Nougaty Goodness

by Dwight Newton

Nougat logo

Exquisite Consumption

UK Opera Theatre's La Traviata

by Dwight Newton, Nougat Magazine, October 2006

When you go to a tragic opera, you can bet that, in the end, someone important is going to be dead. Pointless morality, a misaligned sense of loyalty, attachment to the role of the suffering victim – these are the meat and potatoes of the opera world. Nothing pleases more than a long, poignant demise, especially with tragic overtones of love and loss, deceit, and ample opportunities for regret.

Among the great examples in the operatic corpus is the upcoming production by UK Opera Theatre of Verdi's La Traviata. The slow-moving vehicle of choice for escorting the beloved heroine off this mortal coil is the dreaded “consumption” (tuberculosis). There are well-known similarities between this opera and Puccini's La Bohème – both are set in 19th century (i.e., contemporary) Paris, they both involve the romantic lead succumbing to the same disease, and both are written by Italian composers. La Traviata is the more satisfying of these colossi of the repertoire, both musically and dramatically. (Those who are fanatic about opera love Puccini, but they adore Verdi.) It is based on an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, which in turn is based on a novel, La dame aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils, published in 1848. The book was the basis of the great Greta Garbo/Lionel Barrymore film classic Camille (1937), directed by George Cukor. The story (rather more loosely) also served as the inspiration for Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall) – it is the opera Edward and Vivian attend in the film – but with a very different ending, as well as Moulin Rouge (Baz Lehrman), whose plot is actually more of a hybrid of La Traviata and La Bohème.

The opera's title translates as "The Wayward Woman" (from the Italian traviare: to lead astray), which should immediately suggest that this is a morality play about a licentious woman who gets her just desserts. But this is not quite correct. While the lead character of Violetta is a courtesan (i.e., a mistress who is supported by her married lovers), she is not morally bankrupt –a description perhaps more aptly applied to the character of Carmen (Bizet's opera by that name will be next spring's main UK production). In fact, she turns out to have as high a sense of morality and duty as any of the dramatis personae. The ultimate proof of love, and another classic theme in grand opera, is the willingness to sacrifice one's love and life for the beloved, often at the instigation of some third party who has his own interests. Underlying the story is Violetta's illness. She is clearly on her way out almost from the moment we meet her. Watch for coughing fits and much use of the fainting couch. She is a real trooper, though, and puts aside her physical frailty in favor of her passion and her social élan.

The intrusion of Alfredo's father into the relationship is the lynchpin of the story. Often in opera we find some character or incident who is the cause of all the trouble and without whom the story would end all hearts and flowers with the lovers singing a satisfying final duet aria of undying eternal bliss. But tragedy is the plaything of the devil. Through selfish uncaring, as found, for example, in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, or proactive intervention, as in Traviata and any number of other operatic stories, some character sends the plot careening into misunderstanding and ruin while the (relatively) innocent victim takes it on the chin with heroic nobility.

The intent is obviously to find in the suffering of the innocent an archetypal lesson of courage and selflessness as an expression of noble love, but I often find this unconvincing in modern times. In Butterfly, the beautiful Cio-Cio-San sacrifices everything – her dignity, her child, and her life – when she is treated like a concubine and is cast aside by the uncaring American lieutenant. It would be much more satisfying if Butterfly had judiciously used her sword on the lieutenant rather than on herself (or at least on him first). In Traviata it's less obvious, but the period's social morality does impose itself rather heavily on the relationship.

UK's Opera program under Dr. Everett McCorvey continues to grow as one of the preeminent training grounds for the stars of tomorrow (if I may borrow a phrase). You won't find a more professional production on the college level anywhere. If you haven't experienced opera before, this is the year to start. There is nothing else like it for exquisite moments of passion, beauty and excitement. With the spring 2007 productions of Puccini's La Bohème and Bizet's Carmen, this season includes what is arguably a triumvirate of the most popular operas ever. La Traviata and Carmen are fully staged productions at the Lexington Opera House. La Bohème will be a concert performance (without costumes or sets) at the Singletary Center with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra from the Cincinnati area. If you don't care for UK's productions this year, there really is no hope for you as an opera buff and you can rightfully claim that opera is not for you.

La Traviata runs for four performances in the Opera House, October 6, 7, 13 and 15. As is usual in UK's productions, there are two sets of principal players, plus understudies. This allows more students to learn operatic leads, and also allows the singers to rest their voices between performances. In this particular run, the final performance on Sunday afternoon October 15 is the first VSOP (Very Special Opera Performance) for UK Opera Theatre and is a benefit for the new UK Opera orchestra endowment fund. It stars special guest artist, UK opera alumnus, and world-renowned Metropolitan Opera star Gregory Turay as Alfredo. Also featured are Darla Diltz (who we have seen at UK as Water in The Little Prince, Laurettain Gianni Schicchi, and Pamina in The Magic Flute, and as a soloist in last year's Carmina Burana) as Violetta, and Anne Fuchs (last year's Metropolitan Opera Regional Audition winner and one of the vocal soloists in last spring's performance of Mahler's Resurrection) as Violetta's friend Flora.

While the Sunday benefit promises to be a stellar performance, the leads for the other performances are also among the best UK's opera program has to offer and there should be no hesitation to attend any (or all) of them. Jeremy Cady (Alfredo) has been seen in UK productions of Gianni Schicchi, Madama Butterfly, and A Streetcar Named Desire. He was a Midwest Regional Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2004 and was a soloist with the Lexington Philharmonic in Handel's Messiah in 2003 and 2005. Sara Klopfenstine (Flora) was last seen here as the Third Spirit in The Magic Flute and is well known as a soloist in her native Fort Worth area. Catherine Clarke (Violetta), from Maysville, Kentucky, was a finalist in the Rocky Mountain District Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions in 1999 and 2000, and was twice a recipient of a Denver Lyric Opera Guild scholarship.

La Traviata is directed by UK Theatre director James W. Rogers and is conducted by UK Symphony Music Director John Nardolillo. The production will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets are available from the Singletary Center box office at 859-257-4929 and

-Dwight Newton is a musicologist and is the Marketing Coordinator for the UK School of Music. His web sites are at and

© 2006 by Dwight Newton