19th-century scandal takes contemporary turn in 'La Traviata'

Opera's gotten sexy. Especially in Duluth. This summer offers three major productions, advertised on posters with come-hither looks, naked men and stories of doomed passion. Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise. Opera's always been kind of hot...

Opera's gotten sexy.

Especially in Duluth.

This summer offers three major productions, advertised on posters with come-hither looks, naked men and stories of doomed passion.

Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise. Opera's always been kind of hot. Take next week's offering, "La Traviata" (meaning, roughly, "The Fallen One"), from the Duluth Festival Opera, which opens at the DECC Auditorium on June 26.

Originally, it was a scandal ripped from the headlines. The beautiful courtesan Marie Duplessis was at least as famous in Paris as any supermodel. In the 1840s she was the lover of the young writer Alexandre Dumas, as well as the nobleman Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche. When the young heir was forbidden his love, and she died of tuberculosis at 23, it was the talk of the town. Dumas took the story and turned it into the novel "La Dame aux Camelias," which was then made into a hit play.


Guiseppe Verdi, in Italy, seized on the story and created the opera "La Traviata," setting it in then-modern (19th century) times, contrary to operatic tradition. When it was first performed, shocked audiences were both titillated and stirred by its condemnation of the sexual double standard and its indictment of high-society hypocrisy. It's been one of the most popular operas in history ever since.

The movies

Craig Fields, who is directing the opera, wanted to take that contemporary relevance onto American territory. "What we're doing is setting this story, which is kind of a timeless universal story, in the 1930s in Hollywood. There's a scene in Beverly Hills, one in a Malibu beach house, one at the Coconut Grove."

Of course, the story has had a long life on Hollywood sound stages: the film "Camille" has been made in 10 different versions since 1910. The most famous -- the Garbo version -- will be featured in clips projected on stage during the opera, along with other projections of Hollywood stars and starlets.

Fields' staging posits a parallel between courtesans like Marie Duplessis, with their celebrity tainted by the disdain of respectable people, and the lives of Hollywood stars, in the past and present. People use them for their sensual qualities but feel entitled to disdain them for the same reason.

"If you scratch beneath the surface of these women's lives, you see that they sacrificed a lot to get fame, wealth, love. Many women ended up in L.A. on casting couches, and only a few -- the Garbos, the Harlows -- gained fame. Joan Crawford's story is very telling -- we'll project clips of her on stage."

The character of Violetta (La Traviata) will be one of these starlets, Fields said. And he's introduced a new, mute character -- "We call him Cecil," Fields said -- who represents malign male power in this milieu. The chorus is cast as the real villains, a black-clothed mob, those who consume the images of Violetta and others like her.

"We're talking about people who lose their authenticity or individuality by giving themselves away for success, or a chance at fame," Fields said about the production. This means that the character of Violetta must be played by an actress, a good one, to project the individuality that's at risk.


"Violetta may be the quintessential diva role in opera, it requires great vocal resources," Fields said. "I had to find a singing actress who could also pass as a movie star. I was lucky to find Penelope Shumate, who was a model early in her career, then an actress. Then she found she had a voice, and studied opera."

Fields also is happy with the dramatic abilities of his Alfredo, Violetta's lover: "Marc Schapman, a new tenor, has movie-star looks and he just completed his doctoral degree in music in performance."

Getting ready

The singers all arrived in Duluth on June 9 and 10. They've been working eight hours a day, rehearsing together at Marshall School, in the cafeteria that looks over the lake.

The production still is being created: Sandra Ehle, who costumes the Minnesota Ballet, is creating the 1930s-era costumes, Hollywood-glamorous, for the show. The second act will be performed in swimsuits and sunglasses, Fields said. Sondra Nottingham is coming from New York to do the wigs and makeup. Dancers from the ballet will perform in the opera, and Robert Gardner has choreographed "a kind of evil nightclub floor show" for his dancers.

The sets will be quite simple: Oversized window units will roll into place to define spaces, allowing a view of the movie screen on the back wall. Clips from a dozen classic films will be projected during the opera.

"I think people will really be entertained by this," Fields said of his spectacular. "It's my hope that the power and intensity of the music will be sustained by the scale of the movies. Subtle undertones of the drama can come to life."

ANN KLEFSTAD covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Read her blog, Makers, at, and at Area Voices on Reach her at .

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