La Traviata; a new take on it and mental illness.

Hello lovely friends and family.  So, I just got back from my first trip to Jersey Shore, which of course, happened to be for a gig!  For those unaware, I just finished a production of La Traviata in a collaboration with MidAtlantic Opera Company and New York Opera Collaborative.  And I have to say, this was one special Traviata!

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Design by Gayla Godby of Gayla Design

This production was my fifth La Traviata, my most performed opera along with Le Nozze di Figaro (also five!).  This particular production was very different.  Andrea delGiudice, prominent voice teacher in the NYC area, made her directorial debut with this production and she brought a very unique concept to the opera.  Andrea took her inspiration from Sylvia Plath’ The Bell Jar, setting the scene in modern day NYC and using Violetta’s ailment to convey mental illness.  How would you do this, and why would you do this, one may ask? Well, lets look into that.

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Susanne Burgess as Violetta, Christopher Nelson as Alfredo, Andrew Troup as Gastone, Claire Leyden as Flora, Jason Duika as Barone Douphol, Jeremy Hirsch as Dottore Grenville, Emily Geller as Annina. Photos by Quinton T. Tramm

First, the why.  Let’s be honest.  Mental illness is a major topic in todays society.  Many people suffer from it and are misdiagnosed.  People who don’t suffer from mental illness (and even many that do) don’t particularly understand it.  We as an artistic community need to find ways we can address this, to help explain it, to understand it, to see what a person experiences when others are not around.  Some might say that taking the plot of an opera out of context like this may not be appropriate, but from where I see it, I think it can and should be done.  Tuberculosis is not a major threat in todays society and doesn’t carry a stigma the way it used to in the time of Verdi and Dumas Fil.  Mental illness does carry a stigma and we want to break that.  We want to be there and help educate the world through the medium we use.  People will disagree with me, and that is perfectly fine.  But from the feedback I got from our audience (who were primarily older folks) they loved it and thought the concept worked beautifully.

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Susanne Burgess (up top) and Ashley Bell (ground level) as Violetta, Christopher Nelson as Alfredo, Jonathan Scott as Germont. Photos by Quinton T. Tramm.

Now the how.  Well, let’s look at Violetta.  She’s a woman who doesn’t really get to own her own life.  She is a courtesan, a kept woman.  Not exactly free to love (ironic her big aria is Sempre libera, always free).  So as a kept woman, she falls in love but the stigma of her illness gets in the way.  Not between her and her lover, but between her and others.  Alfredo’s father believes her ailment and her past will cause a problem.  Her friends may be unaware of her ailment.  She keeps it a secret and in deciding what she believes (or is guilted into believing), her decision causes jealousy and upset in her relationship. And when all things break down, her health deteriorates.  This sounds like the scenes described by people who have suffered from mental illness.  Andrea used various effects and staging to convey Violetta’s mental illness, she adapted the characters to be people who either feed into her mental illness or manipulate it, or are simply unaware and inadvertently create a situation that perpetuates it.  She also uses imagery to convey how Violetta’s mind is working and breaking down.  It was all very unique and I was proud of the final result.

We had a pretty stupendous cast.  Conducted by Maestro Jason Tramm, our two Violetta’s, Ashley Bell and Susanne Burgess both put out stellar voices and each tapped into Violetta’s neurosis brilliantly. We had amazing voices and stage presence from Christopher Nelson and Jonathan Scott as Alfredo and Giorgio Germont, respectively. One of the aspects of the show was we didn’t use a chorus.  This allowed those of us playing the secondary roles (oh yeah, I sang Marchese d’Obigny) to bring out our characters much more.  In these roles, it can be easy to feel like glorified chorus, but we all were able to connect much deeper to the story, to the main characters, and to each other.  As Marchese, I felt like I knew Violetta and Alfredo well, and I feel like that connection was able to come out much more to the audience.  I felt very connected to Flora and Gastone, played by Claire Leyden and Andrew Troup (we playfully hashtagged ourselves #MenageTriosviata). Annina and Dottore Grenville, played by Emily Geller and Jeremy Hirsch, crossed realms between what was reality and Violetta’s mind. Jason Duika as Barone Douphol, gave a strong presence that showed the audience an attribute to Violetta’s breakdown.  No body was a small role, which is exactly what our artistic consultant Peter Randsman wanted as he helped us develop our characters.

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Boo, Bae, and Beaux, the Menage Troisviata!

All in all, I got a lot out this production and it was a real treat to work with these artists. And when we weren’t working, I got to spend some time on the beach eating ice cream, one of my favorite things to do!!

Until next time, y’all!

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