After 942 days, Opera Philadelphia returns to the Academy of Music

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Gilda (Raven McMillan) pleads with her father, Rigoletto (Anthony Clark Evans), who confines her to the house under the watch of a housekeeper. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Gilda (Raven McMillan) pleads with her father, Rigoletto (Anthony Clark Evans), who confines her to the house under the watch of a housekeeper. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Back in 2020, baritone Anthony Clark Evans and mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi were both preparing to make their debut with Opera Philadelphia in Madame Butterfly, but the pandemic hit the opera world particularly hard, as performances of powerful singing risked becoming super-spreader contagion events.

Suddenly the singers’ professional lives became completely canceled. Evans, who supports a family with two daughters ages 7 and 3, turned to selling Jeeps.

In Opera Philadelphia’s ”Rigoletto,” the title character is portrayed by Anthony Clark Evans and Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, is portrayed by Raven McMillan. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I started to sell cars at a dealership,” he said.

“I moved in with my parents,” said Choi, who used her downtime to pursue other creative paths, including making videos of herself dancing to K-Pop songs on TikTok.

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Those 30-second dance videos had an unexpected payoff. Sarah Williams, a creative producer at Opera Philadelphia, saw Choi’s selfie videos and asked her to star in a short opera film TakTakShoo commissioned by composer Rene Orth. It streamed on the company’s online video platform last year.

Dancing to boy bands like Seventeen and BTS turned into a professional opportunity for Choi.

“Take that, Dad,” she said. “Something came out of that.”

Now Choi and Evans are back on the stage they were meant to be on two years ago, this time performing in Verdi’s classic opera “Rigoletto.” Evans has the lead role and Choi appears in the final act as Maddalena.

The philandering Duke of Mantua, portrayed by Joshua Blue, is surrounded by women and sycophants, in the opening act of Opera Philadelphia’s ”Rigoletto,” which will be the company’s first live performance since the start of the pandemic. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Rigoletto” is Opera Philadelphia’s first in-person performance of a full opera production in 942 days. The company recently produced concert performances and has received accolades for its artistically ambitious streaming video productions during the pandemic, but has not staged a traditional opera since September 2019.

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“Rigoletto” will be performed at Opera Philadelphia’s home base at the Academy of Music, where the production created by New Zealand Opera puts the 1851 opera in a modern Italian setting, emphasizing the toxic masculinity of abusive men in positions of political power.

The cast and orchestra of Opera Philadelphia rehearse for their first live performance since the start of the pandemic, Guiseppe Verdi’s ”Rigoletto,” at the Academy of Music. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It doesn’t let the men off the hook,” Evans said. “The Duke gets to sing all these hit opera songs that tons of people know, even outside of opera. The Duke is a horrible person. They hear those songs and they go, ‘Oh, okay, he did some bad stuff, but those songs are good.’ Our production is not like that.”

While the story may be dark, Evans says the cast has been working particularly well together after a forced hiatus from performance due to the pandemic.

“Everybody is so eager,” he said. “The energy is just palpable.”

The Duke of Mantua (Joshua Blue), tells his courtier, Borsa (Julius Ahn), about his obsession with a girl he has seen in church. With ”Rigoletto,” Opera Philadelphia returns to the stage at the Academy of Music. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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