The premiere of Verdi’s La traviata was a disaster. According to contemporary reports, a hoarse tenor and an overweight soprano (“dying” from tuberculosis) caused the audience to drown the music in torrents of laughter; more noteworthy, however, is the society scandal incited by the opera. The tragic opera told a contemporary story, one that centered around an independent woman, a high class prostitute, who is destroyed by double-standards and social pressure. Normally, the situations would be placed in the remote past, maintaining the underlying message but politely avoiding the risk of making an obvious social statement. Holding a mirror hard against their noses, the opera’s subject matter ruffled more than a few plumes.
Over 150 years later the story continues to be scandalously, somewhat embarrassingly relevant. Working from the opera’s central themes, the Hubbard Hall Opera Theater’s February production of La traviata in Schenectady, New York will highlight the beauty of Verdi’s music while exploring how we see and experience twenty-first century traviatas every day.
Moving On Up
Alexina “Alix” Jones founded the Hubbard Hall Opera Theater (HHOT) in the summer of 2008 with the company’s inaugural production, Mozart’s Così fan tutte. “My goal for HHOT is to allow people in Central New York year-round access to high-quality, affordable opera performances,” says Alexina Jones. This February’s production of Verdi’s La traviata represents HHOT’s first attempt to expand from a summer season into a full, year-round season.
La traviata MAX Live! will be staged in the GE Theatre at Proctors in Schenectady, the region’s cultural locus and a non-traditional, modern space complete with fifty-foot hi-definition screen, and about 5 times more seating than Hubbard Hall, the hall in Cambridge, New York from which the company takes its name.
Directed by Heidi Lauren Duke, HHOT’s La traviata, embraces the technology and modernity of the GE Theatre. The stage action remains in nineteenth-century Paris, evoked by sets projected onto the theater’s screen, designed by Caite Hevner and period costumes, but Duke fuses the contemporary space with the traditional aesthetic. The orchestra, singers, and projections will all be on the same visual field, breaking down the walls between the separate worlds of the opera, the performers, and the audience. The production will invoke the same totality of experience as an IMAX theater, inviting the audience to live and interact in the opera.
Verdi’s La traviata marks a turning point in the great Italian composer’s career. In the 1850s, Verdi began to write operas that explored the inner life of its main characters. La traviata, with its close focus on Violetta Valéry, a woman caught between her public life as a courtesan, and her private desires for love and happiness, is the perfect example of Verdi’s shift. HHOT has already begun to mix the psychology of La traviata with the twenty-first century culture of celebrity through their La traviata MAX Live! Twitter account, consisting of quotes from the opera’s libretto and La dame aux Camelias, the novel and play by Alexandre Dumas fils, which served as the source for the opera.
.@baron : living alone in the country, obeying doctors orders sounds like an admirable idea
— Traviata MAX Live! (@TraviataMAX) January 21, 2013
The distinctly twenty-first century method of over-sharing will continue during the performance, juxtaposed with the private and public spaces of La traviata. “Combining all these elements, this character-driven show becomes even more potent, and we question what modernity has really brought us,” explains Duke. “Are celebrities any different than they were a century ago? Do we want to see stars or the real people behind the performance?”
Prima la parola, poi la musica
Entrusted with Giuseppe Verdi’s score is Maria Sensi Sellner, Director of the Akron Symphony Chorus, Assistant Conductor of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. “The themes in La traviata are universal and the music is intoxicating,” says Sellner. “People leave the theater humming Verdi’s melodies and remembering both the heartbreaking and joyous moments they are attached to.” She is most excited to have the opportunity to work with a young, talented cast. “Our Violetta (Rachele Schmiege) and Aflredo (Christopher Lucier) are upcoming singers who are making their role debuts in this production. It’s been so rewarding collaborating with them, finding and crafting those great moments in the score where music, text, and drama come together.” The members of the 22-piece orchestra are professionals while the chorus is made of dedicated sings from the region, and Sellner is more than delighted with the level of professionalism and musicality. “Finding the magic in Verdi is not difficult, but recreating that magic certainly is. When everything – orchestra, singers, chorus and production – comes together, it’s addictive. That’s what we are recreating here, and I’m very excited for us to share it with the community.”
Hubbard Hall Opera Theater’s La Traviata MAX Live! opens at the GE Theatre at Proctors on Thursday, February 7, 2013.
February 7, 8, 14, 15: 7:30pm,
February 10, 17: 2pm