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For Dallas Opera's villain George Gagnidze, it's good to be bad

Gagnidze head shot
Dario Acosta
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Baritone George Gagnidze makes his Dallas Opera debut with Verdi's "Rigoletto" this week at the Winspear Opera House.

Gagnidze is making his Dallas debut in "Rigoletto." He told us about cheating death on stage and why it's so interesting to play evil people. And that time he lost his fake mustache in the middle of a song.

'Tis the season for scary clowns and the title character from The Dallas Opera's current production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" certainly fits the bill. The story follows a court jester who is at first amusing with his mocking wit, but when his daughter is cruelly seduced by a predatory Duke he becomes consumed with revenge and murder.

Making his Dallas Opera debut in the title role is internationally acclaimed Georgian baritone George Gagnidze. The dark clown Rigoletto is a role Gagnidze is intimately familiar with having performed the role over 100 times throughout the world.

We caught up with the celebrated opera virtuoso on his day off to ask him about his life on the stage and his fondness for playing for bad guys.

I heard you like playing bad guys or “baddies,” as you call them. Is that true?

Yes, that's true. In many operas, without the bad guys, nothing would happen on stage; they are the motor of the plot and at the heart of the pieces. A lot of “good guys,” at least on stage, are bland and boring, and often not too strongly defined characters. Villains are much more interesting to interpret, and it’s stimulating to understand what on earth caused them to be such evil people.

What's your favorite "baddie" character?

Oh, that's difficult to answer. Probably Iago from Shakespeare's "Othello." I like him because you have to play him like the true face of the devil.

I also like Scarpia from "Tosca." He is the Chief of Police--actually, a lot of these "baddies" in opera remind me of politicians. I'd like to ask him why he's so mad and why he does what he does. He is kind of a macho character and without him nothing would happen in the opera. Of course, this also makes it very interesting for the performer, because he is really is the center of the piece.

Most villains have some sort of redeeming qualities, but Scarpia, just like Iago in “Othello,” is pure evil with zero empathy. Which makes it a big challenge to play this character, but I like challenges!

Rigoletto Dallas Opera
Julius Ahn
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Gagnidze says he likes the challenge of playing dark characters. He's performed the role of Rigoletto more than 100 times.

You've performed all over the world. What's the most interesting thing that's ever happened to you at one of your performances?

The most interesting, but also very dangerous, thing that ever happened while I was performing was during a show of “La traviata” at the Arena of Verona. The Arena di Verona is a huge Roman open-air amphitheater from the 1st century A.D with an audience capacity of 20.000. So, the scenery is huge, and at one show--I think it even was my debut there -- at the beginning of the duet with the soprano a huge part of the sets, maybe 70-100 feet high crashed to the ground. It missed me by only a few feet because I saw it falling and ran off stage.

The next day a journalist wrote in a review: “the soprano sang her opening phrase, and the baritone Mr Gagnidze ran off stage.”

Another time, I remember I was at the same amphitheater and it was during the summer with temperatures over 90 degrees. With the heat beating down on the stone steps in the theater all day, it didn’t really cool down at night during the show. And I remember I was singing "Nabucco" and I wore a big mustache and it was so hot that when I opened my mouth and started to sing my big aria my mustache fell off.

What’s a fun way to describe what you do?

I am wearing sometimes more, sometimes less extravagant costumes in the evening, singing in various foreign languages about all kind of human emotions in front of thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of people.

What’s a guilty pleasure that you’ve discovered here in the United States?

My son is a huge basketball fan and basketball player and with him I attended my first basketball game in New York. Since then, I love it and I’m trying to attend basketball games in my free time when I’m in the U.S.

How would you describe Texas to your family back in Georgia?

It’s a very enjoyable place with lovely, friendly people. I feel so welcome here. Also, the weather is so nice and warm and I enjoy that very much as well. Also the food is superlative, I have never eaten better steaks and Tex-Mex food than here!

You can catch the final performances of “Rigoletto” on October 14 and October 16 at the Winspear Opera House.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at tpowell@kera.org.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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