Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is perhaps the most-performed opera ever. The tragic story of Violetta, the courtesan with the heart of gold, who sacrifices her last chance at true love to protect the honor of the man she loves, continues to enthrall audiences more than 160 years after it was composed. When it premiered, the story was considered so scandalous that the authorities in Venice insisted, contrary to Verdi’s wishes, that it be set more than a century in the past. Subsequent performances have often had contemporary settings (the current Met production brings it into the twenty-first century), but these have involved primarily cosmetic touches usually involving only scenery and costumes. When Arbor Opera Theater produces Traviata at the Mendelssohn Theatre June 11-14, it will be a completely unique variation on the trusty old warhorse. While not a single note of the original score will change, the libretto and the story will be dramatically different.
AOT’s co-founder and artistic director Shawn McDonald is no stranger to innovation. He’s previously programmed a Downton Abbey adaptation of Figaro–a year before the Met thought of the same thing–and a Motown version of The Magic Flute. His Traviata is not merely an English translation, but an adaptation.
McDonald is not doing new for the sake of new. “I strongly feel that opera, and all classical art forms, are not merely about entertainment,” he says. “Opera really is about trying to direct social consciousness.” The story of Traviata is, in McDonald’s view, about stigma. And in thinking about and discussing powerful modern-day stigmas, McDonald kept returning to the stigma surrounding depression and mental illness. Long story short, it all led to a partnership with the National Network of Depression Centers and Dr. Joseph Greden, founding chair of the NNDC and executive director of the University of Michigan Depression Center.
The locale is no longer Paris, but modern-day New Orleans; Violetta is not a courtesan but an artist struggling with bipolar disorder. Germond (father of Violetta’s lover), who in the original story breaks up the lovers because their relationship will jeopardize his daughter’s chance at marriage, is a U.S. Senator running for governor.
Traviata has an additional, and relevant, backstory. After Verdi’s first wife died he began a relationship with a singer for whom he’d written some of his earlier operas. Church and society did not approve; she had three illegitimate children. Verdi began writing La Traviata, The Fallen Woman, right around this time. “He was very much pointing a finger at his audience,” says McDonald. “That’s what I wanted to do, to make the audience think about the things we stigmatize.”
Of course, if you’re not interested in stigma and just want to hear the “Brindisi” (perhaps the greatest drinking song ever) and Verdi’s other glorious melodies sung by terrific singers, accompanied by full orchestra, then AOT’s La Traviata is still your ticket.