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La Traviata

My next door neighbor, James, told me he was singing in the chorus of a local production of La Traviata. On occasion he would come to my door and tell me, breathlessly, how it was going, how much work it was. In this last week he came by twice to tell me about the soprano soloist playingVioletta. He said she was wonderful, had a great coloratura voice, landed everything beautifully. He also told me that one night he sat down with the score and followed along and not a thing was out of place in the whole production. Of course he wanted the whole world to see this. We talked of extending opera into elementary schools, because he believes, as I do, that opera is for everyone. I thought what a great idea it would be to start introducing opera at an early age by involving children in their own productions. By the time they were in sixth grade they would be taking major roles, scaled down perhaps, but perhaps not. (I am remembering now of the productions of musicals put on by classes at the local alternative elementary school, and how good they were.)

La Traviata was performed last Friday and last night, Saturday, at the Performing Arts Center. I knew I had to go. I love Italian opera, and La Traviata is one of my favorites. I also couldn't not go, with James in the cast. However, I was wishing there were a matinee. I have become such an oldster. I want my entertainment in the afternoons. I knew I would like the performance and like being there, yet I felt I would be tired just because it was night. I went last night. I went alone. I thought of inviting Paul or Dorothy but didn't.

I prepared myself mentally and physically during the day. I can remember a time when I would just go, spur of the moment, ready to go at any moment. When I was in college, my close friends and I would attend performances at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, which required driving there, finding parking, hiking to the ticket window, waiting for student tickets. The student tickets were such a bargain and I can't remember a time when we did not get them. I don't think we thought twice about the physical effort it takes to go to a live performance. Different in many ways from going to a movie.

So when the time came I had had some wine and was dressed a little better than usual (although clearly at the lower end of the sartorial spectrum) and I felt fine. I had no trouble getting into the parking building and box office and I got a ticket just where I wanted one (balcony right, at the far end). I had myself another glass of wine downstairs before finding my seat.

As I sat in my seat scanning the crowd I was glad I didn't see anyone I knew. I suspect there were more than a few people there that I do in fact know, but I was on a solitary mission last night, and wanted to keep it that way. As I sat in my privileged seat I started to feel the warmth of my position rising within me. I was comfortable, I was happy to be alone, I would be able to take it all in without reservation.

James was right. The soprano was excellent. Her voice found its way through the labyrinth of notes with amazing assurance. It was beautiful, strong, and balanced. In fact, the entire cast was beautifully balanced, a consideration I would not have made if I had not seen lesser performances. All of the performers were terrific, some better at the drama of it than others. The chorus, too, shone in its strength and its command of some very tricky interludes. I knew then what James was talking about when he told me of one of the performers giving them tips on how to land it on the beat, tips that some singers have paid $100 per hour to get. I could tell they had learned it well.

There is nothing like an Italian opera for pulling out all the stops. And what would such opera be without consumption? In this case, the story line is simple: Violetta is a courtesan who has recently recovered from a bout of consumption and is partying when Alfredo greets her and tells her of his adoration from afar for the past year. He wants to "take her away from all this". Not experienced in the ways of "real love", Violetta flirts and laughs at him, but is eventually persuaded that such happiness does not have to be denied her. In time, she leaves her wanton life and moves with him to a secluded place. While Alfredo is away his father arrives and tells her that Alfredo's sister is doomed to a life of unhappiness unless Alfredo returns to his family. Alfredo's sister is engaged to be married but her suitor will leave her if Alfredo continues to consort with a courtesan. After much agony, Violetta agrees to leave Alfredo, making his father promise to tell Alfredo of her sacrifice.

Of course that message doesn't quite get to Alfredo. Instead he rages after Violetta, accusing her of false emotions, and ultimately being challenged to a duel by the Baron who has escorted her to another dance. Violetta is taken away to her home in Paris, where she becomes sicker and sicker, of course. Finally, both Alfredo and his father find her and come to see her. There is a brief moment when the lovers believe in the future but then...of course...Violetta dies.

Overwrought, sure, but so beautifully so. I was able to indulge in feeling everything, and that included the tears at the end. What joy is there in such unhappiness, such tragedy.

While I was watching I had another reason to be delighted. James is so perfect in these roles. In this one he even gets to do a small dance turn, and as we recall James is a trained ballet dancer. He knows drama (how I hate that TNT slogan), gets inside the performance in a way that I would not. He so belongs there. I felt pride that I had played a small role in his being there, just by suggesting that he audition for the master chorale. That audition led to acceptance and to the opportunities for these operas. I played my part, too.

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