Jonathan Miller's version of La Traviata is Verdi without the vulgarity

Legendary director Jonathan Miller, whose La Traviata is set to open here, shares blunt views on the state of opera, medicine, and dying
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La Traviata, the famous tale of the courtesan Violetta’s doomed love affair with upper-class Alfredo, is often thought of as one of Giuseppe Verdi’s grandest operas—an over-the-top tragedy amid Paris salons. But legendary opera and theatre director, author, and physician Jonathan Miller is attracted to the classic for opposite reasons. He spurns productions that take the work to excess.

“All the people in Traviata are negligible, forgettable people, but that’s what makes interesting art: making the negligible considerable—making the forgettable totally memorable. That’s what it’s all about. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing,” says Miller, who’s bringing his production from New York’s Glimmerglass Opera to Vancouver Opera audiences this week. Meeting with the Straight in a downtown café, he talks with the emphasis and persuasive power of a man well-known for decades as a speaker and intellectual in Britain. “Most of the works that are done to satisfy a modern audience indulge in historical tourism—what I call an ”˜exotic elsewhen’.”¦It’s a way of entertaining an audience that wants to see something exotic. And it’s very vulgar.”

If Miller sounds opinionated, he has more than earned the right to share his views. The 77-year-old icon made his name as part of the beloved ’60s Brit comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, and has gone on to direct many stage productions and more than 50 operas, including a famous Mafia-style 1982 rendition of Rigoletto set in 1950s Little Italy, New York. (By the way, he would never consider moving the time period for Traviata, or any other opera set within its composer’s own era: “You only update when something has been fatuously backdated, as most operas are. When something is written about something 300 years earlier than the composer, you have to think about whether or not it makes sense. And most of the things Verdi wrote are set in 1500 and it’s just colourful, exotic nonsense.”)

Jonathan Miller will seek to make its “negligible” characters memorable—and never exotic.

Knighted in 2002 for his contribution to the arts, Miller has left his mark on theatre and opera in Europe and around the world, but he has also juggled that work with other careers—most notably as a Cambridge-educated physician and neuropsychologist. Ask him just how medicine may have influenced his stage work and he brings you back to focus on the smaller, subtler details that characterize his production of Traviata.

“It’s all listening and looking—that’s what it’s all about,” he says of medicine. “We now have lots of sophisticated mechanical devices for doing diagnoses, but if you’re any good as a doctor, a very large part of your diagnosis is actually done by listening to the patient and asking him or her detailed questions about what it’s like to feel these bad things.”

Those skills of observation have allowed him to pull Traviata back to a more human scale. He points to Violetta’s big aria at the end of the first act (“Ah, fors’í¨ lui”), when he has her lie back and reflect on her freewheeling life and whether Alfredo could be her first real love. He’s encouraged Canadian soprano Erin Wall to twist her hair, a natural, subconscious gesture. Likewise, when Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, tries to talk Violetta into leaving his son to save the family’s honour, Miller has him turn his wedding ring, as if he’s remembering his own lost wife—a woman who, Miller imagined, might have died during childbirth in that era.

But the scene that has attracted the most attention is Miller’s interpretation of Violetta’s well-known death scene, in which the consumptive heroine sings her final piece without rising from her bed. Miller admits he brings to it his own medical knowledge of how quiet and poignantly undramatic death can be.

“I just think that most people, when they die, stay in bed and do it; it’s a full-time business, dying,” Miller says. “I mean, usually she does a lap of honour halfway through the aria. You see, people die very incompetently in most operas because most people have never bothered to look, or possibly they’ve never seen it [dying]. I mean, most people die unnoticed by their relatives.”¦In this case she does die noticed but has this curious ecstasy—she’s hallucinating and she talks about getting married, and I have her getting up slowly on her knees and looking under the bedclothes for her wedding dress.”

Then he adds: “I want it to be dramatic, but dramatic is always best when it’s real. The rest is bullshit and vulgar and sentimentality.”

Miller openly wonders if his defiantly naturalistic approach to opera makes him unfashionable in an art form bent on conceptualism. Fortunately, he has other talents, should this unlikely scenario unfold: he has more than a dozen books to his name and has created television documentary series like the BBC’s atheistic exploration A Brief History of Disbelief. On this day, he takes the Straight along, after the interview, to Granville Island’s Malaspina Studios, where he’s been spending his off-hours working with linen, folding it and turning it into sort of three-dimensional paintings. These are beautiful, ethereal pieces, rippling like the draped gown on a marble statue. He chats with the studio’s printmakers and seems to fit into the studios as easily as he fits into an opera hall—or a hospital ward, for that matter.

Remarkably, visual art is just one more pursuit in his repertoire. But don’t dare call him a Renaissance man, as other publications have, for Miller has a strong opinion about that, too.

“I’m not a Renaissance man. I’ve just got a lot of interests. It’s journalistic bullshit,” he says straightforwardly. “My father had two or three interests—he was a psychiatrist, he was a very good painter, he was a very good draftsman, he wrote books, and he could speak three or four languages. And he would be appalled to be called a Renaissance man. He just had a curiosity. And so do I.”

La Traviata is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Saturday (April 30) to May 12.

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