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Setting the stage: The enduring legacy of Max Röthlisberger

MAC curtain falls for the last time on the late designer's "Rigoletto" set

Rigoletto set [vid]
The set of "Rigoletto" was designed by legendary set designer Max Röthlisberger and will be featured in the upcoming production of "Rigoletto" beginning Sept. 21.

Swiss-born Röthlisberger had acted, directed and designed sets in Europe's leading opera houses for more than 40 years and was in his 60s when he was recruited to IU by former School of Music Dean Wilfred Bain in 1973. C. David Higgins, professor of music and chair of the Jacobs School's Department of Opera Studies, had finished graduate school at IU and was on the opera staff when Röthlisberger arrived. He worked with him until 1987, when Röthlisberger retired and returned to Switzerland. Röthlisberger passed away in 2003 at the age of 89.

"Max was schooled in the European model of theatre design -- scenography. He was trained to be responsible for design of the entire production: set, costumes and lighting," Higgins says. "Our styles complemented each other quite well. His reflected an interest in children's theatre; it was what I would describe as illustrative, having a naïve, realistic style, whereas my designs lean toward romantic realism."

In addition to designing breathtaking new sets for IU Opera Theater in the years since his colleague left, Higgins has been responsible for keeping Röthlisberger's sets intact and viable for IU Opera's demanding repertoire. He and his staff have done a remarkable job: Rigoletto's set was first used in 1974 and is being used for the last time for this season's production, which runs at 8 p.m. Sept. 21, 22, 28 and 29 in the MAC. Pre-show "Opera Insights" begins at 7 p.m. in the MAC Mezzanine before each performance.

"When Max retired, we had approximately six of his sets that were used for the opera's repertoire," says Jim Lile, Jacobs School production manager. "Among those were Madama Butterfly -- which was used for the last time last season -- Hansel and Gretel, The Bartered Bride and Rigoletto."

Rothlisberger, Max [vid]
Max Röthlisberger working on a model for the set of "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1974. Photo is courtesy of Vivian Counts and Indiana University Archives.

As Röthlisberger's sets transform the stage of the MAC one more time, IU Opera Theater fans who have enjoyed and, on occasion, applauded these remarkable creations for decades are seeing the fading of an era.

"Things are very different now," says Higgins. "Max was known for designing really big sets. Today, budget constraints are always a major concern. Labor, building materials and technical support are so much more expensive. Each production is expected to pay for itself -- Max's sets have paid for themselves many times over."

Peter Jacobi, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and music critic for the Bloomington Herald-Times, believes, as does Higgins, that the endurance of Röthlisberger's sets can be attributed to two things: traditional design and solid construction.

"Max had a real sense of story and atmosphere for any given opera," says Jacobi. "He was able to rather inexpensively create useful and rich production sets, and because he was rather traditional in his approach -- not trendy at all -- the sets could be used over time. He saw to it that they were built sturdily enough to last."

Rigoletto (3) [vid]
Patrick Dagley sets up lights for the opera "Rigoletto."
Print-Quality Photo

One of Verdi's most enduring works, Rigoletto, is set in 16th-century Mantua, Italy. It survived considerable censorship to tell the story of the famously acerbic court jester and his scoundrel of a master, the Duke of Mantua. Things go awry when one of the victims of Rigoletto's sharp tongue curses the deeply superstitious jester. After the licentious Duke seduces the clown's daughter, Gilda, and then abandons her, Rigoletto vows revenge and plans to have his employer killed. But, through curious twists in the plot, perhaps the curse, the one who dies is not the Duke.

For more information about Rigoletto, visit http://www.music.indiana.edu/opera/.

Rigoletto is sung in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased in person at the MAC Box Office on Jordan Avenue or by phone 812-855-7433. Tickets are also available by phone through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955 or on the Web at http://music.indiana.edu/opera.