UBC Opera performs challenging opera La Traviata

If you are a dedicated opera aficionado on campus or simply a student willing to make your summer a bit more classy, you may be in luck. La Traviata, or The Fallen Woman, one of the most performed operas in North America, has found its home at UBC Opera.

Adapted from a novel by Alexandre Dumas, the opera centres on the relationship of famed French courtesan, Violetta, and a nobleman, Alfredo. All seems well between them at first until she reluctantly breaks off the relationship due to her status as a courtesan and pressure from Alfredo's bourgeois family. This triggers a severe misunderstanding by Alfredo that eventually leads to the story’s tragic ending.

Professor Nancy Hermiston, a former opera singer herself who performed La Traviata many years ago, is directing this particular iteration. For her, there is a lot to love and learn from this opera.

“Sometimes we judge people very harshly from first sight and certainly that’s the case with [Alfredo’s father] and Violetta. It also shows us the kind of sacrifice one human being can make for another because when she gives in to [leaving him]. She’s willing to do that for her love for him,” said Hermiston, who feels that the opera has much to teach, especially with Violetta’s forgiving actions by the end.

“It’s a tremendous amount of generosity and an example for human beings to look for,” she said.

Aside from the engaging story, Hermiston remarks that the music -- composed by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi -- is one of the strongest suits of the piece. “Even if you’re not familiar with opera, I think [the music] will speak to you just on the raw feelings it will give you,” she said.

However, even with the opera's popularity, Hermiston adds that La Traviata is rarely performed in university due to its difficulty. The role of singing the part of Violetta alone, according to Hermiston, is like “having four different voices and the demands of four different voice types.” This particular production also required more than a year’s worth of preparation in order for the performers to meet the challenge.

Despite these obstacles, Hermiston holds a lot of faith in her students. “They are very exceptional -- their voices are beautiful, and they have a real sense and feel for Verdi and emotion for the piece,” she said. She also noted their talents were part of the main reasons she chose this opera in the first place. “When I can bring an opera, I bring it to show what my students can do.... The minute I saw this was possible, that made me very happy.”

Not only is Hermiston proud of her cast, but the overall production design as well. Striving to produce an environmentally friendly performance, she and her production designer recycled and redesigned various set pieces from past stagings -- a practice she has done for nearly 20 years. Some set pieces even came all the way from Prague, formerly part of a production of Don Giovanni.

“Sets like the Don Giovanni one cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They can get up in to the millions without looking twice,” she said, emphasizing how frugality is as important as maintaining an elegant set. “That’s how I was trained -- when [my students] go out with their careers and start to teach, they too will realize that this is a good thing to do.”

Whatever the case, Hermiston simply hopes everyone enjoys what she and her entire team have to offer. “Even if we don’t want to find the moral of the story at all, it doesn’t matter because you can just enjoy the beautiful music, this gorgeous orchestral writing and just the sets and costumes are beautiful,” she said. “It’s like watching Olympic athletes perform, skiing down that hill.… An extraordinarily high performance.”

La Traviata is being performed at the Old Auditorium until June 28.