As the title of my blog suggests, high notes are linked to my passion for opera.
I have had the privilege of singing for Northern Opera in five grand opera productions.
Die Fledermaus – Strauss playing cheeky housemaid, Adele
A masked ball – Verdi playing a trouser role of soldier Oscar
Elixir of Love – Donizetti playing feisty Adina
La Traviata – Verdi playing the tragic role of Violetta
Faust – Gounod playing Marguerite
It is La Traviata and portraying the role of Violetta that was quite an ORRsome life changing moment.
ACT I. In her Paris salon, the courtesan Violetta Valéry greets party guests, including Flora Bervoix, the Marquis d’Obigny, Baron Douphol, and Gastone, who introduces a new admirer, Alfredo Germont. This young man, having adored Violetta from afar, joins her in a drinking song (Brindisi: “Libiamo”). An orchestra is heard in the next room, but as guests move there to dance, Violetta suffers a fainting spell, sends the guests on ahead, and goes to her parlour to recover. Alfredo comes in, and since they are alone, confesses his love (“Un dì felice”). At first Violetta protests that love means nothing to her. Something about the young man’s sincerity touches her, however, and she promises to meet him the next day. After the guests have gone, Violetta wonders if Alfredo could actually be the man she could love (“Ah, fors’è lui”). But she decides she wants freedom (“Sempre libera”), though Alfredo’s voice, heard outside, argues in favour of romance.
ACT II Some months later Alfredo and Violetta are living in a country house near Paris, where he praises their contentment (“De’ miei bollenti spiriti”). But when the maid, Annina, reveals that Violetta has pawned her jewels to keep the house, Alfredo leaves for the city to settle matters at his own cost. Violetta comes looking for him and finds an invitation from Flora to a party that night. Violetta has no intention of going back to her old life, but trouble intrudes with the appearance of Alfredo’s father. Though impressed by Violetta’s ladylike manners, he demands she renounce his son: the scandal of Alfredo’s affair with her has threatened his daughter’s engagement (“Pura siccome un angelo”). Violetta says she cannot, but Germont eventually convinces her (“Dite alla giovine”). Alone, the desolate woman sends a message of acceptance to Flora and begins a farewell note to Alfredo. He enters suddenly, surprising her, and she can barely control herself as she reminds him of how deeply she loves him (“Amami, Alfredo”) before rushing out. Now a servant hands Alfredo her farewell note as Germont returns to console his son with reminders of family life in Provence (“Di Provenza”). But Alfredo, seeing Flora’s invitation, suspects Violetta has thrown him over for another lover. Furious, he determines to confront her at the party.
At her soirée that evening, Flora learns from the Marquis that Violetta and Alfredo have parted, then clears the floor for hired entertainers – a band of fortune-telling Gypsies and some matadors who sing of Piquillo and his coy sweetheart (“E Piquillo un bel gagliardo”). Soon Alfredo strides in, making bitter comments about love and gambling recklessly at cards. Violetta has arrived with Baron Douphol, who challenges Alfredo to a game and loses a small fortune to him. Everyone goes in to supper, but Violetta has asked Alfredo to see her. Fearful of the Baron’s anger, she wants Alfredo to leave, but he misunderstands her apprehension and demands that she admit she loves Douphol. Crushed, she pretends she does. Now Alfredo calls in the others, denounces his former love and hurls his winnings at her feet (“Questa donna conoscete?”). Germont enters in time to see this and denounces his son’s behaviour. The guests rebuke Alfredo and Douphol challenges him to a duel.
ACT III. In Violetta’s bedroom six months later, Dr. Grenvil tells Annina her mistress has not long to live: tuberculosis has claimed her. Alone, Violetta rereads a letter from Germont saying the Baron was only wounded in his duel with Alfredo, who knows all and is on his way to beg her pardon. But Violetta senses it is too late (“Addio del passato”). Paris is celebrating Mardi Gras and, after revellers pass outside, Annina rushes in to announce Alfredo. The lovers ecstatically plan to leave Paris forever (“Parigi, o cara”). Germont enters with the doctor before Violetta is seized with a last resurgence of strength. Feeling life return, she staggers and falls dead at her lover’s feet.
Violetta spent 10 months we me that year and consumed everything I lived and breathed. This was whilst working full time too. I had a class of children in Year 4. The opera would be playing in the background when they arrived every morning. Their curiosity got the better of them and one child said they had heard the music in the film Pretty Woman – you may recall the opera Edward takes Vivienne to. I love the comment when she is asked if she enjoyed it. ‘Too much I nearly pissed my pants!’ and then deftly rescued by Richard Gere with his quip about Pirates of Penzance.
Thus, the scene was set. I told the children to story and all the things Violetta had to do. They loved the fact she was dying and would eventually end the opera dead in her lover’s arms. The children became just as fascinated with Violetta as I had become. I shared the costumes that had been made especially for me and they found it hilarious that I had 3 wigs to wear throughout the performance.
The part that tickled them the most was the fact I had to faint on several occasions. Quite a skill and an art to collapse convincingly and not hurt oneself. Once the producer had seen, I was very adept at stage faints he added more in to the performance. The children would ask to see me faint in the middle of our carpet area. Makes me smile to think how engrossed they were in the opera and how much they supported me – amazing!
I would be rehearsing 3 nights a week and then most of the weekend too. The tenor, Alfredo, was brought in professionally from one of the music colleges. He was not there at every rehearsal. I had to work with an understudy. The tenor came up for 5 weekends in total and that was the only time we were able to rehearse together.
The role of Violetta is highly demanding – she has 3 phases throughout the opera and they are all sung very differently.
At the start of the opera she is bubbly, lively, life and soul of the party and loves to drink fizz! (Now you know why I loved the role!!!) Her singing is vibrant and she soars up and down the scale using every note in her repertoire. In her main aria, and she is hardly ever off the stage, she soars beyond top C and hits an E flat. That’s the aria in the video clip.) I loved smashing the champagne flutes every night – made from sugar glass. Her second mood is more sombre. She had weakened significantly and tell tale signs are there. The makeup artist was incredible. I gave myself quite a fright when I first saw how I looked. Whitened face, dark circles and drawn. Her singing is highly controlled and passionate. The tenor got to beat me about quite a bit in this act – rather enjoyed it!! (he was very pleasing on the eye) Between act 2 and act 3 I have 3 minutes of music to change an entire outfit and make up. I had a team of helpers down to stage crew holding doors open so I could flee from the stage and get to my dressing room. I learned to put faith and trust in others as they began to take my clothes off – hooks, eyes, studs etc…. while I focused upon changing wigs. Changing a wig is not simply lift and replace. There are at least 15 hairclips ensuring it is secure, particularly when I am being beaten or fainting. The final act really took its toll on me. Violetta is dying and does not have much time. She sings the most amazing aria Addio del passato http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV1e_SehRi0 here sung by Renee Fleming. This was the scene which was the hardest to pull off. We developed amazing chemistry on stage, the tenor and I. Incredible passion between the two lovers. By this time my costume was a mere silk shift nightdress and a wig which could only be described making me look well and truly RUMPLED.. Alfredo knows she is dying. She faints and he scoops her up in his arms and carries her back to bed. These are fabulous erotic moments on stage when you are faced with singing such brilliant music. We had to become very comfortable with each other as we shared kisses on stage, major physical contact. I recall the tenor saying he could feel my carotid pumping at one point as well as my heart thumping. I had become Violetta. We were one and the same.
On the opening night, I left school at 4pm to make the long drive to the theatre. I was required to wear a significant amount of whitening make up as I looked too healthy and this took me an hour and a half. Just before I left school I was called back into class by my HT – the children had the most amazing bouquet of flowers. My Mum and dad had tickets for the final performance. So, as I took my entire make up off after opening night, the producer knocked on the door with a surprise visitor – my Mum. She said they could not bear to have been sitting at home whilst I was on stage. They came to every performance. Violetta made me face my own mortality. My Dad said they had cried when Violetta died. He found it very emotional watching his own daughter die before his very eyes. Lots of sniffles in the audience.
The producer commented, ‘You really don’t know how good you are.’ That’s hard to tell someone because it comes across as boastful.
At the end of the final performance, I packed up all my costumes and loaded everything into Dad’s car. The tenor and I shared a bottle of champagne together – the stage crew’s gift.
Apparently each night, as I prepared to die, the entire cast slipped into the wings of the stage to watch.
When I eventually got home, although completely and utterly exhORRsted and drained, I was on such a high.
I laid out the costumes in my living room and sleep did finally arrive.
The following mORRning as I walked into my living room I began to cry. It was difficult to put my finger on why I was crying. It felt a little like bereavement – she was gone. Gone from my life. I had to be me again. Interestingly enough, a part of her remained in me – a bit like Harry Potter’s scar.
Playing Violetta changed a lot for me. Giving me confidence in playing one of the biggest soprano roles in any opera.
I do miss her.
Some children came to watch the opera and those that couldn’t asked to watch the DVD.
That’s the brilliant part – 8/9 year olds watching grand opera!!!
If you have never seen an opera before, La Traviata is one that would certainly be a good introduction to the world of opera. It is truly amazing!
And, on that note, (no pun intended) I am off for a flute of fizz!