San Diego Opera Stages A Roaring '20s 'La Traviata'
But epic tale of love works in any era
LA TRAVIATA OFFERS A SIGNATURE ROLE THE CHARACTER OF VIOLETA, A WOMAN WILLING TO SACRIFICE ALL FOR LOVE. KPBS REPORTER BATH SPEAKS WITH THE -- SPEAKS WITH THE ACTRESS TACKLING THE ROLE. Reporter: WHAT IS THE MAIN CHALLENGE IN TACKLING THIS ROLE? VOCALLY, THE MAIN CHALLENGE IS THAT IT REQUIRES EVERYTHING FOR THE VOICE NOTES, LOW NOTES ETC. VERY SMOOTH, CONTROLLED SINGING. A COLOR PALETTE TO SHOW EVERYONE THE MOTIONS SHE MUST PORTRAY VOCALLY IT IS ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGING ROLES. [MUSIC PLAYING] ACTING WISE USED TO BE A SHOW WOMAN AND YOU HAVE TO BE VULNERABLE AND STARTED THE BOTH AND DO IT WELL. THAT IS THE CHALLENGE OF THE ROLE. Reporter: FOR PEOPLE NOT FAMILIAR WITH OPERA, GIVE ME A BRIEF RUNDOWN OF THE STORY? IT IS A CORTISONE. THAT IS IMPORTANT. SHE WAS NOT JUST A PROSTITUTE SHE IS A WOMAN OF HIGH SOCIETY WHO WAS WELL SPOKEN, WELL EDUCATED AND VERY DESIRED NOT JUST FOR HER LOOKS, BEFORE HER MIND. ALSO FOR HER PERSONALITY. SHE HAS SUTURES AND SHE ENJOYS THE FINER THINGS IN LIFE SHE MEETS THE YOUNGER MAN. HE IS MORE INNOCENT AND NAÏVE, BUT GENUINE AND EARNEST. AT FIRST SHE PUSHES HIM AWAY SHE FALLS FOR HIM AND FINALLY LET HER GUARD DOWN AND SAYS MAYBE I WILL GIVE INTO LOVE. HIS FATHER THEN COMES AND SAYS IF MY SON IS WITH YOU, HIS YOUNGER SISTER WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MARRY. BECAUSE YOUR NAME WILL RUIN OUR FAMILY NAME. IF YOU LOVE HIM YOU WILL LEAVE HIM. THROUGHOUT ALL OF THIS SHE IS DEALING WITH AN ILLNESS AND NO ONE KNOWS HOW BAD IT IS. SHE DOES GIVE ALFREDO UP FOR THE SAKE OF HIS FAMILY. IN THE END, HE COMES BACK BECAUSE SHE IS DYING AND THE FATHER APOLOGIZES AND SAYS I AM SORRY AND YOU ARE GOOD WOMAN. IN THE END, THEY ARE TOGETHER AND THEN SHE DIES. Reporter: THIS PARTICULAR PRODUCTION OF LA TRAVIATA DOES SEEM DARING. THE TIME PERIOD IT IS SET IS THE 1920S HOW IS THAT? I LOVE THE 20s. I LOVE THAT ERA FOR FASHION AND FOR THE ARTS AND SENTIMENT. IT WAS AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR AND EVERYONE WANTED TO ENJOY LIFE AND THE SENSUAL PLEASURES OF LIFE THAT IS WHAT THIS PUT -- PIECES ABOUT ABOUT NONCONFORMITY. PEOPLE FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS AND LOVING EACH OTHER. MAKING SOCIETAL BACKGROUNDS. THAT IS WHY IT WORKS SO WELL. Reporter: IS THIS A GOOD OPERA FOR SOMEONE WHO IS NOT FAMILIAR WITH OPERA? OR WHO IS LOOKING TO SAMPLE IT? I THINK THIS IS THE BEST FIRST OPERA. IT IS THE MOST COMMONLY PERFORMED OPERA LAST YEAR I THINK THE REASON WHY IS BECAUSE THE STORY IS TIMELESS SPIRIT IT CAN BE SET IN ALMOST ANY PERIOD PICK IT APPEALS TO EMOTIONS ON A DEEPER LEVEL. RATHER THAN THE SURFACE LEVEL WE WANT TO PORTRAY. AND SHOW SOLILOQUIES OF PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THE WAY THEY PRESENT THEMSELVES AND HOW THEY REALLY FEEL THAT WE CAN RELATE TO THAT BRINGS TRUTH INTO PEOPLE'S LIVES. Reporter: WHAT YOU ENJOYED MOST ABOUT THIS CHARACTER? IS THERE AN ASPECT YOU PARTICULARLY ENJOY? SHE IS A CHARACTER I HAVE LIVED WITH FOR A WHILE I THINK SHE IS MY FAVORITE BECAUSE EVERY TIME I PLAY HER, THE LIFE INSURANCE I HAVE HAD SINCE THE LAST TIME I PLAYED HER, I CAN DRAW ON. SHE IS SO REAL AND HUMAN PICK SHE IS MORE SELFLESS THAN I AM I WISH I COULD SAY I HAD DONE WHAT SHE WOULD DO. I FEEL LIKE I HAVE MORE TO GIVE TO HER. THE MORE THAT I LIVE MY LIFE I ALSO LEARNED MORE FROM HER . YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME HE SAW THIS OPERA? SOMEONE ASKED ME THAT I DO NOT REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME. NO, I DO REMEMBER. WITHIN ONE YEAR I SAW RENÉE FLEMING AND ANOTHER DO IT AT THE MET. THE FIRST TIME I SAW IT, NOT LIVE, BUT ON DVD WAS THE ONE THAT ANGELA DID WITH THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE IN 1994. THAT IS THE PRODUCTION I AM DOING THIS YEAR. THAT WAS THE FIRST OPERA DVD I OWNED. IT HAS COME FULL CIRCLE FOR ME NOW. Reporter: HOW EARLY DID YOU GET INTRODUCED TO OPERA X SPECULATE, AROUND COLLEGE I GREW UP IN A TRADITIONAL SUBURBAN FAMILY ON THE EAST COAST IN MARYLAND I GREW UP WITH ROCK MUSIC AND I DID CHOIR IN HIGH SCHOOL. IT WAS NOT UNTIL I TOOK A VOICE LESSON IN PREPARATION FOR COLLEGE THAT I REALIZED I HAD AN OPERATIC VOICE. I KEPT EXPLORING AND THE DOORS KEPT OPENING. Reporter: WHAT IS IT ABOUT UPRIGHT YOU THINK CAN EXPRESS THINGS DIFFERENTLY THAN MUSICAL THEATER OR FILM? WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS FORUM THAT YOU LOVE? OPERA DOES ENCOMPASS MANY ART FORMS. DANCE, FASHION, MAKEUP, ORCHESTRA, ACTING, SINGING ETC. I THINK THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT OPERA IS THE POWER OF THE UNAMPLIFIED HUMAN VOICE. [MUSIC PLAYING] YOU ARE HEARING A VOICE ABOUT A MICROPHONE. AND A LARGE UPPER HALL AND YOU'RE HEARING A VOICE RESONATE OFF THE HUMAN BODY, THE BONES IN THE FACE. AND THE ACOUSTIC OF THE MUSIC IN A VOICE RESONATE IN THE HALL PICK THAT IS WHAT WE TRAINED SO LONG TO DO IT IS BASICALLY THE BALLET OF SINGING. IT IS A REGIMENTED ARTFORM. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK IT IS INCREDIBLE. AND ATHLETIC FEET. I AM IN AWE THAT I CAN DO IT. I THINK PEOPLE'S LIVES ARE CHANGED WHEN THEY HEAR REALLY HIGH QUALITY SINGING PERFORMED LIVE. BECAUSE THAT IS SOMETHING OPERA HAS TO OFFER. A CLASSICAL ART SONG DOES NOT PICK IT IS IN A SMALLER SPACE AND MORE INTIMATE TO HEAR A VOICE RESONATING SO POWERFULLY IN A LARGE HALL. AS MY DAD SAYS, IT CHANGES THE MOLECULES IN YOUR BODY. [MUSIC PLAYING] Reporter: THANK YOU VERY MUCH. NICE MEETING YOU. THAT WAS KPBS ART REPORTER REPORTING. LA TRAVIATA HAS TWO MORE PERFORMANCES THROUGH SUNDAY. BE SURE TO WATCH KPBS EVENING EDITION AT 5 PM AND 6:30 PM TONIGHT ON KPBS TELEVISION. JOIN US AGAIN TOMORROW FOR KPBS MIDDAY EDITION AT NOON. IF YOU EVER MISS A SHOW, CHECK OUT THE MIDDAY EDITION PODCAST@TRAN03.ORG/PODCAST. I AM MAUREEN CAVANAUGH . THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.
The story of Violetta, a beautiful, free-spirited courtesan who falls for Alfredo, a proper young gentleman, and then pays dearly for her passions is the kind of operatic material that can capture a child’s imagination.
"When I was a young girl, the first time I went I was shocked. I loved it so much, the passions, I started going to opera very young when I was eight," said Marta Domingo, who directs San Diego Opera's current production of "La Traviata."
She has taken Verdi’s 19th century opera and transplanted it to America in the Roaring '20s.
"And it works perfectly because you have the flappers, which are absolutely fabulous women. They are totally liberated, they have a mind of their own, and because of the consequences of the first world war they have faced death and sadness so they wanted to enjoy life every day because it might be the last one. So they didn’t think in the future, they just enjoy today and that was ideal very much like 1850s in France," Domingo explained.
Soprano Corrine Winters sings the role of Violetta.
"I love the '20s, I love that era for fashion, for arts, for the sentiment because it was after the First World War and everyone just wanted to enjoy life and the sensual pleasures of life, which is what this piece is about, but it is also about nonconformity, about two people from different backgrounds and different lives finding each other and loving each other and breaking societal boundaries. And I think that is why this period works so well," Winters said.
Tenor Jesus Garcia plays the object of Violetta’s passions, Alfredo.
"It’s one of those archetypal love stories that works no matter what time period it’s set in," Garcia said. "People fall in love, extenuating circumstances force them to separate even though they still long to be together then they get together in the end just in time for one of them to die. It’s just one of those stories that gets people’s heartstrings."
That’s not entirely a spoiler.
"La Traviata" is based on Alexander Dumas’ classic novel "The Lady of the Camillias" that was made into the popular movie "Camille" in which Greta Garbo died so famously. For the opera, Camille is transformed into Violetta.
"Violetta is a courtesan and that’s important in terms of the time period because she was not just a prostitute, she was a woman of high society who was well spoken and educated, very desired and not just for her looks but for her mind and her personality," Winters said.
But then she falls for a younger man who is far less worldly then her. He is also from a respectable family and, against her better instincts, Violetta allows herself to fall in love.
Perhaps that is why the opera found a place in the movie "Pretty Woman" where Violetta’s story moves Julia Roberts’ character to tears. The opera provides the soundtrack for the movie at that point and Garcia says that’s a good way to think about the music in an opera as providing the emotional score to a story.
"I once had a director say that the music is the secret that only the audience hears," Garcia said. "That the people onstage don’t know they are singing you are just living a life and it is coming out as music. I think it’s cool to go into an opera with that kind of perspective."
Domingo came up with the idea of having a jazz band onstage during a party scene.
"You will see how well it fits. The rhythm, then you will see the dancers. I’m not having any Spanish dancers here," Domingo said.
Instead they will be dancers inspired by art deco ivory and bronze statues.
"The skin is ivory and the dresses is made of bronze so that’s what I did for the dancers in the third act," Domingo said.
A key moment in that act is when Alfredo disgraces Violetta in front of high society.
"It’s kind of a rip roaring mad scene for Alfredo and as an actor that’s exciting to play," Garcia said.
For Winters, it was the vocal challenges of playing Violetta that was exciting.
"It requires everything from the voice, just a color palette to show all the emotions, and vocally it’s one of the most challenging roles," Winters explained.
And it’s the voice that makes opera unique.
"The most important thing about opera is the power of the unamplified human voice," Winters said. You are hearing a voice without a microphone in a large opera hall and you are hearing it resonate off the human body, off the bones in the face and the acoustic of the room is making it resonate. It’s incredible, it’s an athletic feat we do and I think people’s lives are changed when they hear high quality singing to hear a voice resonating so powerfully in a large hall I think as my dad say, it changes the molecules in your body."
Get ready for your molecular transformation as San Diego Opera closes out its current season with Verdi’s "La Traviata."
"La Traviata" has four performances starting this Saturday and running through April 30.