When Giuseppe Verdi debuted La Traviata on March 6, 1853, it was arguably the most scandalous opera of its day. The story of courtesan Violetta was so shocking, in fact, that censors forced the composer to rewrite the libretto so the action occurred 100 years previously (the phrase la traviata means “the fallen woman” in Italian). On Friday, Jan. 22, Opera Birmingham will revive Verdi’s masterpiece freshly reimagined for new audiences.
“We’re going to be exploring it a little bit differently than it’s been done in the past,” said Opera Birmingham General Director Keith A. Wolfe. “It’s really going to focus more on the love story and the intimate aspect of those three lead characters, Violetta, Alfredo and his father, and their interactions, so we can really get to the core of the story and not lose that intimacy in all of the grandness in an elaborate production.”
The elaborate production of opera and its reputation for formality is something that Wolfe admits can deter potential opera patrons from experiencing the art form. Wolfe and Opera Birmingham, the only professional opera company in northern and Central Alabama, are working to bring opera back down to earth with 2016’s selections and innovative community outreach like Opera Shots, free, open-mic pop-up performances in neighborhood bars.
“People have a lot of preconceived notions about opera,” Wolfe said. “People still think of the image of the fat lady singing and that it’s going to be in a foreign language, so they’re not going to be able to understand what’s going on.”
Wolfe explained that the heart of opera, and of any performance art, is storytelling, an act so intrinsically human that people practice it around their dinner tables, in coffee shops and on social media almost constantly. To solve the riddle of performing in a different language Opera Birmingham will project the translated text above the stage and rely on the acting talent of the performers to project the action and emotions of the storyline.
“While it is a vocal art and they are singing this really great, complex music, it is also a form of storytelling,” Wolfe said. “Today’s singers have to be vocally and dramatically expressive. They don’t just stand there and sing. They have to act just like a theater actor would or a musical theater actor would, which people are familiar with.”
Opera, far from being cordoned off for aristocratic patrons, was intended for the enjoyment of the masses, as Kurt List explained in a 1946 article from Commentary Magazine, and usually told the stories of gods and goddesses or royalty. In the same way Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings, Verdi and his contemporaries wrote for the growing middle class in pre-unification Italy.
“Many for whom the Metropolitan is the embodiment of aristocratic ‘culture’ might be surprised to learn that opera was originally created and developed as a musical spectacle for the masses,” List wrote. “At the end of the 16th century, when an association of rich Florentine merchants sponsored the first operatic venture, it did so with the express purpose of creating a new art form that would speak to the middle classes by other means than the ‘pure’ language of music.”
La Traviata stood out from most operas of its day because it strayed from regal themes and brought all the majesty of a royal opera onto the streets of Paris to examine the private relationships of ordinary people, something 19th century audiences could more closely relate to.
While fading from the limelight some against the backdrop of movies, musical theater and television, opera never really left the forefront of pop culture. According to Wolfe, people are always colliding with operatic themes, music and choruses.
“Probably one of the most famous examples, Moonstruck, has a huge opera scene,” Wolfe said. “MTV in the late ‘90s or early 2000s did a hip-hop version of Carmen with Beyoncé. There are so many tunes that are used in commercials and movies and TV and cartoons.”
In the 1990 film, Pretty Woman, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts attend a performance of La Traviata, Wolfe noted.
“In Pretty Woman, Vivian — the Julia Roberts character — goes to the opera for the very first time,” wrote NPR’s Bruce Scott. “Even so, La Traviata moves her to tears. And that’s hardly surprising as Vivian has more than a little in common with the opera’s tragic, main character — not least, her occupation.”
Opera Birmingham, in operation for more than 55 years, has also carved out a place for opera in the South by working to employ local talent in all of its productions.
“The performance is staged entirely here in Birmingham, so it’s not a traveling group,” said Eleanor P. Walter, Opera Birmingham director of marketing and development. “These artists are all handpicked by Keith [Wolfe] and brought to Birmingham to stage it from the ground up locally.”
Though guest artists are frequently brought in to take on the task of some of the more difficult roles, the chorus is almost completely comprised of local talent.
“We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, students of voice at our local universities, partners from the Alabama Symphony, which is a great resource in our community,” Wolfe said. “And then on the technical side, this production is actually being put together by local technical people. So, they’ll be sourcing all the furniture and the set and the technical pieces, costumes. … This really is a local community group and an asset to the community providing not only arts, but also employment for some of our local artists and technicians.”
As Opera Birmingham’s 2016-2017 season unfurls, audiences can continue to expect the unexpected in the form of Orpheus and Euridice and Green Sneakers, two contemporary one-act chamber operas by Ricky Ian Gordon performed as a double-header at the Red Mountain Cabaret Theater March 11 and 13.
“There are so many great operas that are continuing to be written, and what’s interesting about looking at contemporary operas, where grand operas are usually about historic figures or … big, grand love stories, quite a few contemporary operas deal with contemporary issues,” Wolfe said.
Now celebrating his first full year as general director of Opera Birmingham, Wolfe has made it clear that he is here to shake things up, to take opera off its pedestal and return it to its rightful place: the arms of the public.
La Traviata opens Friday, Jan. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Wright Center. There will also be a performance Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2:30 p.m. Opera Birmingham is always auditioning new talent. For more information, visit operabirmingham.org.