Some singers find San Diego Opera a convenient company in which to try out a new role. Two seasons ago, Italian tenor Giuseppe Giacomini attempted his first "Otello" here, only to discover that his Moor was less than Verdi's musical requirements.

John Rawnsley, the British baritone singing the lead in San Diego's fall season opener, "Rigoletto," is not, however, experimenting on local opera buffs. In fact, Rawnsley has been so strongly identified with this Verdi role that he is beginning to feel trapped by his own success with it.

"Even though I first sang the role in 1979, I feel as though I've been doing it all my life," said the 37-year-old singer. "Now I know what Joan Collins must feel like sometimes in that awful program we call 'Dysentery' in England. She's typecast, and she'll never shake that off for the rest of her natural life."

Rawnsley's acclaim came from his characterization of Rigoletto in Jonathan Miller's "Mafia production" of the opera for English National Opera. Miller set his production in the 20th Century in New York City's Little Italy, exchanging Verdi's remote 16th-Century Mantuan courtiers for the denizens of New York's Italian-American underworld. The production is still enormously successful, has been filmed for British television, and played to full houses at the Met when the English National Opera was on its North American tour three years ago.

"It has been the company's banker for five years," Rawnsley said. "By lunchtime of first day's rehearsal, we all agreed over a cup of coffee that this was going to be one of the biggest hits that ENO would ever have. Whenever it is put on, it still plays to over 90% houses."

And why does Rawnsley keep accepting offers to sing "Rigoletto" everywhere, including San Diego, where the sets and costumes are recycled from a Canadian production in which he sang earlier this year and thoroughly detested?

"Well, you can't get out because they're paying you too much to keep playing the part," he said.

A shade cynical and earthy with no apologies to the ladies present, thank you, Rawnsley is direct and free of pretense. He doesn't mind poking fun at himself, joking about the extra girth about his middle, though he is far from being a Falstaff look-alike.

"This season at ENO I am doing a new production of 'The Magic Flute.' I'm playing Papageno, or 'Portly-geno' in my case, which I suppose they'll be calling it. I have been known to lose weight to do roles," he said, and promptly dived into his lunch.

For Rawnsley, opera was his ticket out of the monotony of working in Yorkshire's textile mills.

"When I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor," he said. "In the north of England, it's considered strange if you want to be something different than someone who works for Rolls-Royce aero-engines or somebody who works in a mill. When I told the careers officer who came around that I wanted to be an actor, I was told I couldn't be that. I didn't know any different, so I ended up working in a cotton factory."

Fortunately, he had been singing in amateur musical theater productions and taking a few voice lessons on the side. At age 21, he was sitting at his desk at the textile mill, having just completed his monthly report for his department, when he decided to opt for opera.

"I went to music school, threw textiles to the wind--a very secure job--to do my hobby and get paid for it," he said. "It was the only way I could get on stage."

Despite his operatic achievements, Rawnsley still covets the legitimate stage. "I would like Jonathan (Miller) to ring me up from the Old Vic one day and say, 'Enough of this bloody opera singing, luv. Come and do some straight theater.' Nothing would give me greater pleasure."

As a veteran Rigoletto headed for his 100th performance of the role, Rawnsley's concept of the character is sharply etched.

"He is a very selfish man--not at all a likable character--who thinks of himself all the time," he said.

"All the doting about his daughter, keeping her away from the real world, is his attempt to keep her away from knowing what he does for a living and from the people he works for. Even at the end, when he sings to her, 'Don't die. What will I do without you?' it's still me, me, me all the time."

Singing roles of deplorable characters doesn't faze Rawnsley. "I get bored by wimps. I like singing Rigoletto and Nick Shadow (Stravinsky's disguised devil in 'The Rake's Progress'). I enjoy all the Verdi roles. He painted with a bloody-big paintbrush in bright colors and never wrote in an insipid way."

San Diego Opera's "Rigoletto" opens Saturday at Civic Theatre (appropriately, on Verdi's birthday) and runs through Oct. 18.

Korean soprano Hei-Kyuong Hong sings Gilda, and Argentine tenor Diego d'Auria will make his American debut as the Duke of Mantua. The production is directed by Robert Tannenbaum.

Baritone John Rawnsley

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