Linda Richardson), who is covered in blood. Both singers wear monochrome business attire, against an industrial backdrop featuring a concrete wall and a yellow and black striped ladder. Photos: by Richard Moran.

In the decade that followed, Opera North would forge its artistic identity and establish a reputation as a home of operatic innovation, with world premieres, rediscoveries and bold stagings often appearing at the Grand Theatre and on tour around the North of England. McKechnie explains that, after the company’s 2003-04 season was dubbed it’s most successful to date by many critics, the company underwent a period of ‘transformation and stability’ (Opera North, 158). In 2006, Rigoletto was once again mounted by Opera North for the first season since the company’s return to the Grand after its renovation.

There is not yet any material relating to this production held in the Opera North archive. In fact, there are no programmes from 2006-07 in the collection. However, the internet offers us some insight into the production and its reception.

Director and Designer Charles Edwards chooses a mid-twentieth century setting for his retelling of the work, seemingly inspired by the acclaimed ‘mafioso’ production at English National Opera, directed by Johnathan Miller in the 1980s. Rigoletto and hitman Sparafucile live in caravans on the outskirts of town, and one reviewer Mike Wheeler observes that Rigoletto’s ‘caretakers overalls and thick-rimmed spectacles’ make him ‘an obvious misfit among the Duke’s fashionable entourage’. While the practice of disability mimicry (when a non-disabled actor mimics the physical attributes of disability) might have been commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s, some opera companies are becoming attuned to some of the inherent complexities of depicting disability on stage. Since the millennium, more productions have turned to costume to signify physical disability. That said, many productions still turn to the somewhat problematic practice of disability, and I’ve outlined some of the issues surrounding it in a previous post.

What the reviews available online do make clear is that Edward’s retelling of the opera typifies the tendency of productions that update an opera’s setting to contemporary times to divide critics. After summarising the opera’s plot in her review for the British Theatre Guide, Gail-Nina Anderson asks, ‘how on earth do you convey this to a modern audience?’ For her, Edwards ‘clearly sets out to bridge the gap between that almost painful concentration of helpless feeling in Verdi’s music and what may read as an overblown piece of historical melodrama’, which is ‘enough to ruffle some feathers’. In the December 2006 edition of Opera, Michael Kennedy referred to the production as a ‘damp squib’ (1496), while Michael Tanner describes the production as ‘not even faintly coherent’ (The Spectator, 21 October 2006).

Black and white Opera North logo
Black and white Opera North logo.

One of the genre’s most famous depictions of disability, Rigoletto has been a staple of opera companies around the world for over a century. Operabase statistics reveal that it has been the tenth most commonly performed opera since 2004, when entries begin. The three Opera North stagings discussed in this post provide a glimpse into the company’s various approaches to the opera, each of which has been shaped by broader trends and discussions in the broader industry. I’m sure it’s not the last time we’ll see Verdi’s enigmatic jester on stage at the Leeds Grand Theatre…

This research has been conducted during a short-term research fellowship with the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute, in collaboration with the University of Leeds Special Collections. I’m working under the mentorship of Dr Kara McKechnie with materials from the Opera North archive, which is held in Special Collections at the University Library.

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