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When Life Meets Art: If the model for an opera heroine is a prostitute who died of TB at the age of 23, will anyone be interested? When her sordid story is ripped from the headlines and set to music, can the resulting opera have any future?
If the girl is the famous Marie Duplessis and the opera is La traviata, the answer is a resounding yes!
Meet the Principal Cast of La traviata: Pacific Opera welcomes back a brilliant cast of old friends, all of whom have sung on our stage before.
A Historic Canadian Production: This sumptuous new production of La traviata is the largest co-production in Canadian history, playing to five cities over three seasons.
Events Calendar: What's on at Pacific Opera – opera performances, free public previews, activities for schools and artists.
A few people raised scornful eyebrows in 2011 when the Royal Opera House premièred Anna Nicole, based on the short, sensational life and death of Anna Nicole Smith, an actress, reality star, and Playboy centrefold who had died four years earlier of a drug overdose.
How tawdry, they thought, to rip some raunchy scandal from the tabloids just to make it into an opera!
Yet this is exactly what Giuseppe Verdi did for the 1853 premère of La traviata, based on the short, sensational life and death of a high-class prostitute who had died of tuberculosis just six years earlier.
The parallels are even stronger when we read some of the (definitely mixed) reviews of Anna Nicole. The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini called it musically rich, audacious and inexplicably poignant, a description that could easily apply to La traviata, Verdi's compassionate and musically gorgeous portrait of a character who, in the minds of his contemporaries, did not deserve to be an opera heroine.
The attitude of the day was summed up by Felice Varesi, the baritone in the première cast, who sniffed, The main character is a kept woman or rather a common whore of our own time who died in Paris not very long ago.
La traviata (The Fallen Woman) was based on the true story of a semiliterate waif who reinvented herself as the courtesan Marie Duplessis, the toast of Paris until her death in 1847 at the age of 23. Within six years, Marie's dazzling, sordid life spawned a best-selling novel, a hit play, and Verdi's opera.
Rose Alphonsine Plessis, raised in poverty by an abusive alcoholic, arrived in Paris at the age of 15 and worked in dead-end jobs until a restaurant owner set her up in an apartment as his mistress.
She changed her name to the more upscale Marie Duplessis and parlayed her beauty and intelligence into a brilliant career as a courtesan.
Marie was part of the demi-monde (half-world), that luxurious, shadowy world where respectable men from polite society (le monde) were entertained by women who were definitely not considered respectable.
The demi-mondaines lived extravagantly on gifts and cash provided by their various lovers. Their life was a financial and social tightrope; there was no job security, and legitimizing a relationship through marriage was out of the question.
Alexandre Dumas fils (whose father wrote the swashbuckling thrillers The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask) fell in love with Marie when they were both 20. Young Dumas was a struggling writer. Marie was already established as mistress to a dizzying succession of wealthy aristocrats. The couple broke up after a year, when Dumas realized he could neither afford her extravagance nor cope with her endless stream of lovers.
When Marie died, the sale of her estate presented an irresistible opportunity for respectable Parisian society to descend on her apartment and gape at the luxury she had amassed, now being sold to pay her debts – silver and jewels, furniture, paintings, chandeliers, gowns, furs, a horse, pony, and hunting dog, a parrot with blue and yellow feathers, some 200 books, and even a Pleyel piano that Franz Liszt, one of her lovers, had played.
Morally superior, morbidly curious, all of Paris flocked to the sale. Beau monde, demi-monde, merchants, creditors, and all that Paris counted of curiosity, jostled there. Great ladies, titillated by the perfume of debauchery, quarrelled over the smallest comb, pins, shawls, jewels. [Novelist] Eugène Sue will boast of having acquired the missal of the sinner, Dumas his annotated copy of Manon Lescaut. (Véronique Maurus, Le Monde)
Charles Dickens, who was in Paris at the time, wrote, For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers. Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demi-monde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.
With almost unseemly haste following Marie's death, young Dumas dashed off a novel about their affair. Published in 1848, La dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) was a sensation.
Dumas renamed his doomed heroine Marguerite Gautier, cast himself as her lover Armand. His semi-autobiographical narrative added a virtuous haze to her character and a few fictional touches.
In Dumas' story, as in Verdi's opera, the courtesan falls in love with a respectable young man and gives up her decadent life to live with him in the country ... until his father comes calling and tells her the scandalous liaison is ruining his family's reputation and the marriage prospects of his daughter. The courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold agrees to abandon her lover; the latter, thinking she has taken up with another man, reacts bitterly.
The real Marie Duplessis would not have given up her luxurious lifestyle for a struggling writer, no matter how beloved; nor would she have sacrificed her love on the altar of bourgeois respectability. Indeed Marie was admirably frank about how expensive she was; she wrote one would-be lover, I realize that mine is a sordid profession, but I must let you know that my favours cost a great deal of money ... My protector must be extremely rich to cover my household expenses ... and satisfy my caprices, which are numerous, varied, and whimsical.
Dumas subsequently adapted his novel into a play, adding a new twist to the story: the lovers were reconciled, paving the way for a classic, three-hanky deathbed scene.
Over the decades following its 1852 première, the play (also titled La dame aux camélias, and known in English as Camille) took on a life of its own on stage and film. Actresses clamoured to play Marguerite, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Gish, and Greta Garbo. It has been said that for a century La dame aux camélias was probably the world's single most popular play. In recent decades it has gone out of fashion, but the legacy of Marie Duplessis and Marguerite Gautier has never been more assured, thanks to La traviata, its glorious music, and its lovable heroine, Violetta Valéry.
In 1852 Verdi attended one of the première performances of La dame aux camélias. He instantly recognized its potential as box office gold.
Verdi surely also found in the story an echo of his personal situation. Since 1849 he had been living with Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano whose influence had helped launch his career, and who had been the original Abigaille in Nabucco. They would marry in 1859 and remain together until her death in 1897. Although the couple's relationship was accepted in Paris, it caused a scandal in rural Italy, where they lived. The good townsfolk of Busetto ostracized Strepponi, outraged by her reputation – she had given birth to an unknown number of illegitimate children – and by the fact that she and Verdi were living in sin.
Verdi knew he'd get pushback when he decided to do an opera featuring a contemporary heroine of questionable reputation. He wrote, Perhaps someone else would not have done it because of the costumes, the period, and a thousand other awkward reservations. I am doing it with immense pleasure.
The composer was anxious to keep La traviata contemporary, to hold it up as a mirror to his audience, to portray the vices of ... a bourgeois order that engenders prostitution but at the same time scorns it (aligre-cappuccino.fr).
Then (as now) audiences, critics, and censors were often leery of operas set in the present, preferring to relegate them to the safe and sumptuous past, where the fashions are glamorous and the moral issues long since resolved.
It's therefore not surprising that Verdi lost the battle to stage La traviata in contemporary clothing for its world première at Venice's Teatro La Fenice. Management, wary of the censors and of the audience response, insisted on moving the action back nearly 200 years to the reign of Louis XIV. In fact, it was not until 1906 that La traviata was set in the mid-19th century as Verdi had hoped – by which time the setting had become so quaintly distant as to lose much of its edge.
Verdi's compassionate portrayal of an 'immoral' woman startled and disturbed audiences and critics and triggered varying degrees of censorship.
Perhaps the most egregious example was an 1854 production in Rome. Censors bowdlerized the opera, changing its name to Violetta to eliminate any hint of her being a fallen woman. They made Violetta into a wealthy young orphan who simply liked to party; her sweetheart Alfredo never actually lived with her; the impediments to her marrying were her low birth and the fact that Alfredo had a pre-existing fiancée, who conveniently died shortly after their marriage. This indiscriminate tinkering enraged Verdi: The censors have spoiled the sense of the drama. They made La traviata pure and innocent ... ruined all the situations, all the characters.
But despite moral outrage and discomfort with the mirror Verdi held up against social hypocrisy, audiences were seduced by the opera, its romantic ardour, its vivacious waltz rhythms, and the vivid, reflective grace, beauty, and variability of the music.
La traviata has taken its place as the most universally loved of all Verdi's works, and indeed as one of the frequently performed of all operas, often jostling for top place with La Bohème (another work with a consumptive heroine – Verdi was a pioneer with his on-stage depiction of death by TB, which, within 50 years, would become an operatic meme, featured in works by Leoncavallo, Offenbach, and Puccini).
In La traviata, art becomes strangely more real than life. The story began long ago with a real woman, whose character was novelized, polished, sugar-coated.
Then somehow, through his immense compassion, his rigorous dramatization of society's complicity in her tragedy, and the alchemy of his music, Verdi made her timeless.
As the camellias begin to bloom at the Baumann Centre, we welcome the cast and creative team for rehearsals of La traviata.
Our production is set in 1920s Paris. Verdi's drama of love and death against a backdrop of icy social hypocrisy translates brilliantly to this setting. The concept of a jazz diva, a star both admired and marginalized, may speak more directly to contemporary audiences than Verdi's 19th-century courtesan.
Lucia Cesaroni and Colin Ainsworth were a charming, vocally beautiful couple as Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell in Pacific Opera's 2009 The Rake's Progress. We are thrilled to see them reunited on our stage as the star-crossed lovers in La traviata.
Following her role debut as Mimi in last season's La Bohème, Lucia Cesaroni returns to Pacific Opera as Violetta. Her previous Pacific Opera appearances include First Lady in 2009's The Magic Flute and the Rheinmaiden Woglinde in Das Rheingold (2014).
Among Lucia's recent and upcoming engagements are the title role in The Merry Widow with Vancouver Opera and Toronto Operetta Theatre, Musetta in La Bohème with Opéra de Montréal, and Adina in L'Elisir d'amore with Opera Chengdu, Szechwan, China.
Colin Ainsworth debuted with Pacific Opera in 2009 as Tamino in The Magic Flute, returned the same year as Tom Rakewell, and in 2013 as Fenlon in Falstaff. He is now making his role debut as Alfredo. Colin is recognized for his exceptional vocalism and his diverse repertoire, which embraces Baroque opera as well as contemporary works and world premières. His opera engagements have included appearances with the Royal Opera House, Chicago Opera Theater, Glimmerglass Opera, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Seattle Opera, Greek National Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, and Vancouver Opera, He is this season's Artist in Residence for Opera Atelier.
James Westman is Alfredo's father Germont, the villain of the piece, who also happens to be a caring family man. James brings a ridiculous amount of experience and understanding to this, his signature role: he has performed this complex character some 200 times.
James made his Pacific Opera debut as the Gamekeeper in the 2005 production of The Cunning Little Vixen. He returned in 2010 for his role debut as the Count in Richard Strauss' Capriccio, and in 2015 he portrayed Enrico in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. James regularly sings the National Anthem at Toronto Maple Leafs games, making him possibly the coolest hockey dad ever.
We also welcome back a number of old friends, including James McLennan as Gastone, Megan Latham as Flora, Giles Tomkins as Dr. Grenvil, Alexandre Sylvestre as Baron Douphol, Caitlin Wood as Annina, and Peter Monaghan as Marchese d'Obigny.
Timothy Vernon will conduct the Victoria Symphony in this production, with the Pacific Opera Chorus directed by Giuseppe Pietraroia. Choreography is by Jacques Lemay.
This new production of La traviata is the largest co-production in Canadian history. Involving five opera companies, it is being staged in five cities over three years. It opened in Winnipeg last April, then moved to Edmonton in October. Following the staging in Victoria from February 14 to 24, it will progress to Vancouver in fall 2019, finishing its multi-season run in Montreal in 2020.
Above: Scene from La traviata, performed at Edmonton Opera, in October 2018. Photo: Nanc Price
All five stagings are anchored by the same creative team: director Alain Gauthier, production designer Christina Poddubiuk, lighting designer Kevin Lamotte. Each company provides its own conductor, cast, chorus, and orchestra.
The stunning set with its giant curving staircase and second-level balcony was built by Edmonton Opera, while Pacific Opera's production professionals created the props and gorgeous costumes, squeezing that job into last season's busy five-opera schedule.
One innovative aspect of this national collaboration is a financing strategy to support the three-season investment timeline. The co-production partners worked with Opera.ca, Canada's national association for opera companies, to devise a co-production loan program that has provided up-front funding so that the partners can invest in the production long before ticket revenues for La traviata begin to offset the expenses.
This collaborative financing strategy subsequently inspired Opera America to launch a similar program for US companies and is one of many ways in which North American opera companies are working together.
Above: Scene from La traviata, performed at Manitoba Opera, April 2018, with Angel Blue as Violetta and James Westman as Germont. Photo: C. Corneau.