A new life for La traviata

There are advantages and disadvantages of co-productions. The biggest advantage is cost sharing; when two companies pool financial resources, much more can be accomplished. In the case of the Opera San José/Opera Santa Barbara co-production of Verdi’s La traviata, a level of grandeur was achieved that neither company could have afforded on its own. Co-production disadvantages are usually about artistic vision, and fortunately for this project, José Maria Condemi, who is directing La traviata for Opera San José, is the artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara. If there were arguments over artistic goals, José Maria had all of them with himself!

José Maria wanted to have a bit of a new look for La traviata, and in his research he discovered that the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 as part of an enormous exposition to demonstrate the great strides made by France since the overthrow of the monarchy, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Revolution.

Eiffel Tower

Construction of the tower, October 14 1888 – March 31, 1889; La Tour Eiffel, by Roland Barthes

In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world. It was the chief emblem of an age of unfettered optimism and it dominated the Paris skyline. To have this mighty symbol juxtaposed against the slow, inescapable destruction of one young woman, of her hopes, her most sacred longings, and finally her very life, creates a visual illustration of how the merrymakers continue their romp through the salons of Paris while she is left behind to die.

The tower, under construction, is visible through the window of Violetta’s salon in Act I and seen completed through Flora’s salon window in Act III. This also gives an indication of the passage of time and the impression that both of the women live on the butte of Montmartre, overlooking the city below. This area of Paris is still known for its liberal morality and was the home of many of the greatest artists, composers, writers, and thinkers of that time, the very people who would have populated Violetta’s salon.

The sets were designed by Erik Flatmo, who also designed Eugene Onegin, The Magic Flute, and Tosca for Opera San José in past seasons. Erik has given us a stylish, large, 19th-century-inspired residence with classic paneling and dull-mirrored surfaces. It readily adapts to the opera’s four scenes: Violetta’s Paris salon in Act I, the country house she shares with Alfredo in Act II, Flora’s elegant apartments in Act III, and finally in Act IV, Violetta’s Paris bedroom, where her belongings are being readied for auction. Elizabeth Poindexter, whose extensive list of productions for Opera San José most recently added the West Coast premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina, designed the luxurious costumes of the famous courtesan and her elegant entourage.

The Bridesmaid
The Bridesmaid by J. Tissot, 1883;

When I heard that José Maria wanted La traviata set in 1889, I was pleased to think that we would save costs by utilizing costumes from Anna Karenina, which is in the same period by the same designer; I was soon disabused of my foolish delusion. The fashions of 1889 were in a period of transition between the height of the bustle in 1883 and the slimmed down and daring silhouette of the “hourglass” that dominated the 1890s. The 1880s were a time of heavy brocades, lace, ribbon, false and real flowers, and richly draped fabrics. Going against tradition, Violetta will make her first appearance on our stage in yellow lace.

Chris Maravich, San Francisco Opera’s production lighting designer, will design lighting for La traviata. The only other time Chris has designed for Opera San José was for Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 2008, when José Maria was the stage director. After many years working together on the direction staff of the San Francisco Opera, José Maria and Chris have become a great team.

In all, we have an enormously gifted, experienced and resourceful creative team for this co-production of La traviata, and I feel certain that these visual elements combined with the sure hand of Conductor David Rohrbaugh, Assistant Conductor Joseph Marcheso and Chorus Master Andrew Whitfield will bring to San José a very satisfying production of one of the great operas of all time, Verdi’s La traviata.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.

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