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Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ to Open New York City Opera’s Schedule at Arts Center

Times Staff Writer

In Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Gilda the heroine is deceived, deflowered and discarded; then she sacrifices her life to save the cad who seduced her.

But that doesn’t mean she has to be played as if she’s a simp, said soprano Faith Esham, who will sing the role with New York City Opera on Tuesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

“Sometimes she’s almost portrayed as the Virgin Mary,” Esham said recently from New York. “But while she is an innocent young girl, she is a very sensuous, feeling person who has already, at the beginning of the opera, begun to deceive her father a little bit--because, we know, she is in love.”

The man she is in love with is the rakish Duke of Mantua (to be sung by Jon Garrison), who has disguised himself as a poor student, the better to woo her along his way to singing “La donna e mobile,” one of opera’s greatest hits.

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“I don’t think most people understand her,” Esham said. “One of the quandaries most ladies who play Gilda get into is (figuring out), why does she die? why does she devote herself to a man who she knows has betrayed her, is a scalawag and not deserving of her loyalty?”

As Esham sees it, Gilda dies to save her father, the hunchbacked jester, Rigoletto: “She feels that by sacrificing herself, she is hopeful of preventing her father’s demise. He will then not try to kill the Duke, and therefore will be left to live. . . .

“It is interesting to try to capture the strength that is in this girl, plus the unfailing loyalty that she feels for someone she loves and, at the same time, to show that she perceives what is going on and perceives the pain. That is fascinating, that’s real.”

Growing up in Kentucky, Esham was no simp, either: “I had a voice a little louder than my friends, so I was asked to lead out (when singing in church). I would sing before over 1,000 people. . . . I never felt nervous.”

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She did not plan on a vocal career, but a full scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan began her journey toward Verdi’s heroine.

In those days, she was a mezzo-soprano. “But I felt my voice wanted to change,” she said. “It felt more comfortable in a higher tessitura than (that of) a mezzo.”

Years of work have pushed her into the vocal stratosphere, “but being a mezzo has helped me keep a color of warmth that I want, of expressiveness.”

Esham made her debut with City Opera in 1977 as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1986 as Marcellina in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

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Some have wondered whether City Opera has been grooming her for Beverly Sills’ roles. “I don’t know,” Esham said. “In changing to a soprano, there have been people who did not believe I was really a soprano. Beverly has believed in my talent and given me opportunities for growth and for experience.”

Will Christopher Keene’s taking over March 15 as general director of the company make much of a difference for her?

“Any new administration will bring changes,” Esham said. “I just have to wait and see what happens. . . . But However New York City Opera changes, she said the company “will still be a company that promotes young American talent, and that is important.”

. . . I love singing here and performing here.”

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