I am very fortunate that I have the opportunity to work with many different opera companies – both in my work with American Lyric Theater – and as a stage director. I recently returned from an engagement directing La Traviata at The Minnesota Opera, a company I have admired for many years.
I have wanted to direct for The Minnesota Opera for quite some time – particularly because of their commitment to contemporary American opera. I had always assumed that when the stars aligned, I would likely direct an American piece there. Of course, things don’t always happen as we expect… When I received the call inviting me to direct La Traviata, of course I jumped at the opportunity. It may not be an American work, but La Traviata is a masterpiece – and what director wouldn’t want to direct Verdi’s most contemporary opera?
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Verdi. The first opera I ever saw at the Met was Otello with Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Justino Diaz… not too shabby, let me tell you! Some of my favorite opera going experiences have been attending Verdi performances. I will never forget Luciano Pavarotti singing Quando le sere al placido in Luisa Miller – producing, possibly, the most beautiful sound I have ever heard live on the Met stage. Or Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona in a more recent production of Otello – a shattering performance that, for me, was the perfect balance between singer and actress. And, I have seen more Traviatas than I can remember. But now that I have directed my first Traviata, I have an even softer spot for Verdi – perhaps because I now see him for the brilliant contemporary composer that he could be.
In writing La Traviata, Verdi and his librettist Piave found subject matter than resonated with both of them, and that also resonated with their audience. This is not to suggest that many of Verdi’s other works don’t have societal and political significance. But La Traviata was different. It had immediacy. It directly portrayed a society much like the one in which Verdi and his audience lived. There were no filters for the audience to sift through – no foreign lands, no over-the-top characters (Azucena anyone?), and no metaphors disguising a deeper meaning. La Traviata was so immediate and relevant a work, that it had a visceral impact that went beyond entertainment. Of course, it was this very fact that created so many problems for the opera even before it was first performed.
While Verdi and Piave wanted La Traviata to be performed in a contemporary context, the authorities at La Fenice were concerned that it hit a little too close to home. When the opera premiered there in 1853, backdated to the 17th century, it was not a success. The opera may have been a failure at that moment, but Verdi knew the fault was not his. He knew that an opera set in the time period of the audience watching it – and with subject matter that they could relate to - would pack a real punch. As I was doing research for my production of La Traviata, I came across the most brilliant quote – by Verdi himself – in Budden’s excellent three volume biography on the composer:
“One day I’m going to make the world do her (La Traviata) honour. But not a Naples where your priests would be terrified of seeing on stage the sort of things they do themselves at night on the quiet.”
I mean, really, how can you not love Verdi with a quote like this! And of course, the world has done her honour! When finally staged a few year later in a contemporary setting as per Verdi and Piave’s intent, the opera became a great success. Verdi understood something very basic: audiences like to be able to relate to what they are seeing on stage – and the immediacy of their experience is increased when there are fewer filters to pass through. This is not to say that every opera needs to be written on a contemporary topic or set in a contemporary context. I hope that many new operas will be written on mythical, historical, fantasy and even science-fiction related topics! But there is much to be mined from the world we live in, and creative, adventurous writers have the potential to shape opera in a fascinating way if they so choose…
This spring, I am directing two more productions that are making me think a lot about immediacy and relevance. Right now, I am in the midst of rehearsals for a double bill of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti with the Adler Fellows at San Francisco Opera, which will be produced at Opera Santa Barbara in April; and in May, I travel to Fort Worth Opera to direct Hydrogen Jukebox - a fascinating collaboration between Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg. While La Serva Padrona is admittedly an operatic confection from the past, both Trouble in Tahiti and Hydrogen Jukebox are extraordinary examples of how two very different composers took material they felt very close to, and adapted/translated that material for the opera stage. While I truly loved directing La Traviata (and I look forward to directing it again soon!), I find myself getting even more wrapped up in Trouble in Tahiti and Hydrogen Jukebox, because both pieces pack an emotional punch that is directly linked to the world we live in today.
A report from rehearsals in San Francisco soon…!