By Alison Graham
Violetta, a young escort, sits in a lavender gown atop a cushioned stand. She is surrounded by other women in royal blue, joined by a large group of men.
They begin to laugh, flirt, dance and drink with one another until Alfredo Germont, a nobleman, comes in with friends. He sees Violetta and his friends tell her that he is in love with her.
The group celebrates further, until Violetta abruptly sits on the stand, coughing. A doctor comes in to give her medicine as the crowd exits. She stands up and returns to the party.
Violetta Valery, played by graduate student Lacy Sauter, has servants help her undress in “La Traviata” on Tuesday at the Musical Arts Center. The opera opens at 8 p.m. on Friday.
IU Opera and Ballet Theater will present La Traviata, its last season opera, at 8 p.m. Friday in the Musical Arts Center. Tickets start at $12 for students and $25 for general admission.
The performances will also be streamed live Friday and Saturday through IUMusicLive! Live performances in the MAC will continue April 18 and 19.
La Traviata is an opera written by 18th century composer Giuseppe Verdi based on the novel “The Lady of the Camellias.”
To prepare for this opera, actor Derrek Stark, an IU graduate student, read the original novel to better understand his character, Alfredo.
Although the opera is not entirely true to the original novel, reading the work helped Stark develop his character’s persona.
“You have to work to flush that character out as fully as you can,” he said. “That happens throughout the entire process. You spend time learning who that character truly is.”
The first step in preparing for the opera was learning the music, Stark said.
Stark went though the text with a diction coach to ensure that he was pronouncing each name and word correctly in his singing.
His coach had previously performed the female lead, Violetta Valery, and was able to offer a lot of advice about the part, Stark said.
After practicing diction and learning the music, Stark worked on blocking, or learning where he needs to be on stage, and creating natural movement for his character.
His character, Alfredo, falls in love with Violetta, a 19th century French escort who has moved up the ranks in her work.
Violetta has never allowed herself to fall in love because of her various relationships with men. But when she meets Alfredo, she decides to follow her feelings and falls in love, stage director Jeffrey Buchman said.
“I’m the only man who truly cares about her beyond what she can offer me,” Stark said.
However, Alfredo has a sister back home with a wealthy suitor who refuses to marry her because of her brother’s relationship with an escort.
Because of this, Alfredo’s father Giorgio comes to speak with Violetta about her relationship with Alfredo, asking her to end it in order to help his daughter and stop tainting the family name.
“She does that, which infuriates Alfredo,” Buchman said. “And in the end, she is just hoping that Alfredo and the world understand the sacrifices she made, all while she is dying.”
Violetta suffers from tuberculosis, also known as consumption. The disease typically attacks the lungs and causes victims to experience chronic cough, which can often draw blood.
Tuberculosis was usually fatal, especially in the 19th century, when the disease was more common and there were few known cures.
“In the opera, people really see the demands society places on women,” Buchman said. “It’s a woman who society never gave a chance in this world, and all she’s looking for is to be a noble creature.”
One particular scene that Stark struggled with was near the end. At one point, a large Plexiglas wall comes down between Violetta and Alfredo onstage to symbolize their separation. Alfredo sings through this wall to Violetta, but because he couldn’t hear the actress on the other side, it caused some difficulties.
“It’s all about finding that inner connection and personal point of reference that you can use to fuel the acting,” Stark said. “I’m still working toward it, but it’s a little more self-reliant because you can’t immediately interact with someone.”
He was forced to work even harder in order to make his character believable in this scene.
Stark participated in musicals his senior year of high school and worked as a pianist for a few other musicals. It wasn’t until his undergraduate work at Mansfield University that he became interested in opera from his vocal teacher.
“I always thought opera was just a bunch of fat ladies gurgling,” Stark said. “Through learning to sing and really careful guidance, I became really interested in it. Now, it’s a very large part of my life.”
From his experience with musical theater, Stark can see a few differences with opera.
“One of the most immediate differences is that the singers don’t use microphones,” he said. “It’s the singer against the orchestra.”
“La Traviata” is different from other operas.
“It’s one of those pieces that’s so immediate for the audience,” Buchman said. “It touches you very deeply. It has its own unique quality in the way it does that.”
New stage elements occur during the first few minutes of the opera. Traditionally, the set opens with a 19th century Parisian parlor with rich fabrics, a fireplace and other period décor.
“We let that go and created a world that was influenced by symbols,” Buchman said. “We created an atmosphere instead of literal structure and detail.”
The production is new because of the poetic approach the director and designers took with the original play.
“It stays true to the text, but allows us to create a world that the audience will get a new experience out of even if they’ve seen it 10 times,” Buchman said.
With a new production, it’s all about seeing the day-to-day changes and eventually seeing it all come together, Buchman said.
“Live theater is something we don’t get a lot of anymore,” Stark said. “In an opera that you’re watching live, anything can happen. I think you would get an entirely more moving experience coming to a live show than you would doing anything else.”
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