Warwick Fyfe on great art and playing the fool

How do you sell great art? How do you distill a work like Rigoletto into a few lines one might put on a poster?

Warwick Fyfe attacks the above questions with a healthy fear of tag-line clichés. “High art does not need a mere mortal like me to argue its merits,” he says. “The basic reason for experiencing a great work of art is that it’s a great work of art.”

Despite those reservations, Fyfe does try to define what makes Rigoletto one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian opera. “It is a work of high art which, when performed well, is universal so that experts and novices alike will be affected profoundly in a way which will tingle every nerve fibre and change their lives appreciably for the better.”

Verdi is a master of writing for the voice, Fyfe explains. “Verdi understands the human voice and how to use it to create thrilling beauty.”

However, it doesn’t follow that it’s easy to sing. “It’s relentless! When I hear young singers talking airily about performing Rigoletto one day I have to smile to myself. Never was it more truly said of a role that the ability to sing the aria is not the same as the ability to sing the whole thing!”

The music of Rigoletto demands perfect technique and a huge range of colour. “The trick is to go to the edge but not tip over it. Never lose the cold core of technical calculation in the passion and excitement of the moment…”

Verdi’s hunchbacked court jester is a thrilling role: he arrives on the scene as a secretive, complex character and travels a huge spectrum of emotion within the opera.

For Fyfe, who is making something of a name for himself as a character performer, finding the nuances of Rigoletto’s character involves thinking about the experiences that may have shaped him.

“His physical malformation is sure to have had a hand in shaping his character. Children are cruel, and he would have been picked on mercilessly. This would have soured and embittered him,” Fyfe muses.

The popular baritone is drawing on his own experience – as an overweight child, he coped with verbal bullying by getting in first with the laughter. “If you’re the fat or hunchbacked child, it pays to be a wit and to play the buffoon!”

Fyfe’s Rigoletto in Melbourne follows his triumphant debut as Alberich in The Melbourne Ring Cycle last year.

While he would like to seek more Wagnerian roles, this year is a rich banquet of Verdi and Mozart: singing Leperello in New Zealand Opera’s Don Giovanni and reprising his acclaimed Falstaff in the Melbourne Spring season.

No amount of Wagner will dull his love for the Italian opera master Verdi.

“I love the burnished edge of the music,” Fyfe explains. “I love the intensity of its authentic emotions. I love its rhythmic strength and brilliant life force. I love Verdi for its Verdiness!”

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