The Lady of the Camellias

Rubra Plean camellia
Rubra Plena, illustrated by Carl and Napoléon Baumann

The inspiration for Verdi’s opera, La traviata, was the true story of Marie Duplessis, also known as la dame aux camélias—the lady of the camellias. In her Parisian residence, Marie is said to have had a room filled with vine-laden trellises and baskets of fresh flowers; from these, she would regularly choose a camellia to wear with her ensemble. An imported and exotic flower, this was easily the most expensive corsage that could be worn at that time, and was virtually synonymous with the young courtesan who died of tuberculosis in 1847.

Buff or Hume’s Blush Camellia: Myrtle Leaved Camellia, illustrated by Clara Maria Pope for “A monograph on the genus Camellia” by Samuel Curtis

Camellias are originally from Asia, where they were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were ever seen in Europe. In addition to producing delicately scented flowers in a variety of colors, the most famous member of their species is the tea plant, Camelia sinensis, whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce many types of tea including white green, oolong and black varieties.

The Europeans’ first exposure to camellias may have been through their representations inpaintings and wallpaper, where they were often shown growing in porcelain pots. Wealthy patrons of the British East India Company began to import varieties to satisfy their horticultural interests—the double-red camellia known as Rubra Plena was first imported by Sir Robert Preston in 1794, and in 1806 a pale pink variety was nicknamed “Lady Hume’s Blush” in honor of Amelia, the wife of Sir Abraham Hume.

The greatest camellia scholar of the nineteenth century was the wealthy Italian priest, the Abbé Laurent Berlese (1784-1863), who conducted his studies in his private greenhouse in Paris. The popularity of this lovely and fragrant blossom quickly spread beyond the realm of the passionate gardener, and in the 1840s, the camellia became the height of fashion as the luxury flower for elegant women. The camellia was also a favorite of the late 20th century fashion icon Coco Chanel. After her passing in 1971, the flower has continued to be used as a signature for the House of Chanel collections by chief designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Chanel Fashion Show

Chanel’s Fall 2008 Paris fashion show; photo by Elisabeth Fourmont for Chicagomag.com

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

An Interview with Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste with her Fellowship Sponsor, Catherine Bullock; June 2011

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste knows that successful opera singers approach their craft with gusto.  Self-confidence is a must, particularly if the character one is singing is doomed to die a violent death. “Being stabbed to death on stage was a new way of dying for me,” Jean-Baptiste said, referring to her demise as Nedda in Pagliacci, “because usually in an opera, I die by suicide, or from disease.”

Jean-Baptiste brings enormous energy and spunk to her roles. Born in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Haiti, the family moved to Florida when she was still a child. At a very young age, she began ballet and piano lessons. “Music has always been part of my world, part of my culture,” she says. “Piano gave me a musical foundation, but soon I switched to violin, and played it all through high school, as well as dabbling in tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. I was a total music geek and I loved it. I still am very much that music geek!” she says, laughing.

Growing up, she sang in school and church choirs, but it was not until she was 20 that she decided to take voice lessons to improve her singing. From that point on, she was determined to study music full-time and make a career as an opera singer. Not only did she learn arias and art songs, she also studied language diction. She continues private vocal study with Oscar Diaz, Jr. in Florida. “Oscar is the best teacher I have had thus far. Without him I would not be anywhere near the level that I am at now vocally, and I continue to flourish under his tutelage.”

Jean-Baptiste’s voice is that of a lirico spinto, possessing both a lyric and dramatic quality in her voice. “My voice is ideal for Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, and Strauss, in particular,” she says. In spring of 2009, she was hired to cover the title role in West Bay Opera’s Madama Butterfly. “I met Carlos Aguilar, at the time a resident artist with Opera San José, and he helped me set up an audition.” That audition resulted in an offer for her own residency, an opportunity for which she is undeniably grateful. “A performer is never created in the studio, we’re created in the theater. Opera San José provides a creative environment in which to develop.”

Jean-Baptiste’s favorite role at this point in her career is Anna Karenina, which she sang for Opera San José in 2010. “Many elements in that role were very personal and reflected my own life,” she said. Her favorite singers are Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Anna Moffo. “Moffo’s rendition of Violetta is inspiring,” she noted.

To prepare her own interpretation of Violetta, she read La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, on which La traviata is based. “It helped me really understand the character, and I like her. Verdi intended La traviata to be told from Alfredo’s point of view, as it was in the book. The opera is a flashback, as we hear with the Prelude. This is repeated in the final act when Violetta is only moments from death. So the entire opera is really Alfredo reminiscing about his time with Violetta.  We’re not sure of what happened from Violetta’s side, only what Alfredo tells us. Once we acknowledge this, we understand the opera better.”

To support herself while getting started in her career, along with temporary jobs, Jean-Baptiste sang with the Florida Grand Opera and Palm Beach Opera choruses.  “I learned how to sing with conductors, work with directors, and about costumes, makeup, and stagecraft.  All young singers should sing with an opera chorus for at least a couple years; it’s an invaluable learning and performing experience.” In her opinion, elements of a great performer include “excellent training, learning the music as written, professionalism in all things, humility, respect, and a positive disposition. And one must grow in every role, even if one has sung it before. These are what create strong professional singers.”

She admits that opera is a difficult profession. “This career is expensive before it is lucrative, if it ever gets to that point. And it can be emotionally trying at times, as well as lonely, because it takes you away from loved ones quite often. It can make it hard to form a lasting romantic relationship as well. So with the relationships you do have, you work even harder than most to keep those connections secure; they are so important to a traveling artist.”

Though one might see opera as being the only music in her life, Jean-Baptiste is quick to point out her love of other genres. The themes in rock and country music have many similarities to opera.”

Jean-Baptiste will be returning to the East Coast after her time with Opera San José, lining up auditions and singing contracts as her career progresses. One day she may decide to study vocal pedagogy, emulating her beloved teacher.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

A Girl That Was Led Astray

La Dame aux camélias, by Édouard Viénot (b. 1804)

At the age of twenty-three, Rose Alphonsine Plessis was buried, under a slightly different name, in the Paris Cemetery of Montmartre, after a years-long battle with tuberculosis. By the age of twenty, she had reached the height of the Parisian demimonde and was absolutely famous in Paris; she is more widely known of today than she ever was in life, but she is not remembered because of literary, scientific, political, or academic achievements. She remains famous, worldwide, 165 years after her death, for gifts of a more transient nature. During her brief stay on earth she was noted for her beauty, intelligence, sensitivity, wild extravagance, and her ability to attract and hold the attentions and financial support of numbers of very wealthy men, and not necessarily one at a time.

Alphonsine Plessis is among the first of the 19th-century grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring the hopes of pretty shop girls. After her death, hosts of the Paris beau monde turned out for the auction of her worldly goods, necessitated by the staggering debts she left behind. Charles Dickens was in attendance and reported, “One could have believed that [she] was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”

Maria Callas as Violetta Valéry, 1955 (La Scala)

The woman buried at the base of Montmartre is listed among the notables there as Alphonsine Plessis, though she called herself Marie DuPlessis (affecting noblesse), but she became internationally famous under other names: Marguerite Gautier, in the novel La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous Alexandre Dumas who gave us The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo); Camille, played by Greta Garbo, and many others, in the film of the same name; but most of all she is known as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s seemingly immortal opera, La traviata.

She was born in Normandy on January 15, 1824. Her father was the son of a prostitute and a priest. He owned a draper’s shop, and was a gambler, a drunk and a brute. He married Marie-Louise Deshayes who came from more distinguished stock, but who made a bad marriage. They had two daughters, Rose and a younger sister, but eventually their mother left them with her cousin and fled the brutality of her husband. When Rose was eight years old her mother died and her father continued to leave the girls with various other relatives who had farms nearby. On one of these farms, when she was twelve years old, Rose was allegedly raped or seduced by a young farmhand. When this was discovered Rose was returned to her father.

Within the year, her father decided he was wasting resources sending Rose out as a laundress and he sold her outright to a bachelor of seventy who used her for a year then sent her back to her father. Not wishing to be responsible for her further, he sent Rose to live with relatives in Paris. Soon she would take cheap lodgings of her own in the Latin Quarter and make a meager living as a shop girl, but by the time she was sixteen, she discovered a more lucrative livelihood. She was unusually pretty with porcelain skin, black hair, enormous dark eyes, and was graced with a quick, intelligent wit and charming candor. She educated herself, improved her reading and writing skills, kept up with current events, and generally made herself more interesting for her clients. One of her greatest skills was to appear sincerely and blushingly innocent.

She began to use the name Marie and picked up a number of lovers who came from the highest ranks of French society. Among them were the duc de Guiche-Gramont, the comte Edouard de Perregaux, and at the end of her life, even Franz Liszt. When she was twenty, she was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy comte de Stackelberg, who had been the Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris, but she remained in need of deeper emotional connection.

Boulevard de Madeleine, Winter by Edouard Cortes (1882-1969)

Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine (reference to Mary Magdalene to whom Marie was particularly devoted) was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Eugène Sue, Honore de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and of course, Alexandre Dumas, fils.

She met Dumas when they were both eighteen. The illegitimate son of one of the most beloved and famous French authors, he was not in the running to become one of her intimates until he was more established. It was two years before they established a more lasting liaison, which lasted just one year, as the struggling writer was unable to contribute sufficiently to her enormously expensive lifestyle. It is reported that her day-to-day living expenses were in excess of 100,000 francs annually, and this does not include clothes, carriages, servants, housing, or travel.

Necklace worn by Callas in La traviata; from the touring exhibition, Maria Callas & Swarovski: Jewels On Stage

While they were together her tuberculosis was growing obviously worse and he insisted that she leave her frantic life in Paris and live quietly with him in the countryside. She did this, but couldn’t be satisfied with such a quiet life and soon returned to Paris. As her illness continued to make itself evident, and she feared for her financial security, she accepted a proposal of marriage from her old beau, the comte de Perregaux. They were married in London, but it was a marriage in name only and soon she was back in Paris, where the marriage was not legal, as Perregaux had not published the banns. Their last transaction would occur after her death when he had her body moved to a more fitting gravesite.

Just five months after her passing, Dumas published La Dame aux camélias, which was published in a press run of 12,000 copies, all of which sold, but it was not until Dumas adapted the book into a drama that the work found its audience.  In that audience was Giuseppe Verdi and his then mistress Giuseppina Strepponi. La traviata would premiere in Venice just two years later.

Grave site of Alphonsine Plessis, 15th January 1824 – 3rd February 1847

Today, though there have been a large number of films based on the life of Rose Alphonsine Plessis, it is as Violetta Valery that this young woman is known and celebrated. Obviously, this isn’t because of her charms, but the many charms of this masterful score, which takes full advantage of the allure of its heroine and the finest examples of vocal expression of the nineteenth century.

We are pleased to present this new production of La traviata for our 28th Season. It was among the first operas that our company produced in the 1980s, and with each reincarnation, audiences continue to embrace La traviata as one of the most cherished evenings in an opera theatre.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation

Interview with Baritone Evan Brummel

Sometimes a person chooses a career in the arts because parents and teachers encourage them to develop their talent; sometimes it is because of an unusual event. Both of these were the experience of Opera San José’s new resident baritone, Evan Brummel.

Born and raised in La Quinta, California, three-year-old Evan wanted to “solo” when the family sang Christmas carols. “We were a sports-oriented family.  No one was musical,” he said, “but my mother, who teaches dance at the high school, encouraged me, and when I was nine she enrolled me in a local children’s choir.” As part of its program, the choir made a recording of 50s and 60s songs, which included Evan’s solo of “Rockin’ Robin.”

At Palm Desert High School he joined a choir, which performed show tunes around the community. He enjoyed that outreach, and likes OSJ’s outreach, too. Brummel also did musical theater at the local junior college while still in high school. “There was no classical music at all in the Palm Springs area,” he notes. When he was a sophomore, he heard The Three Tenors on PBS and was amazed at their sound and expressiveness. “I knew I had singing talent,” he says, “but hearing them made me want to perfect my voice and sing professionally.”

At sixteen Brummel enrolled in a classical music program in Irvine, where he met his first voice teacher, Patrick Goeser, an instructor from Chapman University. After high school, he applied to and was accepted at The Julliard School in New York. While there, he attended performances at the Metropolitan Opera and sat in at a Master Class taught by Luciano Pavarotti, one of his favorite singers. After a year at Julliard he returned to Chapman University to finish his degree, then headed back to New York where he auditioned as often as he could. Sarasota (Florida) Opera hired him and, “While I was there, Joseph Marcheso, an assistant conductor with Opera San José, visited and encouraged me to audition for Opera San José.” He was accepted for the 2011–2012 season, and also placed second in the 2011 Irene Dalis Vocal Competition.

“The famous prologue [Si puo, Signore e Signori- “A word, ladies and gentlemen”] was vigorously sung by Evan Brummel, a sirloin-voiced baritone, as Tonio, the hunchback clown.”
–Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News

A first-year resident and a Jeanne McCann Fellow, Brummel made his debut with Opera San José in November, in the role of Tonio in Pagliacci; he will be singing Germont in La traviata, and Valentin in Faust later in the season. Each is a new role for him, and to prepare, he must translate the libretto into English, then focus on integrating the character’s words and emotions into the musical score. He believes that a good singer starts with good vocal quality, but also must communicate the text and accurately depict the character. “When I see an opera, I ‘study’ the singers and the production because I want to learn and improve,” he said. “Much of my singing is instinctive. I like to focus on how a character is communicating, and develop him.” To date, his favorite roles have been Tonio in Pagliacci, which he loves for the beauty of the music, and the title role in Rigoletto. “I like the vocal difficulty of the latter and the character has lots of emotion.”

Brummel’s favorite opera singers are the now-deceased American baritone Robert Merrill, and the late Italian baritone Piero Cappuccilli, a singer known for his breath control and smooth legato. “Music is a way for singers and musicians to express their emotions, and for the audience to do the same,” he says. “Each person’s life is different and the singer brings those experiences to the characters he or she will be portraying.”

This past summer, Brummel participated in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program, along with fellow OSJ resident tenor Michael Dailey. He was pleased that his voice teacher from Chapman University came to Santa Fe Opera while he was performing. Earlier, he took first place in the Career Division of the Gwendolyn Roberts Young Artist Auditions of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. He also received an Encouragement Award at the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions.

Evan Brummel is happy to be back in California where he has many family connections, and he is delighted to be affiliated with Opera San José. He loves that Opera San José residents are given the opportunity to sing many lead roles and perform in the beautiful California Theatre, without having to constantly move from company to company. “It is an opportunity to gain experience and learn my capabilities. I expect to be an opera singer forever.”

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation