Rigoletto, an Opera Discovery Unit

This unit is geared for later elementary and middle grades.
It fuses language arts and music to explore one of Verdi's first masterpieces. It explores the opera from the standpoint of plot and character and then examines how Verdi uses operatic conventions and tonal shading to create dramatic tension and unforgettable musical characterizations.

To successfully complete this unit, a teacher should have a recording of the complete opera that includes a libretto with a good translation. The Black Dog Opera Library Series fulfills this requirement admirably. All references to the CD will be to this recording. In addition, after completing the units you may want to show your students a video of the entire film. The only currently available version is the Jean-Pierre Ponelle film starring Pavarotti. Preview this tape first, as there may be some material that you find objectionable in the second act.

Lesson 1: Who is Rigoletto?


Black Dog Opera Series Rigoletto CD
Rigoletto's Story; Part 1

Objective: Students will discuss how music can be used to help tell a story.

Warm-up: This story will be set in Italy during the Renaissance. In the story, the Duke has the power of a king. Discuss what the students think it would be like to be a king. What do they think it would be like to be ruled by a king? What stories do they know that describe good kings? What stories describe bad kings?

1. Explain that an opera is a story that uses words and music. What other stories do they know that use words and music?

2. Read or tell the story of the first section of the Rigoletto story at the end of this unit. Pause at the indicated place to play music from the overture (CD1, Tr1).

3. Identify the main characters in the story. What do we know about them?

4. Using the information in the story, how do the students think that it will end? Is this a tragedy or a comedy? Discuss the elements of tragedy and comedy.

5. Relay the opera overture. How does the music tell us about the story? Do you think that this helps us know if the story will end tragically or comically?

6. Each student will write an ending to the story. How do they think that the conflict between the characters will be resolved? How will the curse affect the main characters?

Assessment: Were the students sensitive to the mood of the musical selection? Did they demonstrate the elements of tragedy or comedy in their answers?


Lesson 2: What is the Structure of the Story?

Materials: Paper and markers or crayons
Black Dog Opera Series Rigoletto CD

Objective: Students will identify the elements of a story in Rigoletto.

Warm-up: Ask the students to name their favorite stories, movies or plays. What do they like about these stories? What makes a story good? Develop a list on the blackboard or a bulletin board.

1. Review the plot of Rigoletto. Read the second part of the story. Was the opera a tragedy or a comedy?

2. Create a story map for Rigoletto. Who does what? When do things happen? Add details.

3. Replay the Overture to Rigoletto (CD1, Tr1), and then play the selection that is associated with Monterone's curse (CD1, Tr7). Now that you know the whole story of the opera, what do you think that the overture is telling us?

4. Play selections from these moments in the story (you may excerpt these selections if you wish): Gilda's declaration of love (CD1, Tr16), The Courtiers trick Rigoletto (CD1, Tr18 and 19), Gilda sacrifices herself for the Duke (CD2, Tr16). Before playing the selections, read the translation of the libretto to the students. How does the music help to tell the story?

5. Have the students evaluate the story using the list they created in the warm-up. Is Rigoletto a good story by their standards?

6. Have the students draw a picture of Rigoletto and list his characteristics, both physical and emotional. Do they think of him as a good character or a bad one? Does he have elements of both?

Assessment: Were students able to map out the main points of the opera plot with relevant details?

Lesson 3: Why Do These Characters Act This Way?

Materials: Black Dog Opera Series Rigoletto CD

Objective: Students will demonstrate the relationship between character and plot development.

Warm-up: Discuss the students' drawings of Rigoletto. How do they see him as a character? What are his good points and his bad points?

1. Return to the story map that the students constructed in the last lesson. Follow the character Rigoletto through the events of the story. At each event ask the following questions: How does he feel? Why does he feel this way? (Example: In the opening scene, Rigoletto feels happy because he gets to make fun of anyone he wants, and the Duke will protect him.)

2. As a group or on their own, have the students repeat this process for the Duke and for Gilda.

3. Read the libretto for the following selections and then listen to the arias: The Duke's Philosophy (CD1, Tr3), The Duke Grieves Over the Loss of Gilda (CD2, Tr1 and 2), The Duke's Song (CD2, Tr12). What do these pieces of music tell us about the Duke? Do you think that he is really as sad as he seems in the second selection?

4. Replay Gilda's declaration of Love (CD1, Tr16). What does this music tell us about Gilda?

5. On a sheet of paper, ask the students to describe ways in which the tragedy of the story could be avoided. If they were the Duke, how would they act differently? If they were Rigoletto? If they were Gilda?

Assessment: Do the students' papers reflect an understanding of how the character flaws in each individual contribute to the unfolding of the tragedy?


Lesson 4: From Story to Stage

Materials: Newsprint, markers, crayons, bulletin board

Students will demonstrate an understanding of the complete story of Rigoletto.

Warm-up: Read the definition of a synopsis. How is a synopsis different from a story? How would you create a synopsis from a story?

1. Have students retell the events in Rigoletto as a group in ten sentences or less. Each sentence should contain as much information as possible. If the students cannot tell the story in the required ten sentences, what will they eliminate?

2. Divide the students into ten groups. Assign each group a sentence from the developed synopsis. Furnish each group with large newsprint paper and crayons or markers. Each group will illustrate their sentence. They may either create a picture in which they all contribute, or they may take separate areas of the paper and create separate illustrations.

3. The illustrations will be placed on a bulletin board to give a visual synopsis of the plot of Rigoletto. The illustrations may be connected by sequence words, i.e., soon, meanwhile, after that, etc.

Assessment: Were students able to pare down the story to its main points? Do they understand the difference between the main point and a detail?

Lesson 5: Developing a Libretto

Materials: Direction Cards

Objective: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the process of libretto creation by developing dialogue from certain situations.

Warm-up: Review the motivations of the three main characters as developed in Lesson 3.

1. Divide the class into several groups of about five or six. Give each group a direction card found at the end of this unit.

2. Have each group improvise a short scene based on the characters and the problem on their direction card. They may duplicate the plot line in the opera or change it to fit their own solution.

3. Present the scenes in an order reflecting the order in the opera. After the scenes are presented, discuss how the scenes varied from the similar scenes in the opera.

4. Point out that they have just begun to develop a libretto. A libretto is sort of like the "play" of the opera. It is the words on which the music will be composed.

5. Ask each student to select one of the scenes from the opera synopsis and develop a short dialogue from the scene. The dialogue need not be more than one page long, but should include most of the elements of the scene.

Assessment: Were the students able to clearly express the ideas in their scenes?

Lesson 6: The Composer and the Librettist

Materials: Verdi and Piave: A Typical Partnership

Objective: Students will understand the role of the composer and the librettist, and the social history during the time when Rigoletto was created.

Warm-up: Define the terms COMPOSER and LIBRETTIST. Can they think of other places where people create things in partnership?

1. Introduce Verdi and Piave as the composer and librettist team.

2. Read the information on the composer and the librettist at the end of this unit. What was happening in the world at the time of this writing? How did the situation in Italian politics at this time contribute to the writing of the opera?

3. Rigoletto was based upon a play by the famous French writer Victor Hugo. Hugo also wrote the book on which the musical Les Miserables was based. Can the students think of other times when books or plays have been turned into other art forms? Why do they think that people change these from one art form to another?

4. Hugo's play was originally called The King's Amusement. The government censors in Italy would not let the opera be written about a king? Why do the students think that this might be?

5. On a sheet of paper have the students list the advantages and disadvantages of working in a creative team.

Assessment: Do students understand the relationship of the composer and the librettist to each other and to the opera?

Lesson 7: Operatic Conventions

Materials: Black Dog Opera Series Rigoletto CD

Objective: Students will be able to define the conventions of traditional opera.

Warm-up: Briefly review the synopsis of the opera and the dialogue that the students developed in Lesson 5. Discuss plays or musicals that the students may have seen. What kinds of things were presented on the stage (solos, monologues, etc.)?

1. Discuss the differences between a play and an opera. How are they similar? How do opera singers' voices differ from that of other types of singers? Bearing in mind that opera is sung without a microphone, why do the students think that opera singers sing in their manner?

2. Define the terms ARIA, DUET, TRIO, QUARTET, and CHORUS. These are conventional forms in opera.

3. Play selections from the opera and identify them by operatic convention. (CD1, Tr3, Aria; CD1, Tr12, Duet; CD1, Tr13, Trio; CD2, Tr14, Quartet; CD1, Tr18, Chorus) What are the characteristics of each convention (arias reveal a character's feeling, duets are dialogues, trios and quartets allow us to see several perspectives of the scene at once, and the chorus creates commentary and crowd action)?

4. Discuss the difference between song-like sections of the opera and RECITATIVE, music, which is similar to sung dialogue. Which moves faster, song material or recitative? When would a composer want to use a recitative? When would they want to create more song-like material?

5. Have students return to their dialogues from Lesson 5. Ask them to identify places in their dialogue where the characters are expressing feelings. Where are the characters moving the plot along faster?

6. Have the students write an answer to the question, "How do the conventions of opera help the composer and the librettist tell the story?"

Assessment: Can the students tell the difference between the various operatic conventions?

Lesson 8: How Do Words and Music Help Us Understand the Characters?

Materials: Black Dog Opera Series Rigoletto CD
Construction paper, markers, scissors.

Objective: Students will identify and describe ways in which the words and the music of the opera help to define the characters.

Warm-up: Think of examples in which words or music help to describe a character in television shows or movies.

1. Introduce the students to the four traditional operatic vocal types (soprano, contralto, tenor and baritone). Explain that each vocal type traditionally sang certain kinds of roles. The soprano was the heroine, the tenor was the hero, the baritone was often either the villain or the noble friend of the tenor.

2. Listen to the Duke's song (CD2, Tr12) and examine the words of the aria. Do you believe that the Duke is a hero like most tenors? How would you describe the Duke?

3. Examine the character of Rigoletto. Where does he act like a villain? Where does he act like a good father?

4. Read the libretto and listen to the selection (CD2, Tr5). Why does Rigoletto sing such a carefree song? Do you think that he is really happy in that situation? How do the words and the music tell you this?

5. Read the libretto and listen to the selection (CD2, Tr6). What words tell you of Rigoletto's emotions? Does this aria have only one emotion? How does the music help you understand the emotions?

6. Examine the characters in the opera and classify them by vocal type. Do the characters match the usual conventions of vocal type? Is Rigoletto a villain? Is he a noble friend? Is the Duke a hero?

7. Using construction paper, scissors and markers, have the students create two masks for Rigoletto, one depicting his role as the rather mean court jester and one as the loving father. When in the opera would Rigoletto use each mask?

Assessment: Students demonstrate the understanding that characters may sometimes have a public and a private face.

At this point in the study, students should have demonstrated a clear knowledge of the subject matter of the opera. You may elect to devote some class time to showing them a video of the complete opera. You may also opt to show only selected portions of the opera if you do not have time for the entire video. You may also want to explore a new opera or operetta. Perhaps they could take their notes from the lessons in this series and come up with their own opera.


Resources for Teachers


Rigoletto's Story; Part 1

My name is Rigoletto. I was born with a big hump on my back. For most of my life, people made fun of me and wouldn't take me seriously. I couldn't do the kind of work that other people could do. But I was good at making the Duke laugh, so he made me the court jester.

You might think that being a court jester to the Duke would be a fun job, but I am here to tell you that it can be the worst job in the world. All day long I have to tell jokes and make fun of people. They all laugh at me, but I know that they also hate me. I have made fun of each one of them. I don't care. I don't like them anyway. They are all a bunch of phonies. And I am the Duke's favorite servant, so they can't do anything to me.

I may be the Duke's favorite but I don't really like him either. He doesn't treat people very well. He can be a very cruel man. If he falls in love with a woman and she is in love with someone else, he will just have the other man killed. He thinks that's funny. Then he gets tired of that woman and starts to flirt with another. He has broken hearts all over Mantua.

Why just today he sent a man to jail, right during one of the Duke's outrageous parties. The man's name was Monterone. He had a daughter who unfortunately fell in love with the Duke. The Duke broke her heart. Monterone was so mad that he started to tell everyone what he thought about the Duke. As you can imagine, the Duke was not so happy about that and had him arrested. I thought it was funny at the time and made some jokes about him. He looked at me and cursed me. He said that he hoped that some day I would feel the grief that a father feels when his daughter is treated cruelly.

All of the courtiers laughed, but I didn't. They don't know that I have a secret. I have a daughter. She is an angel--so innocent. I keep her locked away from all these terrible people. I especially don't want her to ever meet the Duke.


Rigoletto's Story; Part 2

My goodness, things couldn't have possibly gotten worse after that curse. I don't know about you, but after all that has happened to me, I believe in curses.

I was going home after the Duke's party. On the way, I met a strange man. He told me that if I ever wanted to have anyone killed, he could help me. I don't know why he would ask me that, but I asked for his name anyway.

When I got home, my daughter greeted me. She was the only joy I had left in my life. Her name was Gilda. Her mother had died many years ago, and I left her in the country with a nurse to look after her. I didn't want to bring her to this terrible city. But now she was old enough to come and live with me. I made her promise never to leave my house. She said she would obey me. I was happy and I went to bed.

Little did I know that whenever I went away, a man would visit her. The man told her that he was a poor student, but really he was the Duke. My daughter was pretty and the Duke had fallen in love with her. He would come to visit her every night. He even came that night, while I was sleeping.

Later that night I heard noises in the street. I went outside to check on things. There were some of the members of the Duke's court. They told me that they wanted me to help them play a trick on someone. They blindfolded me and said that we were going to kidnap the wife of one of my enemies. I thought that was a good idea and let them blindfold me. I should have known better. As they came out of the house with a woman, I heard her scream. It was my own daughter.

I went to the Duke's palace as fast as I could. At first I couldn't find my daughter anywhere. But soon she came running towards me, crying. The men had treated her very badly, and the Duke also hurt her. She felt broken-hearted. Everything that she had believed was a lie. I knew at that moment that I had to take my revenge.

I sprang into action. I was too crippled to fight the Duke myself, so I found the mysterious man and hired him to assassinate the Duke. The man and his sister would lure the Duke to a secluded tavern and then kill him. I thought the plan was perfect. I followed the Duke to the tavern and heard him singing his silly songs. My revenge was almost complete.

I didn't count on two things. First, my daughter was still in love with the Duke, despite everything. She followed him out to the tavern and was watching everything through a window.

I also didn't count on the Assassin' s sister. She also fell in love with the Duke and persuaded her brother to find someone else to kill, instead. They decided that the next person who knocked on the door of the tavern would be the one that they would kill.

After a huge storm, I knocked on the door of the tavern, sure that my plan had worked. The Assassin brought out a body to me, wrapped in a blanket, and asked me to dump it in the lake. As I was about to do what he said, I heard a sound that made my blood run cold. I heard the Duke's voice singing that stupid song again. How could this be? I unwrapped the body and there was my beautiful daughter Gilda. She had heard about the plot and decided to save the life of the Duke. She still had a little life left in her. She said goodbye to me forever and died in my arms. The curse had run its course.


Direction Cards

You are Rigoletto and you are making fun of a man whose daughter has been disgraced. How would you react when he curses you?

You are the Duke and you have fallen in love with an innocent girl. How do you get her to trust you?

You are Rigoletto and some courtiers want you to help them play a trick on someone. They want to blindfold you. How do you react?

You are the Assassin and you want to lure the Duke to your tavern to kill him. How would you get him to visit you?

You are Gilda and you have just heard a plot to kill the man that you love. How will you save him?

Verdi and Piave: A Typical Partnership

Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Piave were both verysuccessful men. Verdi had written many well-received operas, and Piave had written for all the best opera composers. Verdi and Piave worked together on several of the most successful operas produced anywhere in Italy.

Verdi thought that he had read a play that would make a great opera. It was called The King's Amusement, and was written by the very successful French playwright and author, Victor Hugo. Piave and Verdi started creating the opera immediately. Piave would write the words, and then Verdi would correct them. Verdi almost always found something to complain about in the words, but Piave was used to that, and he would just continue to write until Verdi was satisfied.

But they also had bigger problems. Italy at that time was not one country. It was made up of many small countries that were all being ruled by the Emperor of Austria. The emperor was worried about everything that happened in Italy. People were beginning to riot against his rule, and they were calling for their own country and their own king. The Austrian government knew that Verdi believed that an Italian king should rule Italy, so they looked very carefully at every opera that he created. They made Verdi change the title of the opera and change the king into a duke. Verdi did what they wanted.

Soon the opera was completed and rehearsals for the performance started. Verdi knew that he had written some of the best music ever for this opera, and he was afraid that someone else might want to steal it. He was especially proud of the Duke's song, "La Donna Mobile." He knew it would be a hit but he didn't want anyone else claiming the song. So he didn't give anyone the music until the day before the performance. He was right. The song was the hit of the show and the show was a smashing success.