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Blog entries posted during August 2014

2014/15 Young Artists Announced

Selected from a record-breaking 600 applications, ten new participants will enter LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program in the coming season. Approximately 250 of the original applicants were selected to sing live semi-final auditions in Los Angeles and New York before a panel of LA Opera's music staff and artistic administration. From those auditions, 21 singers were invited to sing a final audition for General Director Plácido Domingo, who made the ultimate selection of the incoming participants.

Incoming Young Artists
Joining the program will be sopranos Vanessa Becerra, Summer Hassan and So Young Park; mezzo-soprano Lacey Jo Benter; tenors Frederick Ballentine, Rafael Moras and Brenton Ryan; bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee; as well as pianists Paul Jarski and Peter Walsh.

These incoming new artists have emerged from some of the finest training institutions in America and abroad, including Juilliard, the Music Academy of the West, the Wolf Trap Opera's Filene Young Artist program, the Manhattan School of Music, USC's Thornton School of Music, the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Rice University, San Francisco Opera Center, Santa Fe Opera, and the New England Conservatory, among others.

They will join two returning members of the program: tenor Joshua Guerrero and baritone Kihun Yoon, making for the largest class of participants in the program since the 2008/09 season.

"Traviata" performance added on September 19

Due to exceptional ticket demand, LA Opera has added a seventh performance of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, the opening production of the 2014/15 season. The added performance will take place at 8pm on Friday, September 19.

General Director Plácido Domingo will sing the baritone role of Giorgio Germont in performances conducted by Music Director James Conlon. The cast also includes soprano Nino Machaidze as Violetta Valéry and tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Alfredo Germont. (Please note: there will not be a pre-performance lecture on September 19.)

For more information about La Traviata, including ticketing information, please click here.

Traviata cast
Nino Machaidze, Placido Domingo , Arturo Chacon-Cruz

From obscene Trivialità to Traviata (by James Conlon)

A Note from Music Director James Conlon
The third of Giuseppe Verdi’s so-called “middle-period trilogy” of masterpieces, La Traviata is arguably not only Verdi’s most popular opera, but one of a handful of the world’s most beloved operas. Several years after the trilogy was completed, when he was asked what his best opera was thus far, he answered: “Speaking as a professional, Rigoletto; speaking as an amateur, La Traviata.

I have often mused on what he meant by this statement. La Traviata (the inoffensive title can be translated as “a woman led astray” or “corrupted”) has always spoken directly to the hearts of opera lovers. Its wealth of melodic invention and expressive vocalism, so perfectly wed to the touching and tragic love story, reverberated on a personal level with its creator.


Giuseppe Verdi

This middle-period trilogy (a posthumous term) consists of Rigoletto (premiered on March 11, 1851), Il Trovatore (January 19, 1853) and La Traviata (March 6, 1853). I cite the dates of the premieres lest anyone overlook the fact that Verdi wrote them in an astonishingly short time, two of them virtually simultaneously. Not surprisingly, the music of each of the three works resembles the others. Yet hidden amongst the similarities, Rigoletto and La Traviata, each in its own way, inaugurate the future, whereas Il Trovatore is the crowning achievement of the past, the Verdian melodrama par excellence of the preceding 14 years. That Trovatore and Traviata, written so closely together, are so different is remarkable. Their brand of romanticism captured both a sense of completion and of summing up the previous hundred years of operatic theater, and is the vestibule to the future, which Verdi himself sets out in these works. Like the head of Janus, these works look backward—in some ways for the last time—but irrevocably point forward.

I would like to isolate one aspect of a common characteristic of the three masterpieces which is sometimes overlooked by those who might consider these works to be “old fashioned.” In fact, in the context of Italian theater of the early 1850s, they are not just daring, bold and shocking, but in their way, revolutionary.

Verdi’s theatrical genius led him ceaselessly to search for interesting dramatic material. Europe had been rocked by political upheaval and revolution in 1848, and the composer keenly felt the shock waves. His lifelong pursuit of popular appeal led him to eschew much of the formulaic opera libretti of the previous century. He foreswore mythology, ancient Greece, Rome and even Italian subjects. French, English, German and Spanish sources abound, and it is from Victor Hugo, Antonio García Gutiérrez and Alexandre Dumas that he found the sources for this extraordinary trilogy.

The common thread that weaves through these works is the presentation of protagonists who belong to categories of contemporary society’s cast-offs. Verdi saw the potential for explosive dramatic material in the lives and fates of a misanthropic hunchbacked jester, a tragically crazed gypsy woman (her race still despised and marginalized throughout Europe) and a Parisian courtesan.

The genius is not only in the choice, but also in the rendering. We empathize with Rigoletto despite his physical and moral ugliness, because of his tender love for his daughter. Azucena’s plight (however farfetched the plot of Il Trovatore) wins our hearts, despite her degraded and reviled origins. Verdi allows both of them to point an accusatory finger at their societies for their abject existences, blaming their own wickedness on their surroundings.

Violetta accuses no one, admirably assumes total responsibility for her life, and dies of consumption. She turns her society’s hypocrisy on its head, proving that a woman of “fallen virtue” can be far more capable of genuine love than the proponents of bourgeois morality. Verdi, by portraying a consumptive courtesan as a heroine, a symbol and incarnation of generous and boundless love, struck an unexpected chord in the history of Italian opera.

As Verdi dashed off Il Trovatore and La Traviata for their premieres separated by only five weeks, Richard Wagner was finishing the text of The Ring of the Nibelung. Verdi’s Teutonic contemporary posited that myths were the strongest subjects for music dramas. Verdi’s brand of Italian melodrama was rooted in realism. Yet while choosing a contemporary subject (the only time he did so in his 26 operas) that could have been played in contemporary dress (though Verdi backdated it 150 years, to the beginning of the 18th century), he in fact evoked an old mythical/biblical theme of the fallen woman and her redemption. Verdi elevated her to the level of myth, as Mozart and Da Ponte had done for Don Juan.

From the historical inhabitant of the Parisian demimonde Marie Duplessis (Franz Liszt was among her countless lovers), to the fictional heroine Marguerite Gautier of Alexandre Dumas fils’ (another of her lovers) novel and play La Dame aux camélias, to Violetta Valéry of Verdi’s opera, this complex, contradictory and intriguing personality has fascinated many. Since the first film version in 1911 there have been more than a dozen major renditions on screen, including those featuring Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo and Isabelle Huppert.

The tragedy of La Traviata is essentially that of premature death, whose omnipresence is established in the first bar of the prelude. Violetta (violet is the traditional color of death in the Roman Catholic Church), condemned by incurable tuberculosis, has risen from a childhood of abuse and misery, to become a cultivated young woman with depth and a genuine capacity for love.

It is also the tragedy of the collision of the values of authentic love with the rigidity of provincial bourgeois values. Verdi was no stranger to these conflicts. It is another Verdian drama of the conflicting demands of love and duty. As in many Verdi operas, there is, in the end, a suffering father. The well meaning guardian of conventional morals, the father, Germont, in opposing the union of his son with a (now former) courtesan, would expel her from the “Garden of Eden” of committed love and banish her to return to the world of prostitution. He breaks her heart and will, and destroys the quality of life for what little time is left to her, all with the assurance that he is doing God’s will. “Dio mi guidò (God guided me)" he sings; “Dio m'esaudì (God heard me)". He recognizes his own culpability only at the moment of Violetta’s death.

Without endorsing psychobiography as the source of the composer’s inspiration, one also cannot ignore the long history of Verdi’s resentment of authority, the severance of his relationship to his own father, the conflicts with the provincial mentality of his native city of Buseto, the occasional difficulty with his beloved ex-father-in-law and patron Antonio Barezzi, and the undignified and bigoted denigration of his (not yet) wife Giuseppina on account of their open relationship and her “problematic” past. That Verdi intended in any way to portray this on the stage, I would strongly refute. But that he knew, first hand, the world that he was describing in La Traviata, there can be no doubt. His daring to bring such matters to the Italian stage was remarkable in the context of his time.

Similarly Verdi knew Paris, a city with which he had a love-hate relationship all his life. His ambivalent feelings ran deep. He wanted its approbation and admiration, but deeply disliked working in the theaters there. When Violetta refers to Paris as a popoloso deserto (a populated desert) she is using a phrase to be found in one of the composer’s own letters.

The degree of Verdi’s courage and boldness can be measured by the reaction of the authorities. Two years earlier, when Verdi submitted the libretto to what would become Rigoletto, the Venetian censors deplored that the composer and his poet Francesco Maria Piave were not able to find a better vehicle for their talents than a libretto of “repulsive immorality and obscene triviality.” They could well have repeated that accusation against La Traviata but didn’t. Accustomed now to the composer’s intransigence and mindful of his increasing prestige, they settled for changing its title from Amore e morte (Love and Death) to La Traviata—a subtle but tempered bit of moralizing.

Could it be that they tacitly recognized not only the repulsive immorality of the Parisian drawing rooms, complete with carousing and gambling, but also that of Father Germont’s worldview? Might it be that they had recognized the moral triumph of the heroine, the woman “led astray,” who passed through a world of obscene triviality to become a symbol of selfless love? Did they realize that Verdi had exalted a woman who transformed herself from a life of “obscene triviality” to “The Woman” who conquered the world’s heart as “La Traviata”?

James Conlon, conductor of La Traviata, is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.

Inspiration for an Art Deco Traviata

LA Opera’s 2014/15 season begins September 13 with an Art Deco-inspired production of La Traviata directed and designed by Marta Domingo. Mrs. Domingo took a break from rehearsals to talk to us about her inspiration and influences for this beloved Verdi masterpiece.

What inspired you to set La Traviata in the Art Deco era?
Art Deco and the Roaring Twenties have always fascinated me. Both of these—one an artistic movement, the other a social phenomenon—flourished at the same time. Art Deco represented elegance and glamour—think of Hollywood's sophisticated women and mysterious vamps—but also modernism and industrial progress. The era of speed had begun.

What had changed during this period?
A brutal war had left the nation in mourning for a lost generation of men, so young people took up the motto “Enjoy today to the fullest, for tomorrow may never arrive.” No moral or social barriers could stop them. They indulged in scandalous behavior—drinking in Prohibition-era speakeasies, sometimes drinking absinthe, the “Green Curse” of France; smoking cigarettes in public through long holders; and dancing wildly in dark clubs to the shocking rhythms of the Charleston played by jazz bands. And then there were cars, still relatively new at the time, perfect and comfortable for practicing the new sexual sport: petting.

Violetta's first entrance in La Traviata.

What influenced your designs for the production?
In the third act, Flora's party takes place in a private nightclub decorated with the characteristic geometric lines and predominant colors of Art Deco: black and gold. When I started thinking about the costumes and choreography for this part of the opera, Josephine Baker with her famous skirt of bananas first came to my mind. But I suddenly realized that I had my inspiration right in front of me: a little statuette of an oriental dancer, whose delicate body is made of ivory and her brief costume made of bronze. It’s one of my most precious belongings, and even if it is not signed by the great Romanian Art Deco sculptor Chiparus, it is as exquisite as any of his dancers. A fascination with exotic cultures was a defining characteristic of Art Deco, after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1921.

The bronze and ivory sculptures of Demétre Chiparus (1886-1947) embody the spirit of the Art Deco epoch. When the art of ancient Egypt came into fashion during the 1920s, Chiparus created numerous decorative figures that represented Egyptian dancers, like this one.

The new fashions of the 1920s were also fascinating to me. Wild and frenetic popular dances—such as the Charleston, Black Bottom and Shimmy—demanded total freedom of movement. Corsets were abolished, and with lighter undergarments such as the “step-ins,” a new woman emerged: slim, stylish, refined and reckless. On one side the new fashion called “the Garçon Look” made women look very girlish; on the other hand, the pale skin and black-lined eyes created the fascinating American “vamp” and the French “femme fatale.”